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Myanmar: Freedom in Small Doses
|by Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle|
Myanmar is on the path to freedom but it appears in small doses. Myanmar’s elections on 7 November were largely overshadowed by the release of iconic democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on 13 November 2010 after her latest term of detention of almost eight years from May 2003. Some say that her release was so stage managed that her Party was stopped from participating in the Elections and relief over her freedom across the globe shifted attention away from the flawed polling.
Suu Kyi immediately plunged into political activity addressing her Party on 8 November but was cautious and called for unity and perseverance. Later addressing a small group of party workers on 90th anniversary of National Day, 1 December she said, “We need to be united, to persevere and be courageous.” Ironically 1 December marks the start of the protests by students of the Rangoon University in 1920 which started the independence movement.
After some initial hopes of greater freedom to Ms Suu Kyi the military junta is likely to impose constraints on her interaction and is now targeting those who come in contact with her. Thus some of the magazines which gave her coverage and an HIV rehabilitation centre which she visited have been asked to close down. The Supreme Court also rejected her request for reinstatement of her Party.
Myanmar's Junta chief Senior General Than Shwe in the traditional speech on the National Day praised the elections and saw smooth transition to the next steps of, “democracy,” convening a Parliament and building a modern nation with an elected head. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) supported by the military won 883 of the total 1,154 seats, the National Unity Party (NUP) won only 63 seats, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) won 57 seats; the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) won 35 seats, and the National Democratic Force (NDF) a break away faction of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMRDP) 16 seats each.
The three parliaments – the People’s Parliament, the Nationalities Parliament and the Regions and States Parliament – are set to convene within 90 days of the vote. 25 percent of the seats have been reserved for the military prior to polling.
In the next step the new parliament will form three committees and each will propose a candidate for the post of the president and out of these three one will be nominated as the president and the other two vice-presidents. Senior General Than Shwe is expected to be elected the President and the incumbent Prime Minister Thein Sein will retain his current slot.
While Aung Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was banned from participating in the elections, there were a number of clashes with fighting breaking out with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) on the election day (November 07) in Myawaddy town and Three Pagodas Pass near the Thai border. Elections were also not held in some areas of Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon and Shan (including four townships in Wa self administered division) considered too dangerous for voting. Newly appointed U.N. special envoy to Myanmar Mr Vijay Nambiar, speaking after a two-day visit, said concerns about elections would have to be addressed "as transparently as possible."
The elections in Myanmar were not likely to be free and fair with the junta supported party USDP expectedly winning most of the seats. There have been many irregularities reported in terms of favourable conditions provided to candidates of the USDP, debarring of the most popular party the NLD and high fees for candidates which were out of reach for the common candidates. In addition ethnic communities were not allowed to vote freely and there were irregularities in the counting process that have come to light or brought out by the expatriate community with links inside the country. Yet perhaps this is the best that could be expected under the circumstances.
Regional and international reactions to Suu Kyi’s release ranged from euphoria to relief. Welcoming freeing of Aung Suu Kyi, the Indian External Affairs Minister said, “We hope that this will be the beginning of the process of reconciliation in Myanmar. The recent elections in Myanmar are an important step in the direction of the national reconciliation process being undertaken by the Government of Myanmar. We have always encouraged them to take this process forward in a broad-based and inclusive manner. In this context, as a close neighbour of Myanmar, we are confident that the release of Madam Aung San Suu Kyi will contribute to efforts for a more inclusive approach to political change”.
Suu Kyi in her turn hoped that India had provided her more support in the past. "I am saddened with India. I would like to have thought that India would be standing behind us. That it would have followed in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and (India's first prime minister) Jawaharlal Nehru," Suu Kyi told the Indian Express. "I do not oppose relations with the Generals but I hope that the Indian government would talk to us as well," she added. The Indian government is already smarting over remarks by the US President Barack Obama in the Parliament, "When peaceful democratic movements are suppressed, as they have been in Burma (Myanmar), then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent."
The release of Aung Suu Kyi and the elections provide a unique opportunity for reshaping policy of countries as India as well as United States and Europe towards Myanmar which the latter refer to as Burma. India is now partially free of the stigma of not supporting the Nobel laureate in her quest for freedom and New Delhi can balance national interests with support of rights and freedom.
India’s strength lies in understanding the Myanmar military junta which is used to going step by step given many problems that the country faces. Nay Pyi Taw has already taken two giant steps, elections and release of Suu Kyi. A good sign is that she is not likely to take to agitation immediately provided right indications come from the military leaders. Whether the junta is willing to accept a compromise at this stage remains to be seen for that would need a major shift in outlook as well as approach. But now that she can also speak to some, ‘elected,’ leaders there is greater scope for debate and adjustments.
For the government in Myanmar this will also provide an opportunity to end international isolation and move towards integration with the wave of globalisation that is passing through the region. A country with rich natural resources, Myanmar can be an ASEAN powerhouse replicating success of other countries in the region as Malaysia, for that to happen a compromise between Suu Kyi and the military rulers is necessary and will show the way ahead.
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