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Asia-pacific

Burma takes tentative step towards democracy

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2012-04-01

Burmese opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi looks set to return to the political mainstream as the country votes in by-elections on Sunday that some experts have described as little more than a regime ploy to ease crippling Western sanctions.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi looks set to return to the Burmese political mainstream in by-elections on Sunday, amid concerns that the vote may be little more than a public relations exercise by the military-backed regime.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party is standing in 44 out of 45 of the country’s 650 parliamentary seats that are up for grabs.

Despite worries that the vote will be anything but “free and fair”, Sunday’s elections mark an astonishing return for 66-year-old Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest after her party’s 1990 election victory was nullified by the ruling military junta.

Elections were held in 2010, but these were marred by allegations of cheating and intimidation, and handed the vast majority of seats to the army-backed Union for Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Suu Kyi was released from house arrest just days after the poll, in which she was forbidden to stand.

Though the number of seats at stake is not enough to threaten the USDP dominance, it will be the first time that Suu Kyi is in a position to influence the country’s legislative process. She is widely expected to win the Kawhu constituency near Rangoon, Burma’s largest city.

Some experts believe the regime wants to hand her an election victory in a bid to boost its reform credentials and hasten the end of crippling Western sanctions.

And on Friday Suu Kyi warned that the elections could not be considered “genuinely free and fair” saying that there were “many, many cases of intimidation.”

But she added: “It is the rising political awareness of our people that we regard as our greatest triumph.

“It is a step towards step one in democracy. Our opinion is that once we get into parliament we will be able to work towards genuine democratisation."

Cause for optimism?

Suzanne Dimaggio, head of Global Policy at the New York-based Asia Society, which has been helping shape US government policy to the Burmese regime, is optimistic that the elections could mark the start of a real move towards democracy in the country.

“Looking at the big picture these elections are very important,” she told FRANCE 24. “They signify a return of opposition in Burma for the first time in decades. This is just a first step, although the real test will be the 2015 elections.

“Over the next two years we will see if the NLP has been able to operate freely, and the West and the US will be looking at this vote as a litmus test.”

Dimaggio said the presence of a small team of election observers as well as a limited number of journalists was encouraging - although she stressed that “we would have been more persuaded if there had been a UN observer mission.”

“But we need to keep this in perspective,” she said. “Burma has been closed for decades – the fact that they are letting any in at all is hugely significant.”

The regime has a great deal at stake. Burma – re-named Myanmar by its military rulers in 1988 – has been under the cosh of Western sanctions for decades and desperately needs to develop its economy, one of Asia’s poorest.

“If the elections are seen to be free and fair, there will be quick movement in the US and elsewhere to alleviate sanctions,” Dimaggio said.

The Burmese government has been working hard to improve its image, especially in the US, over the last year.

Having nominally ended decades of military rule and establishing a civilian government, President Thin Sein has worked with parliament to ease censorship of the Internet, legalise trade unions and released a modest number of political prisoners.

US diplomats have been cautiously optimistic, while President Barack Obama spoke at the end of 2011 of “flickers of progress” in the country.

Burma’s festering ethnic conflicts

But what little political freedom does exist in Burma in 2012 is undermined by tensions with various armed ethnic groups, which have been brutally suppressed by the Burmese army for decades.

Ceasefires have been signed in recent months with some groups, but conflict continues to rage in the Kachin state, where three ballots in Sunday’s vote have been cancelled.

At the beginning of March, President Thein Sein said that he wanted to bring the voices of ethnic minorities back into the political process, and Dimaggio believed that “Suu Kyi could play a very positive role in the reconciliation process.”

But David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, was not so confident, adding that any Western rush to drop sanctions would be “folly”.

Video: In Kachin state, the rebels train for war

While recognising Suu Kyi’s popularity, he was sceptical that she would be able to play any kind of central role in the tortuous negotiation processes with the armed groups, some of which have been ongoing for decades.

“It is very positive that she cares about the situation, but that doesn’t mean that she will be a positive interlocutor,” he told FRANCE 24. “Many of these ethnic groups do not trust the government, and yes, they view Suu Kyi more positively. But there is no way the regime will want her to get involved in the detail of how to resolve these conflicts.”

The Burmese army continues to pursue its ethnic conflicts with “incredible brutality,” he said, and while there appeared to be a wind of political evolution in Burma, “there has been no dramatic change in the human rights situation.”

Mathieson added that while the symbolism of Sunday’s elections was important, they would do very little to alter the dynamic of power in the country.

“Getting to these elections at all has been a remarkable achievement,” he said. “But some people are making some pretty wild claims about their importance. These elections are really a big public relations exercise, and April 2 is when the real work starts for Suu Kyi and the NLP.”

 

Date created : 2012-03-30

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