Friday, June 1, 2012

Democracy in Burma?

Democracy in Burma?
Bluestocking Discussion Group (May 2012) 

At the Bluestocking discussion group last Sunday, we discussed the promising chain of events occurring in Burma/Myanmar at the moment. From a strict military regime to fair elections, all occurring within the space of 2 years, there’s certainly a change in the air. The questions these circumstances prompted us to ask were: What led to this change? And: Is it as wide-sweeping and permanent as people in Burma, and around the world, are hoping for?

A brief timeline of events can help to answer some of these questions... though only time will tell if Burma’s experiment with democracy will continue. (For a more detailed timeline see BBC news and

After colonisation by the British and invasion by the Japanese in WWII, Burma became an Independent nation in 1948. Following a short spell of democratic governance, the national government was removed in a military coup, with the subsequent establishment of a military-backed ‘socialist’ government (by the mid-1970s).

Over the following decades, human rights abuses and international sanctions left Burma’s populace economically and politically disempowered. While ties with ASEAN countries and China kept the national economy afloat, there was discontentment on the ground, with several significant public protests. The two most well-known of these protests were in the late-1980s and in the late-2000s. One result of the first of these ‘anti-government riots’ was the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition party NLD. Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest (with brief stints of reprieve) for the next 20 years.

From the late-1980s to the late-2000s, the Burmese government oscillated between appeasement and enforcement: with political prisoners, for example, released and re-imprisoned, often in response to fluctuating international pressure. In late 2007, however, public sentiment flared again, with anti-government street protests, most notably by a large contingent of Buddhist monks.  A government crackdown ended the demonstrations, and in 2008 the government published its new constitution, which favoured the military and barred Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting elections.

In 2010, under the new constitution, elections were held, and the ruling party claimed a resounding victory amid wide-spread condemnation of the corrupted electoral process. From these very unpromising beginnings, though, a change can be seen in the government’s approach. From 2011 to 2012, the new government and president Thein Sein released Aung San Suu Kyi, suspended construction of a controversial dam, freed political prisoners, enacted new labour laws, and began ceasefire agreements with several rebel groups. Most significantly, as far as the international media was concerned, the government allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to contest in by-elections, in which they won 43 out of 45 seats.

So where does Burma go from here? Are these genuine reforms, are they temporary changes to appease international interests and spark the economy, or is there intern political power struggles within the government which will determine Burma’s future reforms? For answers to these questions, we will just have to wait and see. The NLD is in the government now, but it only holds 43 out of 664 seats. Ceasefires with the Karen and the Shan appear to be progressing, but there is still little government commitment to negotiations with the Kachin rebel group. Yet, we have also seen, over the last few months, some of the most promising changes in Burma’s undemocratic history- changes that we can only hope will continue.

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