Originally Published 2012-04-04 00:00:00 Published on Apr 04, 2012
More than the thumping victories of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party candidates, the recent by-elections are yet another sign that Myanmar is forging ahead towards being a democratic nation. The pace of the reforms of President Thein Sein has surpised one and all.
Myanmar: Marching towards the right direction
The euphoric moment that grips Myanmar over Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory in the by-election is a moment that many Burmese had long hoped for. The landslide victory of Suu Kyi and her party in the bypolls is significant. However, the by-election is more than about winning or losing; it is about a country transiting from long years of military rule to a more open political system.

The by-election was yet another sign that Myanmar is forging ahead towards being a democratic nation. The pace at which the ’quasi-civilian’ government under President Thein Sein has initiated reforms since coming to power in early 2011 has surprised both Myanmar’s citizens and the international community.

The international community needs to continue to support this process of change. Developments there have immense significance for the region. As the country gradually normalises, Myanmar’s economic potential will unfold with huge opportunities. This will mean that regional competition for resources and market will further intensify. New Delhi’s role in the process of change now will determine what influence it will have in that country in future.

Sunday’s by-election was called to fill 37 vacant Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) seats, six vacant Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House) seats and two region/state Hluttaw (Assemblies) seats, totalling 45 seats. The vacancies were created by those who were elected in 2010 polls but became ministers and deputy ministers. A total of 176 candidates from 17 parties and eight independents candidates contested for the 45 seats.

Suu Kyi won the Kawhmu constituency, south of Yangon. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 40 of the 44 seats contested. The response to the elections is equally significant. The November 2010 elections - in which Suu Kyi (then under house arrest) and the NLD was not allowed to participate - was dismissed by many people inside and outside Myanmar and seen as a ploy to keep the military in power. This time, words of appreciation have come even before the results were officially announced. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has congratulated "the people of Myanmar who participated in the polls" - a country with which Washington has been improving ties in the recent years.

Despite allegations of ’irregularities’, the general view is that the by-elections were ’freer’ and ’largely peaceful’. Unlike the November 2010 elections, this time around, the Myanmar government gave access to international observers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union (EU) and the United States and over hundred foreign journalists to cover the by-election. Most of the observers have expressed satisfaction on the conduct of the elections. In fact, the EU has already hinted that it could ease some sanctions.

To interpret the election results as a victory of one party and the loss of another may not capture the overall political mood of the country. Such reading may limit our understanding of the several processes at play and serves no one’s purpose. There is a new political discourse emerging in Myanmar - the people are at the centre of this discourse. A clear sign of this is the fact that Suu Kyi stood in the by-election because, as she said, that was what "the people want".

It may not be fair to expect the balance of power to change because of Suu Kyi’s presence in the parliament. The new government is controlled by retired generals and military party dominates the parliament. This is unlikely to change until the next general elections in 2015. Once in parliament, Suu Kyi can seek to influence policy and challenge the government from within, but to what extent remains unclear.

To read the current politics of Myanmar as though it is of only Suu Kyi and her equations with the government undermines the most important people of Myanmar. For a long time, Myanmar’s politics had revolved around the political stalemate between Suu Kyi and the military generals. Today, there is growing political awareness and participation of the people and these factors need to be assessed in Myanmar’s evolving politics. In the changing environment, the old discourse of high-level politics between Suu Kyi and generals only gives the impression that the people have no stake in the country’s political process.

The good news is that both Suu Kyi and the new leadership in Myanmar seem to have realised this fact. On the eve of the by-election, the official newspaper New Light of Myanmar in an editorial read: ’In a democratic society… people… are the navigators towards the right path to the aspired goal.’ In response to the historic victory of her party, Suu Kyi said the victory was "not so much our (NLD’s) triumph, as a triumph of the people".

Even so, Suu Kyi will play a key in Myanmar’s future politics. In fact, the bypolls have raised hope for many NLD supporters for the 2015 elections. While these are things that will evolve with time, there are more immediate questions in the present context with Suu Kyi entering parliament. There are two areas where her role could assume significance.

Externally, it is likely that the Western countries will lift some sanctions and Suu Kyi’s role in helping the government deal with the issue will be crucial. However, it may be mentioned that despite the lifting of some sanctions and while the country has huge economic potential, the process of rebuilding the economy will take time.

Also, there will be great interest in what role Suu Kyi may play in the national reconciliation process. This issue is critical if the country is to achieve real change. Even as Thein Sein’s government has reached ceasefire agreements with a few major ethnic armed groups, fighting continues in some ethnic areas, particularly in the Kachin State. Suu Kyi had earlier suggested that she could mediate between the government and the ethnic armed groups. Will she be able to play a constructive role in finding a solution to the ethnic issue on the lines that her father Aung San had laid down several decades ago?

Myanmar’s internal political changes towards democracy will have implications on regional geopolitics. In this context, the proposed visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Myanmar next month comes at an opportune moment for the two countries to further deepen ties and build the foundation for a strategic relationship that binds the two with elements of shared values that ensures mutual benefits and regional stability.

For both Myanmar and the international community, it important to focus on the message the by-election has sent out, that is, the winner of the elections is the people of Myanmar who made it possible.

(K Yhome is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Coutesy: The New Indian Express

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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