Flag-waving supporters danced to rap music blaring through the raucous Rangoon night, accompanied by the lusty singing of Burmese freedom songs. A huge screen erected at the campaign headquarters of the opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), flashed the latest by-elections results.
The face of The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, was carried on banners, posters and t-shirts. About every 10 minutes the exit poll counts declared another seat lost to the ruling party. The crowd roared its approval. The unofficial results pointed to a landslide for the party of Nobel Peace laureate and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. All traffic in the neighbourhood of the party HQ ground to a halt.
Where less than a year ago, fear had stalked the streets of the former capital, now people of Rangoon could inhale a different air. Fear had been dispatched by an intoxicating blend of hope and euphoria. This was election night April 1st 2012.
The NLD opposition won a landslide 40 seats out of 44 contested, in special by-elections for the 644 seat parliament. As the ruling party set up under control of the military are still in control of the other 600 seats, the opposition caucus poses zero threat at this stage to their massive marjority.
But what is far more significant is that The Lady has emerged triumphant, after almost 20 years under house arrest. Suu Kyi and her fellow members of parliament have since taken their seats in the National Parliament based in the new capital of Naypidaw.
The pro-democracy movement in Burma, which dates back to the abortive peoples’ uprising in 1988, and was re-ignited by the ‘Saffron Revolution’ led by Buddhist monks in 2007, has once more renewed its peaceful challenge to the regime of the generals, but this time the Burmese people moved their protests from the streets to the ballotbox.
Recent changes launched by new president and former general Thein Sein made it possible for the NLD to agree to participate in elections for the first time since 1990. In 2010 Suu Kyi, known widely as ‘The Lady’, and her party boycotted the elections which rubber-stamped the victory of the military’s political wing the USDP (The Union of Solidarity and Development Party).
The changes launched by President Thein Sein, and his pledge to hold free and fair by-elections, made it possible for the NLD to agree to participate.
President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi appear to have forged a surprising degree of trust and understanding. Thein Sein, a former general, has surprised and shocked serving generals by his courting of western governments, reducing media censorship, releasing over 600 political prisoners, and permitting Burma’s first credible election since 1990, when the NLD party won just under 80 percent of all parliamentary seats.
However, several hundred political prisoners remain in Burmese jails despite calls from the NLD and human rights groups to release them.
In the Burmese former capital Rangoon, Suu Kyi photos once strictly prohibited and an offence that landed many Burmese in jail, are now ubiquitous: from posters and t-shirts to newspaper front pages. If you didn’t know The Lady was running for a parliamentary seat, you would assume she was the latest pop-star sensation or a Hollywood actress. In fact she is the revered daughter of national hero and founder of Burmese independence, General Aung San, and she is attracting the kind of adulation that comes with sainthood. She was among the very few ever invited to address both Houses of Parliament in the UK. Nelson Mandela was accorded the same honour. During the same trip abroad she was finally able to travel to Oslo to deliver her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 1991.
A Visit to The Lady’s Lakeside Villa
I had visited Burma several times. The nearest I had ever got to the family residence of Suu Kyi was a glimpse of barbed wire barriers erected by the military junta. Behind them were soldiers intent on blocking visitors during her 15 years cooped up under house arrest.
In March this year a historic press conference took place in front of her quaintly dilapidated two-storey wooden villa by the side of Inya Lake, a residential area of the well-heeled, and the well-connected.
For many years one of her less congenial neighbours was Khun Sa the infamous former drugs czar of the Golden Triangle, who, after his retirement from fighting drug wars, made his peace with the Burmese generals (but not with the DEA) and was rewarded with a house on the lake.
Most press conferences with presidents, prime ministers and political leaders, are one long boring yawn for the assembled hoards of journalists, cameramen and photographers.
The platitudes of men in power and their spokesmen are designed to conceal rather than reveal information. Memorable press conferences are few and far between the tedium of spin and political PR.
Among the glorious exceptions were the free-wheeling press conferences held by the former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, in his days as a charismatic prince in exile, and ousted head of state. He delighted the media with his effervescent humour, colourful comments, and not a few revelations of leaks from confidential diplomatic meetings.
While 66 year old Aung Suu Kyi is clearly a very different kind of leader to the former Cambodian king, but as with Sihanouk press conferences, this was a special event. The international media turned up in force with over 300 TV crews, photographers and journalists brimming with great expectations of a historic occasion. They were not disappointed.
The Lady emerged from her old villa. The media were gathered on rows of plastic chairs on the spacious lawn.
After a brief statement that the recent elections had been marred by incidents of intimidation and violence, a flurry of questions began from reporters from many different countries.
A reporter from a Beijing-based newspaper asked if the NLD was trying to impose a western style liberal democracy on Burma. “Yes the Burmese people do want democracy,” she responded “but it will not be western, but Burmese.”
She also added with a sense of diplomatic realism that a democratic government in Burma would also be a friend of China pointing out the long border between the two countries.
An Indian journalist asks her about India’s diplomacy. This was a rare moment in the press conference where the Lady became truly animated. The Lady’s mother Khin Kyi was appointed Burmese ambassador to India in 1960 and Suu Kyi completed her schooling and graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi in 1964. It clearly grated with Suu Kyi that the Indian government had gone for closer cooperation with the Burmese generals in recent years. Now given the deep historic ties between these post-colonial democracies, she made it clear she was deeply disappointed.
And in answer to another question she made it clear she was far from starry-eyed about what had been achieved so far, she declared “we are only on the first rung of the ladder of democracy,” adding that the reform process had been fired by a “revolution of the spirit.”
Questions about her personal life were brushed aside. She was separated from her family living in the UK by so many years of house arrest, and the regime’s refusal to allow her husband, an Oxford university academic to visit her after 1995.
The importance of Suu Kyi and this media gathering did not lie in the fact The Lady had just been elected to the Burmese parliament. But here was an inspirational leader dedicated to the Gandhian path of peaceful revolution, who, after years of isolation and sacrifice for her people, had entered a new stage of the struggle.
She has never been a politician but she had just entered politics. She was determined to use the parliament to draft new laws to protect the people, and ultimately to change the military-drafted constitution.
Are her longtime enemies the military junta still plotting to use her to preserve their ill-gotten gains from plundering the nation? She answered that she was not in a position to know what percentage of the army supported President Thein Sein, but she commented “The reform process cannot succeed without support from the military,” recognsing that they need win over the military to prevent a reversal of the reforms achieved so far.
Her relations with ethnic minority groups were also touched upon and she accepted that bringing all ethnic groups and divisions into a genuine Union of Burma as proclaimed by her father -The Panglong Agreement of 1947 – was of paramount importance in stopping the bloodshed. But her refusal to speak out on the plight of the stateless Rohingya people, who have suffered intense political persecution in north-west Burma’s Arakan State, has disappointed many of her supporters abroad. The Rohingyas is a very unpopular cause in Burma. Suu Kyi whose main focus is on the 2015 general election appears to be worried that her party would lose ground by being too closely associated with rights for the Rohingyas.
A Swarm of Businessmen, Predators and Tourists Lay Ambush to The New Burma
The easing of western sanctions – almost completely lifted in the case of some governments – by the EU, the US and the UK has sparked something akin to a ‘gold-rush’ of foreign companies from Asia and the west all eyeing a slice of the Burmese pie – a pie hugely-coveted for its rich natural resources.
The Burmese military junta that has ruled the country for more than 40 years had painted themselves into a corner of isolation and underdevelopment propped up by Chinese military aid and investment. Recent changes have been propelled far more by Burmese pride at being humiliated by Chinese domination in northern Burma, and their abysmal level of poverty, rather than a sudden rush of conscience over forced labour, torture or any dramatic conversion to the principles of democracy.
President Thein Sein has clearly won backing from his military bosses for a policy of increasing western investment to balance China’s, boosting the economy and getting all the sanctions lifted.
When the new president suspended the huge Chinese dam project on the Irrawaddy River, the Myitsone Dam, Beijing was furious and all ethnic groups and nationalities of Burma jubilantly cheered. Nobody had expected that this former general would address parliament and explain that it was his presidential duty to suspend the Myitsone Dam because “it was the will of the people”. [October 2011]
Indeed it was. No other issue has united all ethnic groups – Burman, Kachin, Karen and Shan – to the same extent as the preservation of Myitsone, an ancestral site of the Kachin people, and the protection of the Irrawaddy River, the most important river of the nation, and equally important to all. But it was also a gesture of Burmese defiance that clearly stunned the Chinese, both the dam-builder and the government in Beijing.
One of the clearest signs of sincerity on the part of President Thein Sein has been the democratic space now permitted to criticise current development projects and raise environmental issues.
However in this era of a transitional Burma, there are plenty of concerns that other resources are being grabbed by foreign corporations and other dams will still be built on the Salween and the Irrawaddy Rivers. Thai corporations are also deeply involved in some of these hydropower projects.
Thai corporation ItalThai has been promoting the Dawei mega-project, a deep-water port project that could wreck this beautiful landscape of Southern Burma in pursuit of a grandiose economic zone.
Two NGOs campaigning for the cancellation of the project are the Karen Environmental Network and Living Rivers Siam, both based in Chiang Mai.
Suu Kyi has warned about resource-grabbing that does not benefit the local people and told investors at a meeting in Bangkok that her country needs only “ethical investment” an interesting concept that so far her NLD opposition party has regrettably failed to clearly define.
The opening of doors by the Thein Sein government and the endorsement of The Lady that she trusts the new president, has brought a flood of visitors. Legions of businessmen, Asians and westerners, including tourists, have descended on Rangoon in recent months. Most of Rangoon’s hotel rooms have been booked out for months.
When Suu Kyi was asked by one journalist if tourists are now welcome to visit Burma? [After The Lady’s previous stance in support of tourism boycott] she answered with a jestful response “They are welcome if they can find a hotel with a vacant room!”
The Lady, The President and the Rocky Road to Reconciliation
The Lady knows that the path of reform and democratisation in Burma is far from assured and currently rests on fragile foundations.
President Thein Sein, a reform-minded general who carries a mandate from the still intact military regime to get western sanctions lifted, has reached an entente cordiale with opposition leader Suu Kyi. His view is that the country must change, policies must change, and wars against ethnic groups must give way to peace talks and reconciliation.
The April by-elections, more press freedom, and ongoing peace talks are in the words of Suu Kyi, “the first rung of the ladder of democracy”. But she wisely warns all her audiences that her nation still has a long way to go before human rights are guaranteed and changes are made in a military-drafted constitution.
Bitter conflict between the military and the nation’s many ethnic groups, continues despite several rounds of peace talks.
President Thein Sein’s orders to stop the fighting in Kachin State had no effect on the regional military command. In the last six months a Burma army offensive has forced over 60,000 Kachin people to flee from their villages who are now dependent on international aid to their temporary camps to survive.
The democratic space for civil society in Rangoon shrinks rapidly the further you travel beyond the central provinces.
In most parts of Shan and Kachin States in the north, locals say little has changed and they sense the old military junta is still very much in control.
Terrible suffering has also been inflicted on the Rohingya people in classified as stateless people who have no rights either in Bangladesh or in Burma.
Conflict, war and unrest are still rife in most of the border provinces – bordering Bangladesh, India, China, and Thailand.
U Win Tin ‘the legendary journalist and senior advisor to the NLD’ summed up the current situation;
“We are still inside the tunnel – not outside the tunnel but now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Thein Sein government officially just announced the abolition of the censorship law that required all news media to submit their content prior to publication to a censorship board. However, reporters will still have to send their stories to the censorship board after publication with state censors still sitting in judgment and looking for violations of unreformed publishing laws.
This is one more step in the relaxation of media controls but for most members of the media it still does not go far enough.
The Irrawaddy online news reported that Zaw Thet Htwe, the spokesperson of the Committee for Freedom of the Press (CFP) in Burma commented, “It’s a real improvement, but the 2004 Electronics Act, as well as the draconian 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, should also be abolished in order for the fourth pillar to enjoy full press freedom.”
Eighty-two-year-old U Win Tin is Burma’s most fearless and respected journalist, who has survived over 20 years imprisonment. Since the late 1980s, he has been a close advisor to Suu Kyi. He says, “The media law gives no protection to journalists. We need legal protection. This is the key issue.” He argues that promises about press freedom don’t add up to much and has called for “tangible guarantees”.
JOURNALIST & SE ASIA SPECIALIST