Having been ‘on the ground’ in Burma recently, what would you say are the most prominent political issues of concern for Burmese?
Different parts of Burmese society have different political and social concerns. For example, ethnic minority groups are concerned that the ministry dealing with ethnic affairs has now been subsumed by the ministry dealing with border affairs. It’s unclear how the new structure will work and what the new policies vis-à-vis ethnic minority groups will be.
The Burmese middle classes are concerned about economic development—the economy is in a bad state. Their main concern is the new government’s economic policy, and they are hoping for change to unify exchange rates and in the rules governing, for example, the imports of cars and other goods. The young people I spoke to—either Bamar or of ethnic origin—were concerned that with the elections over, they’d now no longer have a chance to be involved in politics.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Most of those I spoke to campaigned in some form or another, and many expressed frustration that political parties didn’t involve younger members more. Civil society groups are worried that the ‘space’ they’ve enjoyed for the last two years might be constricted again as the new system is put in place. Politically-minded Burmese worry that the parliament won’t sit again this year after the budget has been called, while farmers will be concerned about land owning rights and if these might be changed.
It’s also true to say, though, that the vast majority of Burmese in the rural areas—whose main concern is to feed their families every day—don’t prioritise such political concerns. Nevertheless, in urban areas I found that politics was very much part of the daily conversations—something unthinkable just over a year ago.
Is it fair to say, therefore, that the international focus on Aung San Suu Kyi isn’t really the preeminent concern of Burmese citizens?
There’s a huge difference in the way the West sees Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the way she’s perceived at home. In Burma, she still commands great respect across many sections of society, not least because of the great sacrifices she has made. However, outside of the National League for Democracy (NLD), not that many Burmese see her as representing them or their needs, and haven’t for some considerable time.
Last year, there was great anger among politically-minded Burmese in Rangoon when the NLD, at her behest, decided not to take part in the elections. They felt disenfranchised. There’s also been disillusionment in some sections of society since her release, especially with regard to her call to maintain sanctions. It is, after all, untrue that ordinary Burmese haven’t suffered because of the sanctions—they’ve particularly suffered because of the lack of bilateral and multilateral aid, which is less than $5 per capita. A technical working paper recently prepared in the EU concluded that sanctions ‘have undoubtedly contributed to the stagnation and continuing impoverishment of the people.’
Certain civil society groups feel that the NLD’s aim to move into the social arena by working as an unregistered social organization might politicise that space and make it more difficult for them to operate. Simply put—in Burma, things with regard to Suu Kyi aren’t seen as black or white the way they often are across the Western media.