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.
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.
Burma’s first parliament for 20 years was convened recently, and included a significant number of opposition politicians. What sort of political dynamics can we expect in the near future in Burma?
The elections held on November 7, 2010, were to a Pyihtaungsu Hluttaw (Union Assembly) for a 5-year term, with a total of 664 seats. The members of this assembly elect a president within 90 days. The main assembly is made up of two houses—the Pyithu Hluttaw or House of Representatives (440 members) and the Amyotha Hluttaw or House of Nationalities (224 members). Concurrently, the vote was also to region and state Hluttaws (local governments). The bicameral structure supported by regional legislatures has for the first time allowed for some minority ethnic representation. This form of government reserves 25 percent of the seats for the army, something most agree is highly controversial. Having said that, given the region Burma is located in, this isn’t that unusual. There is, apart from India, no country between Pakistan and Vietnam that hasn’t got at some level a formal or informal involvement of the army in politics.
The main pro-regime party, the Union of Solidarity and Development (USDP), took over 75 percent of the seats across the three parliaments, something that wasn’t a surprise given that the playing field was heavily tilted in their favour. Whilst the NLD decided not to stand for the elections due to the unfair election laws and their rejection of the 2008 Constitution, their breakaway faction, the National Democratic Force (NDF), did quite badly, possibly because of a boycott of the polls by NLD supporters. The local legislatures are significant because they represent a potential new power base, with new members of parliament and a new civil service infrastructure to support the new institutions—in essence a new and legal political space where there was none before. I think that any political dynamic will be seen first in these local legislative assemblies.
Despite the fact that the pro-regime USDP has kept overall control and will be supported by the military seats, this new parliamentary system still represents a structural change from direct military rule in a command system to a presidential system with new institutions and resulting changes in governance. The military will have to learn new ways of decision-making and some level of discussion and compromise can be expected in the medium to longer term. So, overall, I’d say the most significant change is that politics is legal again and it should allow for increased political space for civil society.
In fact, the first political dynamics at the national level have already been seen—the 11 opposition parties who have won 105 seats across Burma’s assemblies have started to bring motions to the parliament. They’ve also asked the international community to stop sanctions, a call that’s largely being ignored by western governments.
You mention there the call for sanctions to be dropped. Is this realistic?
Unfortunately, this isn’t realistic expectation. It’s been easy for the West to engender such a policy, but they’re likely to find it very hard to revoke. The opposition isn’t particularly big—it holds 105 seats and 11 parties across the 3-tier parliamentary system. That said, their numbers don’t reflect the popular support they command.The elections were certainly more difficult than those held in 1990, given the distorted playing field. Contesting a seat in this election required extraordinary courage. Today, these 11 parties are the new and legitimate democratic opposition in Burma. But their statement asking for sanctions to be dropped runs counter to the NLD’s policy, and doesn’t seem to have been taken account of by any Western government. Western policies give too much weight to the NLD’s position. This means that in effect, these new opposition leaders are being given less status than the NLD, even though it’s no longer a legitimate political party and can only play the part of an extra-parliamentary opposition.
Tensions seem to be rising in certain outlying states in Burma, especially regarding the status of ceasefires and the recent government labelling of the NMSP as an ‘insurgent group.’ Should this be a source of developing concern?
The really important problem in the near future will be the situation in the ethnic states and the status of the ceasefires. The larger ceasefire groups have refused to become border guard forces (BGF), and this could result in a resumption of conflict. Kachin State is particularly affected as the Kachin parties weren’t allowed to contest the elections due to links with the KIO. The Kachin people were in effect disenfranchised.
More recently, a number of KIO liaison offices have been shut at the behest of the regime. Other areas affected are Shan and Mon states with their diverse groups of different sizes refusing to join the BGF. No one is quite sure how the new government will handle the ceasefire groups, and this is the greatest threat to the country’s stability right now.
Generally speaking, how optimistic are you about Burma’s political future?
I see the elections and the change in structure as a necessary step to move from a military dictatorship to something else. It‘s hardly a move towards democracy as we understand it, but it is a structural change that could allow for more movement for civil society in Burma, which faces some important challenges in the coming decade.
In order to succeed, they need support and understanding from the outside. Sanctions, which have overwhelmingly affected ordinary people and have made no difference to the ruling generals, need to come to an end. Tourists need to visit and support the opening up of the country by engaging with ordinary citizens. Burma has taken the very first step towards change, and this is something that needs to be acknowledged and supported by the international community
Marie Lall is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of London and an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Asia Programme. She has advised numerous governments on Burma and Pakistan and is a regular guest on BBC News 24, Reuters TV, Al Jazeera TV and BBC Radio, among others. This interview was conducted by Charles Lister.