Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi Fever

Burma’s democratic icon is expected to take a seat in parliament following this weekend’s by-election. But is the junta using her as a fig leaf?

Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi Fever
Credit: Globalism Pictures

It’s not too hard to see where Khin Soe’s allegiance lies. In the run-up to Sunday’s by-elections, the 60-year-old activist has turned his Rangoon home into a giant shrine to the National League for Democracy (NLD), covering it in red party banners and images of its leader, Burma’s democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

In constituencies across Burma, Khin Soe and his fellow activists in the NLD are nearing the end  of their first election campaign in two decades – and they’ve done it in style. Restricted during years of military dictatorship from showing their support for “the Lady”, tens of thousands across the country have turned out to hear her speak. In Mingalar Tuang Nyunt Township, one of four competing constituencies in Rangoon, the party is in the throes of a full-blown celebration. The NLD’s red peacock insignia is plastered on taxi windshields, shop fronts and t-shirts, while campaign trucks filled with young party members drive through the streets blaring campaign songs.

“People are getting more interested in politics day by day,” Khin Soe says, sitting in the shade outside his home. “First of all, the people were a bit afraid to enter membership [of the NLD]. But later the political situation changed so people here have dared to join.”

The outbreak of Suu Kyi mania in parts of Burma is a symbol of the progress the country has made over the past year under the quasi-civilian government that took office in March 2011 under President Thein Sein, a former general. Before then, it was dangerous even to possess a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi; now her smiling image is for sale on t-shirts, key-rings, mugs, posters and countless other merchandise, and supporters can openly voice their praise. “Daw Suu is like a second mother to me,” says Mohammad Salim, 30, another NLD member attending a recent rally.

After winning a landslide election in 1990, a result that was annulled by the military junta, the NLD was cast into two decades of semi-legal limbo: key activists spent long periods in prison, and the Lady was kept for many years under house arrest. For many observers, the party’s involvement in these by-elections, after its boycott of national elections in November 2010, carries great symbolism, as well as being a significant moment in the country’s re-engagement with the West.

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During a visit in February, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ special envoy to Burma, said the by-election would be a “key test” of the government’s commitment to reforms. “I must stress that the credibility of the elections will not be determined solely on the day of the vote, but on the basis of the entire process leading up to and following election day,” Quintana told reporters. Similarly, the European Union and United States have said “free and fair” elections are a precondition to any future rollback of economic sanctions.

Aside from the newfound freedoms enjoyed by the NLD, however, it’s uncertain just what these by-elections will mean in the wider context of political reform. Just 48 seats are up for grabs, including 40 in Burma’s 440-seat lower house, which is dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Under the 2008 Constitution, a quarter of the lower house remains reserved for military candidates, making it all but impossible for opposition parties to muster the 75 percent majority required to amend it.With the game already on their terms,the government can arguably afford to cede a few dozen seats to the opposition, and the election of the massively popular Aung San Suu Kyi – all but a sure thing – will be a heaven-sent advertisement for the reforming regime.

Maung Wuntha, a Rangoon-based journalist, says that with the West watching, and election monitors from across the world in attendance, the government is likely to play nice during the by-elections. “They will try to be tolerant for the time being, especially on these by-elections, so [that] in the eyes of international watchers, there will be a sort of free and fair election,” he says.

Still, the run-up has been marred by claims of electoral abuses. NLD Party spokesman Nyan Win said that while support for the party can be expressed openly in Rangoon, it has experienced more difficulties in rural areas.“We are very concerned about the countryside, because many people are afraid of the authorities,” he said. The party says it has already documented a range of abuses, including voter list problems, voter intimidation and restrictions on public gatherings.

“The Burmese government has already failed to reach the benchmark of free and fair by-elections, before a single vote has even been cast,” says Mark Farmaner, spokesman for Burma Campaign UK.“Western governments should not consider the by-elections as a key benchmark, they are for a small number of seats in a military dominated Parliament which is constitutionally powerless.”

Others argue that the by-elections, like many of the past year’s reforms, are a surface-level development that has left Burma’s underlying military-dominated structures of power largely untouched. Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and Burma expert, has written that the Burmese reforms are part of a well-plotted “master plan” drawn up by the Burmese military in 2004, the aim of which was to reduce the regime’s reliance on China, re-engage the United States and sideline the domestic opposition. A key “focal point” of the plan, he writes, was the West’s focus on Aung San Suu Kyi, and the implied insight that releasing her from house arrest (which happened in late 2010) was a fast-track to improving ties.

Thant Myint-U, author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, says that after years of opposition, Suu Kyi’s desire to contest the by-elections was “not a small compromise.” But her iconic status in the West has to some extent obscured the motives for her action and the complexity of the factors driving the country’s reforms. “I think the worry is that in some Western democracies, there’s a desire always to simplify situations and look for interesting stories – and her story is an incredibly poignant one,” he says. “Burma itself is…never going to be a very important foreign policy issue, so it’s very easy to see why her story has substituted for a more complex examination of the situation in the country and what role Western policy can play.”

In this context, a barrage of international media coverage focusing on the Lady and her party’s campaign – journalists here say that 300 media visas have been issued for Sunday’s by-election – is only likely to strengthen the government’s reformist credentials. Aung Myint, editor of the Myanmar Post Global news journal, says the current by-election is designed to create an impression of democratic momentum that will lead to the removal of sanctions. The end-goal, he says, is a system of cosmetic openness similar to that in Cambodia, where a powerful party under Prime Minister Hun Sen maintains its grip on power through regular semi-democratic elections, yet still receives hundreds of millions in foreign development assistance.

Could the Lady’s participation help “sell” a series of half-baked reforms to the West? The unknown quantity, as always, remains her massive popularity, and whether she will be able to use the party’s small presence in parliament as a lever for change. NLD representatives are confident they will be able to punch above their weight in parliament. “If the Lady and I get into the parliament, I believe that other members of the parliament will want to cooperate,” said Phyu Phyu Thin, the party’s popular candidate in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township.

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But Farmaner remains skeptical. “They may be able to change some laws and make some small incremental change,” he says, “but even if the NLD had a majority in parliament no reforms could take place without the approval of the military. The military still have ultimate overall control.”

It’s too soon to say whether the Burmese “master plan” will proceed according to the government’s wishes, or whether the Lady will manage to shunt it onto an alternate path; but it may be too soon for Western observers to leap from their old stance excessive criticism to the opposite pole of excessive praise. “We’ll see some indications or some hints of genuine democracy,” Wuntha says of the by-elections, “but I don’t expect too much.”

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh. His work has appeared in The Economist, Asia Times and The Phnom Penh Post among other publications. He can be reached at [email protected].