Is this for real? That's the question everyone is asking after the election last Sunday of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi to the Burmese Parliament.
To give you some idea of why recent events in Burma seem so gravity-defying, here’s a bit of background: The military took over Burma way back in 1962 and led it on a path to complete isolation, ruin and extreme repression. The most infamous act that the junta committed was the slaughter of hundreds, perhaps thousands, in a crackdown on nationwide protests in 1988.
But over the past year, there’ve been mystifying developments: Ever since former General Thein Sein, the current leader of Burma, came to power last year in rigged elections that Suu Kyi's party boycotted, there’s been startling political progress. Indeed, the New York Times is already comparing the President to another, epoch-changing reformer.
“He is sometimes called the Mikhail Gorbachev of Myanmar [the name the junta gave the country], a once-loyal apparatchik of one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships who is chipping away at some of its worst legacies—freeing political prisoners, partially unshackling the press and allowing the long-persecuted opposition to run for election last Sunday,” writes the paper.
Now, all is not hunky-dory under his tutelage. Numerous political prisoners still remain in jail, and the ex-general himself has a checkered past. Still, the country has come a remarkable distance in the brief span of a year. How genuine is this? And why has it happened?
For answers, I turned to Maung Zarni, a prominent Burmese activist and a friend of mine. Zarni directed me to a piece he has recently written addressing these very issues.
“The current change process in Burma is neither as fundamental or significant as glass-is-half-full optimists are making it out to be, nor is it simply an aesthetic illusion, as a small number of naysayers believe,” Zarni writes. “Some aspects of change in Burma are real and inevitable; for instance, the public no longer believes that the regime is invincible, indivisible or permanent.”
And why this remarkable turnaround on the part of the junta after four decades of stubborn intransigence?
“The motives behind the reforms are complex and multiple,” Zarni explains. “One factor is the collective fear in the ruling clique about ending up like Colonel Gaddafi, Ben Ali, and Mubarak. The other is semi-enlightenment among the new generation of generals, who realize fifty years of military rule has devastated the country. The third factor is their need and desire to seduce the West into normalizing and accepting their indirect but constitutionalized military rule.”
Whatever the reasons, the country has seen more change in a brief period of time than could have been imagined. Suu Kyi was kept in custody by the regime for fifteen long years. It is nothing less than jaw-dropping that this global symbol of nonviolent dissidence will be sitting in a position of power and debating the government from inside the halls of authority. And Suu Kyi isn’t the only dissident to enter Parliament. Her party won an astonishing forty-three of the forty-five seats open for contest in the by-elections.
The Burmese government seems to have gotten at least some of what it wanted in terms of the external reaction. The United States quickly announced after the election that it will be lifting sanctions on the country. This is something that the regime has been desperately seeking for years as a way to end its international isolation and its economic overreliance on China (The United States, in turn, is also in good part guided by a desire not to cede the country economically to China).
So, what does the future portend for Burma?
“Where we go next is there’s a general election in 2015,” Peter Popham, author of “The Lady and the Peacock” (a just-released biography of Suu Kyi), tells Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. “And what happens between now and then is really anybody’s guess. Suu Kyi will be in Parliament, as will more than forty of her colleagues. What they will do there remains to be seen.’
If the generals think they can control Suu Kyi, they would do well to read the final page of Popham’s biography. Popham describes Suu Kyi’s essence in one word: steadfastness. The quality that has brought this remarkable figure so far will not let the generals get away with a sham transformation. After suffering for so long, the people of Burma are in for real change.
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