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Burma: How Much Change?

Aung San Suu Kyi.jpg
Lynn Bo Bo/epa/Corbis
An illustration of Aung San Suu Kyi, chair of the National League for Democracy (NLD), at the NLD party headquarters in Rangoon, Burma, November 13, 2015

“Change” is a word that crops up in many conversations in Burma these days. Three years ago, when I last visited, the country’s biggest city, Rangoon, had no modern shopping centers, no ATMs, no night clubs. Now it has all of them, in startling profusion. Cars were relatively few; today there’s a traffic jam at every corner. In 2012, cell phone networks were so rudimentary as to be irrelevant, and finding a decent Internet connection was a struggle; Facebook, which welcomed its first users just a few months before I arrived, boasted a few thousand customers in the entire country. Today half of Burma’s population of fifty million has smartphones, and virtually all of those phones are connected to the Internet. Experts put the number of Facebook users at six and a half million.

Many societies would find change of such astonishing pace and intensity traumatic. Yet the Burmese seem to want more. On November 8, when they went to the polls in their first relatively free election in twenty-five years, they voted overwhelmingly for the party that advertised itself with a simple slogan: “Time for Change.” The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has long been the only opposition party that counted, and voters seized the chance to demonstrate their support for it. (The other, much smaller, opposition parties are mainly those that represent Burma’s diverse ethnic minorities, about which more below.) One week after the election, the votes are still being counted, but it is eminently clear that the NLD has won enough seats in the national parliament (as well as in fourteen regional assemblies) to give it an absolute majority. This means that the Lady—as Suu Kyi is often known here—will have the chance to form a government and pick the next president. Until just a few years ago such a turn of events was unimaginable.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s main opponent in the election was the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political vehicle of the military elite that has controlled the country since 1962. That year, a group of generals overthrew a democratically elected government, imposing a harsh dictatorship that plunged the country into a stasis that has endured, with one brief interlude at the end of the 1980s, until 2010. The generals claimed to be acting in the interest of national unity, but in reality their corrupt and incompetent rule turned what was once the richest country in its region into an impoverished backwater. Their rigidly centralizing policies exacerbated conflict with Burma’s ethnic minorities—groups such as the Shan, the Karen, and the Kachin, who live in areas along the country’s southern, eastern, and northern periphery—helping to prolong what ultimately became the world’s longest-running civil war.

When newly elected President Thein Sein (himself a former member of the ruling junta) launched a cautious opening five years ago, he clearly didn’t intend to turn the country straight into a full-fledged liberal democracy. He governed according to a military-drafted constitution, still in force today, that allows for some popular participation while insuring armed forces’ control over crucial levers of power. The constitution reserves one-quarter of the seats in the national parliament (and its regional equivalents) for the military; it also dictates that three important security ministries (defense, borders, and home affairs) can be held only by senior officers. And it grants wide discretion to a powerful national security council that—you guessed it—draws mainly on the uniformed class for its members.

With these safeguards in place, the generals evidently figured that they could allow free elections without worrying too much about the outcome. After all, they reasoned, the populace would reward them for all the positive effects that the liberalization process has already brought, including strong economic growth. The ruling party has also been spending lavishly on development projects designed to benefit the overwhelmingly rural population, and the president and his entourage assumed that this would translate into at least some votes.

Many Burmese are certainly grateful for the improvements in their lives; there is, indeed, a perceptible quality of optimism and hope among people I talked to this week in Burma that stands in stark contrast to the previous years of desperation, even as compared to my visit in 2012. Yet Burmese citizens, it turns out, were perfectly happy to pocket the government’s achievements and express their political preferences at the polls anyway. Of the parliamentary seats that were up for grabs, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD appears to have won an overwhelming 80 percent.

What the generals failed to account for is the strength of the messianic bond between the Lady and the populace since 1988, when she first emerged as the leader of the opposition during an uprising against the junta. Her moral strength, her long story of self-sacrifice, and in particular her status as the daughter of Aung San, the charismatic nationalist who led Burma to its independence from Great Britain in 1948, have made her a revered figure among intellectuals, lower-class urbanites, and farmers alike. There are, indeed, indications that even policemen and lower-ranking soldiers voted in large numbers for the NLD.

When I interviewed voters on election day, it was striking how many of them referred to her in near-divine terms. “I voted for Mother,” one middle-aged female shop owner told me (using an honorific that is often applied to Suu Kyi). When Burmese use the pronoun “she,” there’s no need to ask whom they have in mind. Several voters expressed astonishment that I was even troubling to ask which candidate they favored: “Everybody knows whom you’re supposed to vote for,” one woman said, shrugging. Those I spoke with were also very clear about what they hoped to achieve by choosing the NLD: “Change,” they told me, over and over again. They wanted to break with the past—as decisively as possible. “We’ve suffered oppression for fifty years,” one man explained. “So we need to change. We need liberty.”

So the NLD will form the next government. But that doesn’t mean that Suu Kyi will be able to implement the sort of changes that the electorate expects. The constitution—which contains a clause that bars anyone with a foreign spouse or foreign children from becoming president (clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, who was married to a Briton and has two sons with UK passports)—seriously constrains her freedom of action, and the military has so far made it clear that it isn’t prepared to allow it to be amended. The NLD leader has already said that one of her first priorities will be starting negotiations with the military about reducing its prerogatives.

It still isn’t clear whether the Lady, who is now seventy, is up to the task of actually running a country. During my visit three years ago, I didn’t hear so much as a whisper of criticism of Suu Kyi from her supporters. But despite the awe she often inspires among everyday people, one now hears some intellectuals openly express concern about her potential shortcomings: a worrisome programmatic vagueness, a distinct unwillingness to tolerate dissenting views or possible rivals, and a pronounced reluctance to name a successor. Some criticize her marked hesitation to come to the defense of the Rohingya, the beleaguered Muslim minority that international observers have described as one of the world’s most persecuted groups. Others are concerned by what they see as a markedly authoritarian streak in Suu Kyi’s character. When I asked one if he could imagine her as a dictator, he answered in the affirmative. “And I certainly hope she doesn’t go that way. But even so, I’d much rather have her as a dictator than the military.”

The sheer scale of the NLD landslide has its dark side. The fact that no other party in the country was able to come close to its success has some experts talking about the threat of “elective autocracy.” It’s worth noting that the NLD didn’t just roll over the ruling party; it also wiped out the parties of the ethnic minorities—such as the Mon, the Kachin, and Karen—many of whose supporters voted for Suu Kyi at the expense of their own leaders. As a result, the minorities will have far fewer representatives in the next national assembly than they do in the current one—which probably doesn’t simplify the efforts to conclude peace between the central government and ethnic separatist movements.

None of this bodes well for the checks and balances that make for a healthy (and efficient) democracy. For the moment, though, the Lady deserves her due. After decades of struggle she has achieved her greatest triumph; one can only hope that she will wield her mandate to the best effect, and that she can successfully overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of the transformation her voters want. For ultimately, after all, this victory belongs to them. It’s the people of Burma who deserve to be celebrated today.