A TEST OF TIME | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 07, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 07, 2015

Suu Kyi's journey to democracy

A TEST OF TIME

An unprecedented victory has been achieved by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in the recently held general elections of Myanmar, a country which has long struggled for democracy. The poll results, officially announced on November 25, indicate that the NLD has obtained 77 percent of total seats in the parliament. Despite this, Suu Kyi's journey to democracy may not be a bed of roses. The NLD spokesperson has already expressed concern over the peaceful transfer of power to the newly elected NLD leaders. The most important challenge for Suu Kyi would be to keep fair balance between the sweet-sounding idealism she has preached for the last 25 years and thepragmatism that the present realities are demanding. 

Suu Kyi has to be clear of what theoretical model of democracy (the ideal one would maintain the balance between neo-liberal idealism and pragmatist Keynesianism) would suit a country which is hungry for democratic transformation. If she opts for the Keynesian paradigm, she might be accused of deviating from democratic values. However, she should adopt a policy of domestic capital generation for a country like Myanmar. But since Myanmar is not a rich, capitalist country, her policy of neo-liberal capitalism may backfire. Ostensibly, economic restrictions in order to expedite the inward-oriented growth strategy of the country may be recommended for the initial years which may be followed by a phased transition to a outward-oriented growth strategy in line with neo-liberal capitalism. 

Suu Kyi's path towards democracy could be impeded if she does not find a correct balance between idealism and pragmatism in fine-tuning external diplomatic relations with other countries. According to newspaper reports, as Western diplomats engaged in Myanmar are still prone to extend implicit or explicit support to the army-backed government, Suu Kyi may find it difficult to foreign policy priorities. She needs to keep cordial diplomatic relations with the western countries if she truly wants to be idealist in her political outlook. However, it's very difficult for her to adopt a pragmatist policy by building a friendly image in neighbouring countries such as China and India, the two emerging giants. Her East-leaning policy may clash with the US' pivotal policy surrounding the Asia Pacific and the grand global policy of the European Union. In reality, the West seems to use prospective soils of South Asia, especially Bangladesh, as spring boats to jump on Myanmar and stretch its grip over China and elsewhere through Kunming and adjacent areas. The West thus may not want the new government of Myanmar to have an intimate bond with the neighbouring giants of East and South Asia.  

Suu Kyi's arrival on the political platform of Myanmar happened almost by accident as she came to nurse her dying mother in 1988, and gradually began to tiptoe towards the stairs of the country's strife-torn politics. About two years into her entry in politics, she participated in the general elections of 1990 in which her party won around 80 percent of the seats in the Parliament. Despite the mandate she got from the people to form the government, she was forced to undergo house arrest for around fifteen years. Thus Suu Kyi understands that the road towards democracy in her country is historically, constitutionally and structurally interlocked. 

The existing Constitution poses some serious challenges to the emerging democracy. The constitutional provision that 25 percent seats of the Parliament should be controlled by the military is a big problem. The 80 percent seats gained by NLD stand at around 60 percent in real terms, if we exclude 25 percent of the reserved seats. It's realistically difficult for a Parliament comprising 60 percent to dominate parliamentary decisions vis-a-vis 40 percent of rival seats, predominantly led by military members. The proposition to amend the Constitution is a remote possibility. Any constitutional amendment requires support from the military, which at the moment, and possibly in coming days, is beyond the reach of Suu Kyi's NLD. 

The fact that she married a foreigner and has two sons from that marriage is also obstructing her path to becoming a president, as per the Constitution. The provision of her nomination as a proxy-president might also not suffice to strengthen her purpose to anchor the ship of democracy.

The big task now for Suu Kyi is to work for a national reconciliation through creating strong national unity and solidarity among 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar, especially the clashing ethnic communities. Harsh oppression by the military against ethnic minorities, especially Rohingya Muslims of the Rakhine province which gained widespread global criticism, needs to be addressed. Apart from the threat of attacks by Rakhine Buddhists and the country's police force, the fear of imprisonment and forced migration, Rohingyas also had to suffer the snatching of their citizenship under the Citizenship Law of the country, thereby limiting their civil and natural rights. 

However, Myanmar's complex anthropological chemistry lays thin elasticity for Suu Kyi to resolve the Rohingya issue. Any efforts to relax laws and policies surrounding the community or attempting to take up this cause could jeopardise her sky-high popularity. Global media, including AFP, have evaluated that Suu Kyi's global image as a human rights activist and democratic icon has diminished in recent years as she plunged herself into Myanmar's febrile politics. AFP notes that she has been severely criticised as she now seems to prefer pragmatism to the idealism which she preached during her house arrest. 

Along with Rohingyas, Katchin Christians are also fighting for freedom and autonomy in Myanmar. The clash that started in 2012 between the Armed Forces and the Katchin Independence Army (KIA) should be resolved through a credible way. The clash between the government and the Shan, Lahu and Karen minority groups in the eastern side of Myanmar also needs to be stopped. The conflicts between ethnic Chinese rebels and the Myanmar Armed Forces in February this year, when 40000 to 50000 civilians were forced to flee to the Chinese side of the border, cannot be ignored. 

The ethnic conflicts have prevented minority groups from electoral participation. Rights organisations estimate that about 4 million minority people have been unable to cast their votes this year. Another severe structural constraint for Myanmar's nascent democracy stems from the military control of the interior, defence and border security ministers, which obstruct the jurisdiction and curb the powers of the president from smoothly running the executive. 

Despite the challenges, Myanmar's prospects for democracy seem to be bright if Suu Kyi can establish a sustainable democratic model, a pragmatic foreign policy, and an all-encompassing ethnic policy. If she succeeds in doing this, she can surely lead Myanmar to democracy.

The author is Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka and currently Dean of the School of Business and Social Sciences, Sylhet International University. 
email: mramin68@yahoo.com

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