“There has been no real change. Except that I have been released, nothing else has happened. More than the interest in me as an individual, I would like them to think of all Burmese people. Have the investments that have come in really helped the people in any way or are they only superficial?” That was Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi speaking to the media on July 14, 1995, after her release from six years of house arrest.
A year later, asked by The Hindu if the process of restoration of democracy had progressed since her release, she said: “Yes, somewhat. We have looked at the organisation of the National League for Democracy and this has now been reorganised. We want to work with the people more closely and towards that end we are bringing about some change. But the problem is, a lot of people are still subject to harassment.”
The context in 2012 is her election to a military dominated Parliament. The NLD might have swept the by-elections to some 45 seats in a House of over 600 members but there is nothing to suggest that the situation has changed on the ground. The military-run party that rules Myanmar has two main objectives — to be seen as pushing reforms on the political arena as demanded by the international community, and to help its friends in Asia step up their campaign for the withdrawal of sanctions against the country..
True enough, at the recent Phnon Penh summit, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, called upon the international community to lift the sanctions. How the government treats a real opposition in the House will, however, become clear only after the results are declared officially and the newly elected members assume office as Members of Parliament. Will Ms Suu Kyi and her NLD be allowed to play a genuine political role?
Unfortunately, before opening the doors to parliamentary democracy — if that is Myanmar's system of governance — the state's Peace and Development Council, as the military junta once called itself, enacted a new Constitution. In that Constitution, enacted after a decade, the rulers gave the military a pre-eminent place in governance. with Parliament dominated by representatives of the armed forces. In the elections held under the new system, the military also formed a political party, which naturally won the polls — but only after disenfranchasing Ms Suu Kyi and derecognising the NLD.
Why the change of heart now? How were the NLD and Ms Suu Kyi allowed to contest the by-elections? Political analysts say that the regime in Myanmar has realised the need to open the doors to not just the opposition but also the international community and foreign investments. The ASEAN has been gently but steadily nudging the generals in Myanmar to resume a dialogue with the opposition and start the reforms process. With Myanmar slated to assume the Chairmanship of ASEAN before long, when it would host not just the regional member-states but also the Dialogue Partners and Asean Regional Forum members including the U.S. and the EU, some progress became imperative.
Although the international community has welcomed the latest move, it is not in any hurry to hail the change of heart. Much will depend on what happens in Parliament with Ms Suu Kyi and her NLD, and the future of the democratic process.
When the generals chose to hold a general election in 1990, the NLD under Ms Suu Kyi swept the polls, winning a huge majority in the Central Assembly. Unable to accept the people's verdict, the junta set aside the elections and assumed dictatorial powers. The people's leader was detained under house arrest till 1995. But she has also been intermittently detained since then to prevent her from mobilising people and overthrowing the regime.
Ms Suu Kyi, past 65 now, continues to be immensely popular. Daughter of the national icon, General Aug Sen, Ms Suu Kyi returned to her homeland in 1988, in time to see the birth of democracy in her country. The popular uprising that year ended in bloodshed and hundreds of ordinary citizens lost their lives in battles on the streets. Ms Suu Kyi did not even attend the funeral of her British husband Michael Aris, fearing that she would not be allowed to return to her country.
Influence of Gandhi and Mandela
Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela have been strong influences on her. She said in a interview in 1995: “I have very nice and happy memories of India. The influence of my mother was as strong as that of my father. She was very strong and disciplined. I was not a very brave person and was quite timid. My mother never encouraged that, she did not want me to be that way.” She spent long years in India, where her mother was posted as Ambassador, and grew up learning about Mahatma Gandhi. This explains her commitment to non-violence. She has consciously avoided arousing people, urging them instead to remain calm but brave. She believes that India can do a lot more to help further democracy in Myanmar.
Her election to parliament may be just a small step. It remains to be seen if the government in Myanmar will hold a genuine general election and restore full democracy. When it does become a full-fledged democracy, Myanmar, located strategically between India and China, will be able to play a major role in building bridges in a troubled region. India and ASEAN must help Myanmar in this endeavour.