A new democracy

Published : Dec 17, 2010 00:00 IST

Suu Kyi's release from detention and the controversial general election signal a limited change in the political landscape.

in Singapore

IS Aung San Suu Kyi's precious freedom a political end in itself or the means to genuine democracy in military-ruled Myanmar? The answer was far from clear one week after the November 13 release of the indomitable 65-year-old Suu Kyi at the completion of her latest term of house arrest in Yangon.

Surely, she signalled her cheerful readiness to begin the enormous transition from being a globally famous political prisoner to becoming a proactive leader for democracy in a country long used to ruthless military autocracy. However, her new task is well and truly cut out, if only because the junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), organised, or stage-managed, an arguably democratic general election of sorts on November 7 before setting her free.

To this extent, she now finds herself in a political ambience of 2010 that is qualitatively different from, if not also light years away from, the grim atmosphere of martial law in which she was first arrested in 1989.

Over two decades ago, she took the first steps towards converting her charisma as a pro-democracy leader into a popular mandate of landslide proportions. Soon enough, she achieved this in the surprisingly fair-and-free general election that took place in 1990 under the watchful eyes of the then military establishment. And, it is a well-chronicled piece of contemporary history that the military powers-that-be did not allow her to assume the reins of power.

The international community is fully conversant with the saga of Suu Kyi's incarceration, in some form or other, for over 15 years in the past 21 years. In all, she was placed under house arrest four times and subjected to at least two spells in prison until her latest release. Also known is her resolute political courage and her never-say-die democratic spirit in the face of desolate odds.

During these 21 years, the political complexion of governance by or under the guidance of the armed forces in Myanmar did show some signs of changing, but, certainly, not to the point of becoming even a mild form of democracy in military uniform. In a sense, the very-limited change became obvious during the November 7 general election. Myanmar's military is now divided broadly into two camps or at least two schools of political practice or in fact political intrigue.

One camp, with the undoubted patronage of the military powers-that-be as of mid-November, was fiercely loyal to Than Shwe, the highest-ranking senior general at the helm of affairs. With the ostensibly civilian label of Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the pro-Than Shwe camp contested the election under the leadership of Thein Sein. As a military general who was also Prime Minister, Thein Sen shed the uniform to take up the reins of this party as a civilian just in time for the election. Another civilian camp with firm military links, as of mid-November, was the National Unity Party (NUP), widely associated with the old Ne Win school of praetorian politics.

Ironically or otherwise, the November 7 election was largely a political contest between, or more precisely a shadow-boxing event featuring, the Than Shwe and Ne Win schools of praetorian politics. In reality, there was no real choice for voters who cared to cast their ballot this time. Both the leading camps in contest had unmistakable military moorings.

Significantly, the only recognisably democratic party on the scene was a splinter of Suu Kyi's recently deregistered National League for Democracy (NLD). While the splinter, a pale shadow of the NLD, called itself the National Democratic Force, Suu Kyi's party wholeheartedly boycotted this general election. In all, therefore, the voters had no genuine democratic choice to make this time, unlike the previous general election almost exactly two decades ago.

There is no credible estimate so far of the actual voter turnout on November 7. The NLD was emphatic that the turnout was really low. The official poll panel did, of course, claim high voter participation.

The NLD's octogenarian leader Tin Oo, who ranks next only to Suu Kyi, told this correspondent on the day of voting that the Than Shwe-linked USDP had already collected votes, under pressure tactics, in the euphemistic advance balloting. Nonetheless, there was no formal declaration of the results until November 19.

Surprise move

In such circumstances, the international community, long used to the false promises of the junta, was somewhat surprised when the SPDC felt confident enough to release Suu Kyi before the formation of a civilian government on the basis of the November 7 election. So, the logical questions that came up soon after her release were about her political options for overturning the outcome of the election.

Speaking from Yangon, Suu Kyi's lawyer and close political associate, Nyan Win, told Frontline on November 19 that she was waiting for the NLD election committee's comprehensive report on the junta's role as it unfolded before, during and immediately after the election. In a sense, Suu Kyi would be able to sketch out a road map for genuine democracy on the basis of her view on the NLD's report, Nyan Win hinted.

On a parallel track, on November 18 the NLD's long-standing lawyer Kyi Win argued before the Supreme Court in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, that the derecognition of Suu Kyi's party was not tenable under the junta's own rules, regulations and constitutional practices. Kyi Win's petition was not rejected summarily, although it was also not admitted formally for further hearing.

Future of the NLD

On balance, therefore, the prospect of an NLD revival, or alternatively the possibility of Suu Kyi leading a mass movement for democracy in a de novo fashion, was a matter entirely of her political initiative. Neither her long-standing associates nor the routinely pro-Suu Kyi external powers had placed any bet on the future of democracy in Myanmar. The reason was simple but profound as well. The SPDC had changed Myanmar's political landscape quite dramatically before letting Suu Kyi walk free for the first time since 2003.

Suu Kyi's pro-democracy onus was palpable in her words and actions during the first week after her release. It was on the evening of November 13, almost at the stroke of completion of her latest term of house arrest, that the junta officials drove to her old lakeside bungalow and informed her that she was being set free.

With the official formalities done, she walked to the gate several yards away and greeted the hundreds of cheering supporters who had gathered outside. She briefly addressed them from across the gate. An enthusiastic supporter tossed a bunch of flowers towards her and she cheerfully accepted it in typical oriental style. Sporting those flowers, now embedded in the hair on her head, she reminded the people that discipline would be needed to move towards genuine democracy and exhorted them to act in unison for this.

Even as she re-established rapport with her followers, hundreds of other supporters waited for her at the party headquarters in Yangon. An amazing sight indeed it was, as independent video footage showed the activists virtually sporting their pro-democracy hearts on their sleeves. The activists wore dresses that proclaimed pro-Suu Kyi sentiments, a scene reminiscent of the uprising by pro-democracy Buddhist monks a few years ago. The junta made no attempt this time to crush the groundswell of support for Suu Kyi.

In the cause of democracy

Suu Kyi spent the first hours after her release in discussions with the NLD old guard. On November 14, some foreign diplomats called on her and she addressed the media too. The highlight, though, was her address at the party headquarters. Rededicating herself to the cause of democracy, she pledged to stay proactively in politics for bringing about respect for human rights and freedom of speech in Myanmar.

No countrywide campaign tour was announced as an immediate follow-up action to carry forward her post-freedom pledges. And, as international speculation centred on the likely political complexion of her renewed pledge for democracy, Suu Kyi was also being compared and contrasted with past and present campaigners against military rule in other countries.

Beyond these inevitable exercises, it is easy to recognise Suu Kyi as a unique political campaigner. Her steadfast commitment to Gandhiji's political principle of non-violence distinguishes her from many other champions of democracy or freedom fighters.

As one among those who fully deserved the Nobel Peace Prize that came their way, the daughter of Myanmar's famed military leader has signalled that she will not lower her political sights despite so many years in detention. However, she herself has not encouraged any hype. Her small step in freedom, to borrow from Neil Armstrong's famous statement upon landing on the moon, has not been portrayed as a giant leap for the people of Myanmar towards democracy.

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