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Myanmar and the search for democracy

by Jeff Kingston

Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy, by Bertil Lintner. Silkworm Books: Chiang Mai, 2011, 196 pp. The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Peter Popham. Rider: London, 2011, 446 pp.

The abrupt shift in Burmese politics over the past few months has been extraordinary, but it remains uncertain whether this is a false dawn or a long-awaited prelude to substantive political reform. Neither author anticipated this opening and both express pessimism about the potential for democratic freedoms under the current government.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the subject of these two superb books, will run for election to Parliament next month and says she believes recent gestures by the government are for real. Given that her National League for Democracy (NLD) is contesting only 23 of the 48 by-elections in the 440-seat Parliament, it’s leverage will be limited even if elections are free and fair.

The current government is dominated by former military officers (26 of 30 Cabinet ministers) and holds power only because of widespread election fraud in 2010, so there are good reasons to remain wary. The military they retired from is responsible for the slaughtering and jailing of monks and students in the 1988 uprising and again during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. The current Constitution, one imposed following a rigged referendum in 2008, allocates 25 percent of seats to the military and gives it de facto veto powers.

Recently, the government released more than 200 political prisoners (out of nearly 2,000), eased censorship of the media, relaxed restrictions on NGOs, and promised freedom for unions. Suspension of a $3.6 billion dam project funded by China sends a message that the government is listening to civil society opponents of the project.

These are small steps in the right direction, but do not dispel concerns about human rights abuses and constraints on political freedom. The mechanisms of repression remain in place and the reform process remains easily reversible, cautioning against giddy exuberance.

Key decision-makers in Burma want sanctions lifted and understand that the road to rejoining the international community and gaining legitimacy leads through the front gate of the house where Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the past two decades under house arrest. Jailing or marginalizing her was always a dead-end strategy because only she has the moral authority to promote national reconciliation and normalize external relations. The U.S., Japan and the EU have responded carefully to Naypidaw’s opening, and opening the spigots of development assistance depends on further evidence of reform. Investors are also waiting for a strengthening of the rule of law to ensure their interests are protected.

The two volumes under review are excellent resources for understanding the nature of Burma’s festering political problems after five decades of military misrule. Bertil Lintner is an established authority on Burma, having visited and published frequently on Burma since the 1980s. His succinct and insightful analysis focuses on post-1988 developments within the pro-democracy movement and the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD and the ’88 generation of student activists. Popham’s lucidly written and poignant biography provides colorful details on her upbringing, education, personal life and political struggle.

Both authors agree that the NLD blew it in 1991 following it’s landslide victory when 94 percent of citizens voiced a resounding “no” to continued military rule. In their view, the NLD failed to seize the moment and by dithering allowed the generals to retain power. At the time Suu Kyi was under house arrest and other key NLD leaders were imprisoned. Since then, the government has weakened the NLD through intimidation and detention, but Lintner asserts that such tactics can’t work against the entire ’88 generation, a resilient pro-democracy force.

The Lady is an extraordinary person and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but it is not easy being an icon. Lintner argues that her “deification”, something she resists, places a considerable burden on her because people hold unrealistic hopes about her rapidly solving Burma’s enormous socio-economic and political problems.

Some pundits in recent years have asserted that her uncompromising approach has prevented political reform and that she is a spent political force, ill-informed views neither author shares. Indeed, Popham commends Suu Kyi’s principled resolve while Lintner is more critical of her political skills, arguing that, “her lack of a comprehensive political plan of action for Burma may fail to prevent more tragedies from happening and may stall the re-emergence of a credible force that can challenge the present regime.”

In the harsh world of Machiavellian politics, Lintner is dismissive of her quest for a “revolution of the spirit” and questions whether she ” fully appreciates the complexities of Burma’s ethnic conflicts.” As clashes with Karen and Kachin rebels continue and ethnic groups constitute nearly one-third of the population, this is a critically important issue.

In contrast, Popham esteems her spiritualism, suggesting that it is a key element of her political legacy. While Lintner thinks she could use more of her father’s practical political instincts, Popham suggests that piety and meditation have sustained her through the long years of house arrest and inspire her people. He further argues that her father lacked the temperament to withstand the rigors of isolation as well as she did.

In leading the pro-democracy movement Suu Kyi paid a heavy personal price. The military hoped to pressure her to leave by denying entry visas to her husband and sons, but she knew if she visited them she would never be allowed to return.

Sadly, the excruciating choice she made to help her country meant she could not be with her husband when he died of cancer nor be there for her sons during their formative years.

After a half century of economic mismanagement, poverty, political oppression and armed conflict, nobody imagines the way forward will be easy. The military is the most developed institution in Burma because it commands such a large share of the budget and has some 400,000 men under arms in a nation of 60 million. The current reform process is fragile and much depends on whether the military remains on board. The transition to a sustainable democracy and economic development will require considerable resources, capacity building and patient resolve. These excellent books caution against imposing excessive expectations on one courageous and remarkable woman, but help readers appreciate why she is admired, feared and sometimes criticized.