Aung San Suu Kyi’s April? Myanmar’s 2011 By-Elections
It was no April Fool’s Day. As polling stations closed across Myanmar on 01 April 2012, reports point to an electoral victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and her bid to represent the Kawhmu constituency south of Rangoon. It is but one of the many high points in the apparent expansion of political space in Myanmar; which started in early 2011 with a reinvigorated peace process. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether these developments indicate a commitment to democratization by the Thein Sein government—a fundamental shift in Myanmar politics.
The recently concluded elections have largely been uneventful and peaceful, with most reports of fraud (i.e. voter list manipulation and ballot tampering) limited to dissident-linked sources. Clearly, it appears that the open invitation of international observers have deterred any overt attempt to rig the elections and apparently indicates the sincerity of the military-backed ruling government.
But an alternative punchline to the by-election is that the powers-that-be in Naypyidaw had no incentive to cheat anyway. Numbers-wise, the 45 seats up for grabs would not significantly change the balance of political power in the capital. Even personalities sympathetic to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) are wary and cautious of a negative unintended consequence of the election result—of potentially giving the military-backed civilian government a democratic façade.
As early as February 2011, there was already some concern over the growing irrelevance of the Burmese dissident diaspora; coinciding with the apparent ability of Sein’s administration to directly and deftly engage foreign actors. Promises (explicit or otherwise) of the lifting of sanctions imposed by the EU and the US; and of other diplomatic rewards from ASEAN are indicative of this troubling development.
The NLD’s success with the ballot box does not automatically resolve the intractable conflict and political instability besetting Myanmar. The appearance of democratic progress—of procedural but not substantive democracy, can lead to an oversimplification of the underlying issues that drive insecurity and underdevelopment. Too much focus on the by-election tends to neglect the bifurcated struggle that exist in parallel in Myanmar: the urban-centered, ethnic Burmese-led movement vis-à-vis the ethno-nationalist armed groups on the rural fringes.
Both domestic (i.e. the NLD and its allies) and foreign stakeholders thus need to be even more vigilant in ensuring that democratization continues. First, the NLD’s newfound parliamentary presence should be leveraged upon as another venue for Suu Kyi to espouse policy alternatives—befitting its status as an opposition bloc. Second, the relative transparency of the electoral process should be promoted across issue areas; starting with moves to independently investigate alleged human rights violations by the incumbent government. Finally, the modicum of pluralism accorded to the NLD should be extended to non-Burmese ethnic groups to sustain the gains of the simultaneous peace initiatives currently being undertaken.
Overall, Aung San Suu Kyi’s election cannot be the end-all of democratization lest the joke be at the expense of Myanmar’s people.
Last updated on 03/04/2012