by Kennedy Graham
Twenty-two years after her first thwarted election to the Burmese Parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi celebrates a momentous return.
Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is claiming a landslide victory in the Kawhmu by-election. In 1990, even before winning 81% of the seats in Parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi was already under House Arrest. This time, persistent, she is still free.
This election is being signalled as a landmark shift in Burma’s politics. Small reforms over the past year have hinted at some small openings in the military junta’s rule, and the widely anticipated election of Aung San Suu Kyi is going to be seen as a great big foot in the door.
Indeed, the signs are promising. The military junta was caught like a deer in headlights after the 1990 elections. According to most commentators, they failed to anticipate the breadth of popular support for the NLD, and once their mistake was realised, they clamped down and dismissed the results of the election. This time, they surely can’t be so blind.
Only time will tell how much of a dent the NLD will be able to make with a steadfast junta, who are constitutionally bound to hold at least one quarter of Parliament’s seats. Wayne Hay of Al Jazeera points out that though Suu Kyi will hold little power, her presence will at least draw international eyes towards the mechanisms of power in Burma in more detail.
But whilst international attention and scrutiny is important to keep Burma on the agenda, what does Suu Kyi’s election mean inside Burma?
Whilst she enjoys widespread support across Burma, and has become hugely symbolic of Burmese people’s desire for democracy and justice (values she holds dear), if ever placed in a position of true power, she will face a fragmented and traumatised state with endemic problems. Challenges that she will be well aware of.
Only for a fraction of its history has Burma been a unified state. Between the Panglong Conference of February 1947, and his assassination in July 1947, Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, had negotiated a constitution that bound the separate nations of Burma into an inclusive, federated state, with the right of secession for specific groups after ten years if they were dissatisfied. This remarkable constitution was the product of delicate negotiations for a post-colonial nation-state that would respect the autonomy of separate groups whilst pulling them together into an inclusive Union.
After Aung San’s death, the sentiments of the Panglong Conference were buried in the sand. The only autonomy that groups like the Karen or Kachin have is resultant of remoteness, ineffective central government, and by taking up arms, rather than any positive political will, and the right to secede has long since been wiped off the agenda. More so, groups are persecuted and forced to flee human rights abuses and abject hardship.
So whilst these election results can indeed be hailed as the beginning of a new era for Burma, the hard work remains to be done. Rifts and wounds will need to be attended to before an inclusive and legitimate state can be claimed. If anything can move towards this, it is the leadership of Suu Kyi. She certainly has her work cut out.