By Ana Gomes - 1st October 2012
Fears that the country could disintegrate are a sensitive issue in Burma, and not only for the military
Aung San Suu Kyi is worshipped by her people. However, her election as MP created huge expectations that are difficult to meet
Burma’s democratic transition still has a long way to go, writes Ana Gomes
Back in 2002, when there was a pretence at creating some political openness, I travelled to Burma, carefully organising my trip through a local family agency to avoid giving money to the military junta, which controlled all economic activity in the country, including drug trafficking. I returned to Burma recently, at the invitation of the NDI – the national democratic institute linked to the US Democratic party – which has been supporting pro-democracy forces in Burma for many years.
The trip confirmed that the military still continue to control the fabulous resources of this country. In order to explore them while facing western sanctions, the Burmese military led the country into China’s hands. The country was flooded with Chinese plastics and cell phones, but also environmental degradation, conflict over land, rising inequalities, and the majority of 56 million gentle and hard-working Burmese living in dire poverty.
Responding to popular outrage, in September 2011, the government of Burma forced China to halt the construction of the Myitsone dam, which would have had a significant impact on the Irrawaddy river, producing electricity for China, but not for the people of Burma. The Chinese did not disguise their shock and the Burmese generals quickly understood that they would have to look for alternatives. The west reacted promptly: still with sanctions in force, Hillary Clinton flew to Rangoon in December 2011, to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s military.
At the top of the parliamentary agenda, in the session we attended in Naypyitaw, were economic reforms to open up several activities to the private sector, encourage western investment and remove the remaining international sanctions. Last April, the EU suspended for a year all the non-military sanctions and last month the US administration gave the green light to Coca Cola, GE, Boeing and oil companies to move into Burma, provided that transparency of investments was ensured.
Everybody claims to want democratic reforms, but nobody really knows what they entail. Laws allowing trade unions and demonstrations may have been passed, but the parliament performs with ceremonial rather than procedural rules enabling members to raise questions on which the speakers then decide and that is it. Aung San Suu Kyi and the other recently elected members have not been assigned to any parliamentary committees yet. In fact, only the military faction sits together, since there are no structured political groups and members sit by district and alphabetical order. The chair of the foreign affairs committee, explained with some candour that an opposition is not needed since “all the parliamentarians duty is to exercise checks and balances over the executive”.
Media freedom is not ensured yet. The censorship department continues to work and self-censorship exists too, while there are still political prisoners languishing in jail. Nobody knows exactly how many, perhaps between 300 and 1000. Moreover, the ethnic minorities’ aspirations must be met, since they represent almost 40 per cent of the population and have lived, since independence of the Union of Burma, in a state of permanent conflict, often armed, against the centralised power of the Bamar majority.
Fears that the country could disintegrate are a sensitive issue in Burma, and not only for the military. A young parliamentarian from the National League for Democracy (NLD), looking smart and progressive, reacted brashly to questions regarding the situation of the Rohinga refugees, who for generations have been badly discriminated against and persecuted. He refused to accept that they were Burmese and advocated their immediate expulsion to Bangladesh. Nobody yet knows how the NLD leadership stands ons these problems.
Suu Kyi is worshipped by her people. However, her election as an MP created huge expectations that are difficult to meet. Even though she looks younger, Suu Kyi is 67 years old and in fragile health. Courage, defiance and an aristocratic poise are not necessarily the qualifying skills needed to reorganise a political party and rejuvenate its leadership.
Pro-democracy activists recently released from jail, many belonging to the NLD, are creating a school of political science to help build up capacity for party members, civil society activists, journalists and to support the parliamentary work. Yet, many worry that Suu Kyi seems to be finding more time to meet with foreign visitors than to communicate with the people or her party members. That is why there is great need for expert advice and support on the ground to help structure political parties train an independent media and develop parliamentary activism and civil society in Burma.
No doubt that in Burma there is now an open door to democracy, which we cannot let close. It is important to combine political pressure with controlled economic investment, but above all it is necessary to invest in capacity building for all those who want to establish an inclusive democracy in Burma. And there is still a long and arduous path to travel.
Ana Gomes is a member of parliament's foreign affairs committee