Aung San Suu Kyi Leads Way for Myanmar's First Free Elections


Citizens of Myanmar (or Burma) rejoiced on April 1 after democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 parliamentary seats in an historic by-election. Many villagers perceive this to be the first free and fair election in recent memory. The last historic election in 1990 resulted in the military junta imprisoning hundreds of people and placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. This election signifies a minor victory for the people in a recent slew of democratic reforms from the government that saw the release of 200 political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, relaxation of press censorship, and institution of new laws that allow labor unions and strikes. The results brought great surprise and joy to the citizens of a country with one of the most oppressive governments in the world since military rule was established in 1962. 

Once a British colony, Myanmar gained independence in 1948 under the direction of General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Unfortunately, the fledgling democracy was founded on a weak institution that neglected the needs and interests of an ethnically diverse population, so General Ne Win rose to power in 1962 and established a military junta that has repeatedly violated human rights and suppressed political opposition. The military's brutal method of government prompted Western sanctions that last until this day. However, Myanmar is viewed as an irresistible temptress that is rich in resources and serves as a strategic access point for trade and defense to major nations such as China and the United States. As one of the most valuable regions in Southeast Asia, Myanmar's pertinence to the superpowers' battle for dominance cannot be overstated. Even so, the United States and the rest of the West refuse to completely lift sanctions until further democratic reforms are enacted and human rights are respected. 

Current conditions suggest that Myanmar is still a long way from true democracy.

First, the inherently corrupt court system does not allow the institutions of democracy to develop.  A recent report from the United Nations notes that recent reforms could just as easily be overturned by the military-backed civilian government without "an independent, impartial, and effective judiciary" to "uphold the rule of law." James Ross of The Guardian notes that the lack of independent judicial review is because “judges are part and parcel of decades of a military governing system. [They] routinely impose unjustified sentences in political cases, allowing them to keep their jobs and access to the benefits of a corrupt system." The legal system is so intertwined with the military governing system that to find an impartial judge who will act on the basis of law is almost impossible. Their careers were made under the military regime, and it would be immensely difficult for current judges to operate independently of the ruling party and risk jeopardizing their careers and even their lives. 

Moreover, a large segment of the population is not represented. The hallmark of democracy is proportionate representation because it gives power to all peoples within the nation. Unfortunately, ethnic majorities dominate local district elections, and smaller ethnic groups cannot achieve collective action due to their inability to resolve their differences. There are inherent difficulties in achieving democracy with a grossly underrepresented population due to the deficiencies of an electoral system left over from British rule. Ethnic minorities that have long been voiceless as well as immigrants from the border regions of China and India are unable to express their discontent in a rapidly changing political and economic environment. Joel Sawat Selway of The New York Times proposes that the situation is not hopeless despite sectarian divisions and disproportionate representation. He cites the 1999 Constitution of Indonesia in which the document implemented a subtle yet important line to the electoral rules: "all parties would have to compete in two-thirds of provinces across the country and in two-thirds of districts within each province." This requirement forced candidates to build a party that would compete across the nation to win popular support instead of constructing "ethnically based, localized parties" that would cater only to elite groups.   If Myanmar wants to be perceived as a democracy, then it should address the problem of representation for all ethnic groups by instituting similar reform. 

However, no obstacle is more stifling to Myanmar's democratic aspirations than China.   Myanmar's military government had long enjoyed an intimate, albeit rough, relationship with the Chinese government since the birth of both nations. When Western sanctions were imposed in 1988, China continued to support Myanmar and has done so until today. According to the Gatestone Institute, China wants friendly authoritarian regimes on its borders, especially so it can continue to receive benefits from Myanmar such as port access to the Bay of Bengal. This explains why sanctions have largely been ineffective and Myanmar saw no need to institute reforms for many years. Myanmar's recent shift to democratic reforms may belie an economic motive in which the generals in Naypyidaw want to re-establish unfettered trade with the U.S. and the European Union in order to bolster a rapidly growing economy. Hopefully the government’s desire for economic growth will be the catalyst for democratic change in an attempt to appease the international community, as shown by the government's request for the U.S. and the EU to send delegates to monitor the recent election. What remains to be seen is how a different social state will change Myanmar's relationship with China.           

Unfortunately, the road to democracy is not inevitable even after this victory. The government still controls a majority of the legislature and rule of law is virtually non-existent. This concern is aptly voiced by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who stated, "Ultimate power still rests with the army so until we have the army solidly behind the process of democratization, we cannot say that we have got to a point where there will be no danger of a U-turn. Many people are beginning to say that the democratization process here is irreversible. It's not so. [...] We must wait until after the elections to find out whether or not there have been real changes. And depending on these changes, there should be suitable changes in policy."