The intention of Aung San Suu Kyi, internationally renowned democracy activist, to contest in the April parliamentary election in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, might open up a new vista in the country’s ambition to entrench democratic ethos
The prospect of having a Nobel laureate as a parliament member in any country would certainly please members of the international community. And if that country is Myanmar, a south east Asian nation, struggling to cast off about 50 years of military junta, then that could amount to taking the first step towards entrenching democracy.
This is the tantalising carrot that the candidacy of Aung San Suu Kyi, a democracy activist and a Nobel peace prizewinner, has translated into for both her country and the international community, which had hitherto ostracised Myanmar with a number of sanctions. Last week, Suu Kyi, under the platform of the National League for Democracy, NLD, registered to contest for a seat in parliament in the country’s forthcoming elections in April. International observers see this as a sign that the country is turning a new leaf by encouraging democracy.
Just three years ago, this had seemed impossible. Suu Kyi and many other democracy activists were either under house arrest or locked up inside a government prison somewhere in the country. Western governments say there were over 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar when the military-backed civilian administration of President Thien Sein came to power in 2010 through an election that was described as seriously flawed. The NLD had boycotted that election, as many of its members, including Suu Kyi, were still being detained by the government. It was only after the election that Suu Kyi was released from government detention, after spending almost 20 years in house arrest and in prison.
Desperate to improve its relationship with the West, which had imposed sanctions on the country, the administration of Sein promised democratic reforms. But the West did not take Sein serious, as he was perceived to be the puppet of the country’s powerful military. Hence the removal of sanctions was tied to the country’s attempt at democratic reforms. Beyond getting rid of the sanctions, Sein also had another incentive to embark on reforms. The Association of South East Asian Nation, ASEAN, had dangled the carrot of the chairmanship of the association before the country in 2014, if it successfully implemented the promised reforms.
Owing to the fact that Myanmar needed the ASEAN free trade area to boost its flagging economy, Sein quickly swung into action to beat the deadline. For instance, he commenced peace talks with several of the rebel groups and eventually succeeded in signing a ceasefire deal with some of them, including the Karen rebels. He also released troves of political prisoners without attaching preconditions. Suu Kyi, the country’s most famous political detainee, was one of the beneficiaries of that gesture. His administration also reduced Internet control and became less strict on press censorship. The government equally embarked on legislative actions by passing new labour laws allowing the formation of labour union, a decision that got a nod from the International Labour Organisation, ILO. This would give the country’s workers the right they had been denied since 1962. And perhaps one of the most important legislative actions was the amendment of the electoral laws, which had prohibited prisoners from contesting elections. It was this particular reform that made Suu Kyi, and some other members of her party, eligible to contest in the April election.
The reforms, as expected, helped thaw the frosty relationship between the West and Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. President Barack Obama highlighted this when he recently described the reforms in Myanmar as “flickers of progress,” thus giving credit to the Sein administration. “We want to seize what could be a historic opportunity for progress, and to make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America,” Obama said. The US also sent Hilary Clinton, its secretary of state, to Myanmar last month, the first high rank US official to visit the country in more than five decades. Her visit also opened talks that led to both countries exchanging ambassadors, a significant step to the restoration of relationships between both countries. In the same vein, the United Kingdom also sent William Hague, its foreign secretary, to the country in January, making him the first British foreign secretary to visit the nation in five decades.
Both Hague and Clinton met with Suu Kyi. No doubt, the West would certainly be more reassured about the democratic foray of Myanmar, if Suu Kyi were to win the election to become a member of the parliament. That would perhaps be the singular factor that might entrench democracy in the psyche of the military-battered nation.