CPDD’s Aung Tun, a journalist and Burmese activist, reflects upon the challenges facing Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s gradual thaw.
Burma’s democracy icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has concluded her two weeks visit to the US, her first visit here in over 35 years. Having been released from over 15 years house arrest, she has proven that she deserved the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can give, awarded to her for her consistent leadership of the democratic movement in Burma. She is also the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
We Burmese are very, very proud of Aung San Suu Kyi’s achievement and her courage as well as her decades long leadership of our so long oppressed country’s democratic movement. She is rightly viewed all over the world as a symbol of democracy.
Though Aung San Suu Kyi is free now, and is touring around the world in her new role as a key legislator in the Burmese parliament as well as a symbol of our struggle for democracy, so many important questions about the transition to democracy in Burma, renamed by the military government in 1989 as the Union of the Republic of Myanmar, remain. We have to be able to differentiate between what’s a real transition to democracy in Burma and what’s a faux transition. We can’t afford a mistake.
Here are some important issues that need to be addressed.
The Constitution, which was one-sidedly approved by the previous military regime, reserves 25% of the seats for the military. The holders of these seats are not elected. This needs to be changed. Though the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made changing the Constitution a priority, there is currently no way the NLD can change it since her party, though elected, is still not more than 10% of the Parliament. Changing the Constitution requires approval at least 75% of the members of parliament. For a real democracy to flourish, the Constitution needs to be changed. Will it be possible to change the Constitution before the next election in 2015? No clue yet.
The Ethnic Issue:
Burma has more than 100 ethnic minorities, most of them speaking their own language and having their own customs. This diversity would be wonderful if Burma was a federal state like the US. But it is not. In Burma, the government is highly centralized and the military still has enormous power. As a result, the government has waged, and is still waging, civil war against many of these ethnic minorities, fighting, for example, against the Karen minority for over 60 years. Even though a fragile ceasefire has recently been reached with the Karen, intensive fighting is underway in the Kachin state, in the northern part of the nation on the border with China, turning thousands of civilians into refugees. Recently, there has been much publicized ethnic violence in the Arakan state. As long as a reliable federal system cannot be established, ethnic issues will not be resolved, national reconciliation will be hindered, and consequently poverty, social, and economic development issues won’t be solved. Will Burma be able to solve its ethnic problems? Again, no clue yet.
Burma’s higher education system has fallen apart. Universities and colleges throughout the country are inadequately staffed, have virtually no facilities, do almost no research, and have few qualified teachers. It is almost a waste of time for students in the universities. To solve this problem, Burma needs to change the educational system to allow educational institutions a healthy degree of local autonomy instead of total government control, as is the case now. Total government interference in educational affairs is disastrous in terms of producing well-trained public service workers and highly needed skilled workers for the private sector. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other parliamentarians, most notably Daw Tin Nwe Oo, have proposed important educational reforms, but they have yet to be voted on. Burma needs a thriving group of intellectuals to help build the country’s future. Until meaningful educational reform is enacted, it won’t be easy to build a healthy and lasting democracy. So, will the educational system be reformed? We will have to wait and see.
Burma was the richest country in Southeast Asia during the 1930s and 1940s. The country was the world’s biggest rice exporter at that time. Even today, at least 60% of the nearly 60 million people in Burma live in farming households. The previous military regime seized farmland by force and established crony capitalism. Now, farmers are holding big demonstrations demanding their land back. It is not clear if the current government and the Parliament will be able to solve the problem. The economy was also hurt by the sanctions imposed against the military government by the international community. Now the sanctions imposed by the US will be lifted soon with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s approval. Will lifting the sanctions benefit the people at large? This, too, on the waiting list.
In sum, Burma is a changed place compared with previous years. No one can deny this. However, whether the Burmese people can create a thriving democracy remains to be seen.