Located in Southeast Asia with powerful neighbours such as India and China, Myanmar has a turbulent contemporary history of oppression and dreadful living standards. After more than sixty years of British rule, Burma became an independent democratic republic in 1948. Nevertheless, this did not lead to stability, as in 1962 military General Ne Win seized power in a coup. Since then, the country has been under firm control of the one-party military government. Despite mass uprisings in which thousands were killed, the military government remained in control and renamed itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). After declaring martial law in 1989, thousands of political opponents were arrested. One of them was Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of National League for Democracy. Born in 1945 during the last days of English colonialism as a daughter of the commander of the Burma Independence Army and after periods of living in Oxford, New York and Bhutan, she became politically active in 1988.
Whether by coincidence or fate, Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Myanmar in 1988 to meet her dying mother happened at the same time General Ne Win announced his resignation and thousands of protestors were killed in an uprising that followed. Triggered by this, Aung San Suu Kyi requested the government to hold open, multi-party elections. Suu Kyi formed the National League for Democracy (NLD) and was planning to take part in the elections the government had promised. But this turned out differently than expected, as Suu Kyi was prohibited to participate and was placed under house arrest by the government in July 1989. Despite all this turbulence, elections were held in 1990 and the NLD won 82% of the parliamentary seats. However, regime change was not on the horizon as the SLORC remained in power and ignored the results. Suu Kyi, still detained, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Although temporary released, Suu Kyi has spent a bitter score of 15 out of the last 21 years under house arrest.
But things seem to have changed. After elections in 2010 a civilian government was installed with former general, Thein Sein as President. Although the elections are described as heavily flawed, it seems that Thein Sein is truly breaking with the old military way of ruling.
Apart from this, even more promising is the first interview with President Thein Sein as reported in the Washington Post earlier this month. In this interview the President confirms the status of the NLD, Suu Kyi’s party, as an official political party which can contest in the upcoming elections in April. He further says that “If the people vote for her, she will be elected and become a member of parliament. I am sure that the parliament will warmly welcome her. This is our plan.”
In reaction to this, the United States eased some of its economic sanctions and sent U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton to visit the country. It also announced to start exchanging ambassadors again, which could be the beginning of a more friendly (diplomatic) relationship. Although brighter times for Myanmar seem to be coming, it is too early to be certain. Some question marks are placed around the motives and especially the timing of these developments, as Myanmar and the U.S. could be seeking a more strategic relationship in the context of rising Chinese power. This could be part of a new American focus on Southeast Asia to balance China’s political and economic power. The other problem is that Myanmar is far from being a democracy at this point with many political prisoners still left.
But change cannot come overnight and a transition to democracy needs time. Hitherto, the signs seem to be positive and promising. In a year or so it could be time for a new analysis when the developments can be seen more clearly and we know the results of the by-elections of April this year. We might finally be able to witness Aung San Suu Kyi in the parliament of Myanmar if the people express this wish in the ballot boxes.
JEANINE DE ROY VAN ZUIJDEWIJN