Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in Parliament over the weekend. Suu Kyi has called her triumph in Sunday’s by-elections “the success of the people.”
The international press has been cheering Burma’s move toward democracy, but, as reports from inside the country show, there’s still quite a bit of skepticism about whether the military dictatorship will hand over real power.
The independent Burmese magazine Irrawaddy talked to people at the polling stations, and found that some voters wondered how much of the election was about style over substance. “You know that on one hand, they [the nominally civilian government] seem to be trying to get peace. On the other hand, they are still fighting,” said Tin Sein. He’s referring to clashes between the army and ethnic militias in the border areas.
Also, the military-backed party still controls the vast majority of the Parliament. So, while the victory is largely symbolic because it does nothing to tilt the balance of power, it is significant nonetheless because it gave the Burmese people the opportunity to take part in what could be considered the only fair and credible elections in the country in two decades.
But as an excellent opinion piece in the Filipino website Interaksyon writes, the bigger question is what comes next. The opposition will be able to participate in larger elections in 2015 that could bring it back to power, but there’s doubt over whether the ruling party would allow that. Also, the opposition is currently hampered by its limited power, and if it can’t deliver on deeper reforms, that could hurt its chances to gain the majority in 2015.
It may depend on whether the ruling party feels rewarded for reintroducing democracy to the country. The quasi-civilian government late last year eased media censorship and freed dozens of political prisoners, including prominent dissidents, in a bid to convince the international community of its willingness to transition to a democratic government.
And now it wants to be rewarded by having Western nations lifting economic sanctions on the country. Burma is resource rich country, but is one of the least developed economies in Asia.
The issue of sanctions continues to divide many. A piece published by the Irrawaddy ahead of the April 1 vote explains the contending positions.
In support of the immediate lifting of sanctions, American economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz says: “It is clear that this moment in Myanmar’s history represents a real opportunity for permanent change. It is time for the world to move the agenda for Myanmar forward, not just by offering assistance but by removing the sanctions that have now become an impediment to the country’s transformation.” (Myanmar is the official name of the country since 1989, but remains contested.)
That view has not been taken by the Obama administration, which is taking a wait-and-see approach. “The conditions for sanctions and other restrictions are more than these [April] elections,” he said after his latest visit to Burma. “There are specific issues that have to do with the release of all political prisoners, have to do with ethnic minority issues and have to do with other issues. So, we are not looking for one particular event in order to say everything is normal, everything is right and is not reversible.”
And there are others who agree that it’s better to wait for more concrete reforms in Burma, including prominent Burmese exile Kyi May Kaung, a writer and analyst based in Washington, who strongly cautions against it. “Countries that wish to see democracy and a free market in Burma should not lift sanctions too soon,” the Irrawaddy quotes her as saying. She appeals to the international community to not get carried away by ‘the hype’ generated by international media.
Between these two positions is a third option: sanctions are to be withdrawn bit by bit when reforms continue. The editor of the Burma Economics Watch, Sean Turnell, who is an economist from Australia’s Macquarie University, is in favor of the carrot-and-stick approach, or the gradual easing of reducing sanctions in exchange for reforms.
He calls it the “virtuous circle” of reforms.