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What Aung San Suu Kyi could do next


Aung San Suu Kyi surrounded by journalists and supporters.

Burma Democratic Concern under a CC Licence

Ever since Aung San Suu Kyi’s emergence from years of house arrest, positive changes in Burma’s story have gathered a surprising momentum. No-one expected such rapid reform, particularly in the area of individual freedom of expression, and the Burmese people have at last been able to show their very public support and love for their iconic political leader. Where once tourism was not recommended (because so many hotels were in the hands of the regime or their cronies and so much of the tourist infrastructure had been built through forced labour), today Aung San Suu Kyi has extended a welcome to responsible tourists, and flights to Burma are packed. Apart from the charm of the people they meet, tourists will be able to experience the delights of a great – and as yet little-known – Asian cuisine.

However, the foreigners flocking to the top-end hotels (the most boycotted as they were most compromised) have their sights on something a bit more exciting than pagodas. The country’s wealth of natural riches now glints attractively to the foreign investor looking to get in quick. And as leading representatives from Western governments line up to be photographed with Aung San Suu Kyi, they are also looking to this prospect while talking up democracy.

Politics and principles

For Burma’s current administration (still dominated by the military and still perpetuating widespread human rights abuses), this is the long-hoped-for opening that could bring further riches to their pockets. For too long they have had to depend on their neighbours China, India and Thailand, all of which invested in extractive industries in the country. China’s influence was particularly heavy in the political sphere, as it usually is. But a widening-out of trade will shift some of China’s power in relation to Burma. For a recession-hit West, a new source of natural wealth that could be freely exploited (instead of in a sneaky sanctions-busting manner) would also be a boon.

The country’s wealth of natural riches now glints attractively to the foreign investor looking to get in quick

Will any of this benefit Burma’s people? To ensure so would be a tough task for anyone, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is currently in no position to do so. Although it has tremendous popular support, its political power is yet to solidify. The landslide by-election victory it achieved in April has granted it only a fraction of seats in parliament: for wider legislative power the party will need to wait until the 2015 general election, unless events dictate otherwise. Elected NLD members delayed taking their parliamentary seats in the hope of changing the wording of their swearing-in pledge (which asks them to ‘safeguard the constitution’). Aung San Suu Kyi felt they could not honestly swear this, given that constitutional change was one of the planks of the NLD’s campaign, in particular the part of the constitution that gives 25 per cent of parliamentary seats to unelected (military) members, effectively giving them a veto. However, the reality of politics had to prevail over principle and the swearing in eventually happened, with the oath unchanged, because NLD voters expressed their impatience to see Aung San Suu Kyi in parliament. She said she had bowed to the will of the people.

Tourists are now flocking to Burma - but who will benefit?

pwbaker under a CC Licence

The NLD has rightly been focusing on the issues that matter to build a strong democracy: 1) the rule of law, particularly the independence of and recourse to the judiciary; 2) an end to Burma’s long-running civil war by politically negotiated settlements of the grievances of the ethnic nationalities; and 3) changes to the constitution.

The NLD discourse mirrors much of what most progressive parties would demand: universal and improved education; full rights for women and their increased participation in the structures of power – things only the truly crazy would disagree with.

Getting in an economic muddle

It’s when we come to their economic ideas that things get a bit muddled. I have been unable to get my hands on a current political manifesto from the party, despite making requests, so have had to make do with Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches.

There is misplaced faith in the IMF and World Bank, which have promoted poverty, indebtedness and loss of autonomy in every Majority World nation they have meddled with

Here, we find appeals to the international community (read Western democracies, I think) for help – understandable as the Burmese economy has been thoroughly mismanaged to maximize corruption and is suffering the effects of years of isolation. But there is also misplaced faith in the IMF and World Bank, two undemocratic institutions that have promoted poverty, indebtedness and loss of autonomy in every Majority World nation they have meddled with. There are admirable sentiments supporting unionism and getting fair prices for Burma’s farmers. But there are also mentions of market reforms and freeing up of markets which sounds suspiciously like the kind of market liberalism that has swallowed up many an emerging democracy. In the NLD’s manifesto of 1990, the year it won a landslide vote in a general election which the military rapidly annulled, there is a curious mix of aims – increased social welfare provision (presumably publicly funded) coupled with increased economic ‘liberalization’. A bit like putting two cats in a sack.

Burma needs an economic policy that will help the poor.

Stefan Munder under a CC Licence

Now is the time for the NLD to speak much more about its current vision of economic policy for the country and clarify it, if it is to bring about effective change when it does wield real political power.

Aung San Suu Kyi is publicly adored and foreign leaders will cosy up to her. But if the economic carve-up of Burma by foreign interests follows the tried and tested path of what has happened in other emerging democracies, she will find her hands tied before her party has any real political power. And her foreign pals will have facilitated the exploitation of Burma’s wealth through the same corporate interests that govern by proxy in their own lands.

Same winners, same losers?

As the gold rush begins in Burma, those who are primed to benefit are the cronies of the old military regime who have accumulated wealth and cornered resources over the years. They are still the power brokers. Increased economic activity may bring a short surge in the middle classes in the urban centres, but is unlikely to benefit the rural poor, unless policy is specifically designed to do so.

The NLD needs the tenacity of its ideals, an economic policy shaped by the needs of Burma’s people and the bloody-mindedness to pursue it

The NLD is in many respects in an unenviable position, finally mired in realpolitik where previously it was an object lesson in valuing ideals. It is being confronted by the corruption and compromise inherent in the political process, without yet having real power. For it to shine like a beacon and not sink like South Africa’s ANC, it will need the tenacity of its ideals, an economic policy shaped by the needs of Burma’s people and the bloody-mindedness to pursue it.

When things began to shift in Burma, I was surprised by the lack of involvement by the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group in party politics. These were the activists who had risked lengthy jail sentences to keep alive the flame of democratic change in their country, particularly among Burmese youth. Why weren’t they going into politics themselves or becoming candidates for the NLD? The indications are that, while solidly supportive of Aung San Suu Kyi, they are more interested in continuing to nurture grassroots democracy rather than the party-political variant of it. They form another tier of hope and integrity in Burma’s current evolution.

Western civil society groups are also urging new investors in Burma to act in a ‘best practices’, ‘do no harm’ manner. One statement of their concerns can be viewed here.

Dinyar Godrej is a New Internationalist co-editor.


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