DYER: Could democracy come to Burma?
Aung San Suu Kyi once remarked: “It is never easy to persuade those who have acquired power forcibly of the wisdom of peaceful change.”
The leader of Burma’s main pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), never wavered in her belief it was possible.
Now, it may actually be happening.
In last Sunday’s byelections in Burma, the NLD won at least 40 of the 45 seats at stake.
Burma is still far from being a genuine democracy, but the outcome was so encouraging that NLD official Myo Win said: “The army has changed and is now more lenient. So, there is more of a possibility that Aung San Suu Kyi can become president in 2015.”
“The Lady,” as most people call her, is finally free after 22 years of political repression, most of them spent under house arrest.
It’s hard to believe she may be peacefully elected president of Burma in three years’ time — but it was also hard to believe Nelson Mandela would be elected president of South Africa only four years after he was freed from 27 years in prison in 1990.
Not only is Suu Kyi free, but she is now a member of parliament. She boycotted last year’s general election, the first since 1990, because she distrusted the regime’s intentions, but she has now joined the political game.
She had to because, otherwise, the game would probably have ended quite soon.
The army has monopolized power in Burma for the past 50 years, ruthlessly suppressing all dissent and leaving the country the poorest in Southeast Asia.
Now, a former general, Thein Sein, has persuaded his colleagues it is time for the army to let go, but many of them are just waiting for him to fail.
He has been president for a year now and he badly needed a success.
Whether the outcome of these byelections is the kind of success he needed remains to be seen.
The army’s original idea, after all, was to open up politics just enough to end foreign economic sanctions and deflate domestic pressure for change.
The new constitution of 2008 gave serving soldiers one-quarter of the seats in the new parliament and, in the elections of 2010, the regimes’ puppet political party won a huge majority of the seats.
It was probably the spectacle of the Arab Spring, with non-violent revolutions overthrowing decades-old Arab regimes that were just as cruel and corrupt as Burma’s, that persuaded the army it had to go further.
Last August, Sein met Suu Kyi for the first time.
What promises he made remain secret, but it was enough to persuade The Lady to rejoin the political process.
From the army’s point of view, the recent byelections, held to replace 45 regime supporters who gave up their seats upon being appointed to posts in the new government, seemed an ideal way to start the opening-up process.
Even if the NLD did well in them, it would not shake the regime’s overwhelming majority in parliament — and the next national elections are not due until 2015.
But, the NLD may have done too well.
The party’s nearly clean sweep in these byelections will remind many generals of the 1990 election — and that is not a happy thought for them.
Having drowned a non-violent protest movement in blood in 1988, the army held a general election in 1990 to legitimize its rule, confident it could guarantee the right outcome.
It was wrong: The NLD won 80 per cent of the seats.
It was a political disaster for the military, which only preserved its rule by ignoring the election results and jailing the opposition leaders.
That gave it another two decades in power, but its rule was clearly illegitimate and the regime became an international pariah.
Now, we have another election outcome in which the NLD wins over 80 per cent of the seats.
It will have occurred to the soldiers and Suu Kyi that if the NLD had not boycotted the elections in November, 2010, it would have won them despite all the regime’s attempts to manipulate the results.
It virtually guarantees the NLD will become the government in 2015, if those elections are ever held.
The Burmese army’s choice is now stark: It must either accept that outcome or halt the whole democratization process.
Sein seems committed to the process come what may, but some senior generals will prefer the latter option, particularly because an NLD government might investigate how they got so rich.
It would be a good idea for the NLD to promise an amnesty for all crimes committed by the military regime.
The coming year will be a tricky one and it could end in disaster if Suu Kyi overplays her hand.
However, the past 22 years have taught her patience and she clearly understands Sein needs her help in staving off the pressure from the more hawkish generals.
The rest of the world can also help him by ending sanctions and allowing investment to flow into the crippled economy.
And, with luck, Burma will be a democracy three years from now.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist
whose articles are published in 45 countries.