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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Myanmar's by-elections and its future prospects


By NYUNT SHWE
Special to The Japan Times

The Myanmar by-elections will be the fairest and cleanest in the history of our country when they take place April 1. Without a doubt, Aung San Suu Kyi will be elected parliamentary representative for the Kawhmu constituency near Yangon.

All world leaders will hail and congratulate Suu Kyi for her success as the world's democracy icon and thank President Thein Sein's government for keeping its promise to hold a clean and fair election. The National League for Democracy (NLD) is going to take most — if not all — of the contested seats.

The West will likely reward the Myanmar government by scrapping all its restrictions and sanctions against Myanmar. At least this is the outcome desired by the government's policy planners.

Why can I say that?

Even if all the contested seats are won by the NLD in the April 1 by-elections, the proportion in the parliaments will be still much lopsidedly in favor of the ruling camp due to the results of the controversial and manipulated 2010 election.

An outright rejection of the upcoming by-elections' results by the government — as happened when the junta nullified the results of the 1990 general elections that were overwhelmingly won by Suu Kyi's NLD party — would fail this time even though the law that was used against her in 1990 remains in the constitution. It is clear that whoever disrupts the state's scheme to install Suu Kyi in Parliament would be censured by the government.

The NLD applied for registration on Nov. 25 and was recognized as a party on Dec. 12. It has chosen candidates, including Suu Kyi, to contest all 48 vacant seats. Technically, therefore, the present government and its legal foundation — the 2008 constitution — are all legal and de jure. Previously they were denounced by the NLD and its followers as illegitimate. Even though Suu Kyi has agreed to respect and follow the constitution, however, she continues to defy it by referring to Myanmar as "Burma," leading some to accuse her of being a renegade supported by a foreign power.

Strangely though, the government has not protested against her usage of "Burma." Why, we don't know, but perhaps this reflects the government's desperate hope that sanctions will be removed and huge investments will flow into Myanmar.

President Thein Sein has now released more than 300 prisoners of conscience — about half the number that Suu Kyi has called on the government to free. This act both surprised and awed the Myanmar people as well as many leaders around the world. The credit goes to Suu Kyi and Thein Sein since the release of the prisoners of conscience was the result of an agreement they made on her rejoining Myanmar's political process.

Suu Kyi's decision to have the NLD participate in the by-elections represents a turning point and reflects her mature political pragmatism. Though her right-hand man and senior Win Tin disagreed with the decision, he abided by the majority rule in the NLD. Suu Kyi herself said that the decision was a calculated risk and that there is no guarantee that the military won't make a U-turn. However, she has no other choice in bringing democracy to the people of Myanmar. She chose to legally engage the authoritarians-turned-politicians in Parliament, and believes it will take another decade or even longer to remove all the obstacles laid down by the long history of military governance in Myanmar. In fact, many of us wish that she had taken this path in the 2010 general election or even earlier, and most of the Myanmar people have rallied behind her.

Suu Kyi is now a seasoned politician and she has adopted methods employed in other formerly authoritarian countries during the course of their transition to democracies, even though no two countries have exactly the same situation and the same solution.

Because she has re-entered the legal ring of politics, many countries, including Japan, are finding ways to provide more assistance to the people of Myanmar and to invest there, and tourism is now steadily increasing. These are all good signs for Myanmar, however, if the government does not keep its promise of change and fair elections, its image will be severely damaged and the encouraging signs of support and engagements from the West and Japan could be jeopardized.

Likewise, if the West is reluctant to remove its restrictions and sanctions soon after Suu Kyi and her party achieve satisfactory results in the coming elections, the military could possibly force the government to sever its ties with the West. If the West maintains its restrictions and sanctions, I anticipate that Myanmar's military could take action as early as before the U.S. presidential election in November.

If that does not happen, we will have to see what transpires during the 2015 election, which will surely change the political balance in the parliaments dominated by the military-backed party plus military representatives. If the military regime cannot get significant rewards from the international community, it might not continue to keep quiet.

If the West and Suu Kyi do not want such a scenario to take place, the only sure way to lessen the military's grip would be to remove all sanctions against Myanmar. By doing so, the military would put up with the tangible changes made by the President Thein Sein government. This is a very delicate matter. Many analysts of Myanmar politics might not agree as they cannot understand the Myanmar mind-set. This is one of the most crucial tests of will between the military regime and Suu Kyi plus the American-led Western world.

Nyunt Shwe is a freelance journalist and former township leader of the National League for Democracy. He has lived in Tokyo since 1991.


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