For the first time since the massacre of protesting monks in 2007, Myanmar is suddenly in the news. The National League for Democracy (NLD) has recently won 43 of 45 seats contested in a recent by-election and their leader and pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, beat her rival, former military doctor U Soe Min of the Junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), in Kawhmu township just outside Yangon. These are the first significant multiparty elections in Myanmar in over twenty years and the results haven’t been simply annulled as they were last time.
The NLD even won all four seats in the newly built capital, Naypiyadaw, where powerful men (they are all men) from the military establishment form over half the electorate. Former Prime Minister and spy chief Khin Nyunt coyly told reporters he had voted for the party which serves the interests of civilians and reflects the will of the majority. His son, along with other establishment figures, felt safe admitting his preference for the NLD.
The NLD and USDP have been trying to keep things running smoothly since. President Thein Sein has stated that he thought the elections were “conducted in a very successful way.” The Union Election Commission, responding to claims of fiddled voter lists and wax covering the NLD box on the ballot papers, has vowed to investigate and prosecute electoral fraud. The NLD for its part, wary of the very real possibility of a hardline takeover within the military and business establishment, has announced that the rule of law is its number one priority.
What now? A useful way into this question is to think about the perspective of those actually inside Myanmar.
The hope among the NLD leadership is that economic and political life can be gradually opened over the next three years and that moderates will be entrenched enough by 2015 to allow the NLD’s inevitable victory at the polls in that year’s general election to be translated into some real political power. This platform could be used to slowly reshape the Burmese political system. Constitutional military powers, such as the 166 parliamentary seats (of 664) reserved for the Army, or ‘Tatmadaw’, could be slowly withdrawn.
The commercial and artistic elite in Yangon and Mandalay often want something like a Thai-style liberal democracy which retains a central places for Theravada Buddhism and perhaps for the Tatmadaw as well. (The Tatmadaw were, after all, the heroes of Myanmar’s independence myth. Suu Kyi’s dad Bogyoke Aung San was at their head when he liberated the country from the British and Japanese rule.
Most of the urban working and middle classes venerate the Lady without necessarily knowing exactly what she stands for. Because she is unfortunately a lady, many I talked to seemed to want her sons to come and rule as kings, or minlaung, the powerful Future King of Burmese myth. The systematic distortion of news and impossibility of talking about the future in public (when perhaps as many as 1 in 8 people are in government pay as spies) mean visions are often impressionistic and political conceptual frameworks incredibly simplistic. That said, popular support for the NLD is widespread. While knowledge of alternative political systems may be scrappy it is obvious to almost everyone that there must be something better worth fighting for.
The peasants who form the majority of the population generally have little to no grip on politics at the national level. They may or may not be able to name any national political actor. The peasants I talked to there desired – and received – only one thing from the government: non-interference. They weren’t taxed at all and their only connection to wider political structures came in the form of a headman who received a government salary to settle legal disputes (all of which were sexual harassment cases) by facilitating agreement between the parties on suitable financial reparations. Only one case had ever been passed up to any kind of higher ‘court’. Funding for the school and the health centre came from a wealthy monk and other benefactors in Yangon.
The hill peoples have different perspectives again. Myanmar has around 136 ethnicities in a population of under fifty million, most of whom live in the mountains on its borders with India, China, Thailand, Pakistan and Laos. They too desire non-interference. James Scott recently argued that when states historically tried to levy taxes people would run to the hills, and that the hill cultures reflect this aversion to government. Alongside this are desires for independence. The minorities often miss the British, who let their princes retain some power. Tactical support for the NLD is likely to sit alongside unrealistic visions of independence and only very slightly more plausible visions of devolution or deep federalism.
Finally to the military establishment themselves. There is no consensus in it’s ranks. Revolutionary plans are passed up to generals at the very highest levels. The generals have realised that isolation can only lead to grinding poverty. Most genuinely want economic change. Some worry for their souls. (An acquiantance told me she regularly saw Than Shwe‘s wife come to her monastery crying about her husbands likely rebirth.) . The current emergence of liberalising tendencies are to a large extent a result of simple generational change. The Arab Spring helped speed up the democratisation programme which had been creeping along. Corrupt officials are being shuffled out of power. But the old guard are worried and no amount of Burmese Kremlinology can reliably predict whether the evident culture change at the top is stable or how deep it goes.
So much for the political visions inside the country. There are far more powerful interests which will determine the country’s long term future. China, India, the US and others are looking greedily at Myanmar’s huge gas and oil fields. It has huge pristine Teak forests – among the last on earth. (Illegally logged teak was being smuggled downriver by government bigwigs in a village I visited. The logs in Myanmar were worth $60. Their global market value is over $4,000.) Myanmar has an important strategic position between China and India. It has markets to enter and consumers to create.
It remains to be seen whether Myanmar will see an 8888 style revolution, a slower opening up, a crackdown by the military-industrial establishment or some combination of all three. The really tricky bit will be negotiating settlements with the minorities, protecting the environment and worker’s interests in the face of western corporate power and nurturing a democratic political ethos.
Loss is unavoidable. Most aspects of traditional culture will be wiped out or preserved only as a sham, for example. (British American Tobacco is marketing its products with an “American youth culture theme” and Justin Beiber was inexplicably allowed past the censors.)
But positive change is happening. The current elite-led reforms partially signal the success of the uprising in 2007. Political knowledge in Myanmar is much more widely available than before; the government are slowly easing censorship laws. Civil society has recently undergone a much needed explosion and new informal organisations are popping up everywhere and gradually improving the lives of the poor. The new openness – photos of Aung San Suu Kyi are now visible everywhere across Yangon – will reactivate political memories and debate. Widespread popular support for the NLD needs to be translated into a functioning mass party organisation. As things improve it will become increasingly harder for the military-industrial elite to try to roll back new freedoms without incurring the wrath of huge numbers of ordinary Burmese. It’s hard not to be excited by what is happening in Myanmar.
Daniel Hutton Ferris is a MPhil student in Political Theory at Oxford University. This article is cross-posted from his blog, Political Theory Bits.