Joy in Burma as banned party returns to politics

After decades of authoritarian rule, Burma is gradually opening up to democracy. Now, a party that was suppressed for decades has finally rejoined the political system.

For the last fifty years, democracy has been a distant dream in Burma. The country’s governing military dictatorship tightly controlled all areas of life, and dissent was brutally suppressed.

But in March this year, after Burma’s first elections in two decades, the ruling generals handed over power to a civilian government. The military regime became the Union Solidarity and Development Party, set to run in elections against other groups. New President Thein Sein lifted censorship to allow political debates, and relaxed legislation so workers could form trade unions.

Hundreds of political prisoners were released during this period of liberalisation. Most important was Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democratic opposition, who had spent 15 of the previous 20 years under house arrest.

Now, in a powerful sign of how much Burma has changed, Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has ‘re-registered’, officially rejoining the Burmese political system. They will now enter candidates for future elections.

Celebrations, however, will be cautious. The military government have experimented with democracy before. Full elections were held in 1990 – but when the NLD won a huge victory, the generals refused to accept the result. Now, many democracy activists are suspicious that reform could be cosmetic, aimed at repairing the country’s international reputation so that trade sanctions, long imposed against the military dictatorship, will be lifted.

And for democracy campaigners, there is still much to be done. One quarter of parliamentary seats are still set aside for the armed forces, and the NLD says only about 30% of Burma’s many political prisoners have been released. And although the measures are positive, they will be meaningless if the everyday lives of Burma’s people do not visibly improve.

Good intentions?

There was some debate in the NLD over whether to rejoin the Burmese political process. The government’s real commitment to reform remains doubtful. Burma’s generals still hold all the reins of power – they just want to maintain an appearance of respectability as well. By taking part in elections (which are, anyway, likely to be manipulated and rigged) Suu Kyi and her allies have given legitimacy to what remains, at heart, a dictatorial regime.

Perhaps so, Suu Kyi’s supporters might reply, but in this case principles must give way to pragmatism. It is distasteful to enter a parliament which is controlled by the regime, but democrats can achieve more by working for change within the system than they can by protesting outside it. The road of reform is both more peaceful and more successful than the road of revolution.

You Decide

  1. Is the NLD right to try to work within Burma’s political system?
  2. Which is better – unbending devotion to principles or pragmatic willingness to compromise? Why?

Activities

  1. Research the time Aung San Suu Kyi spent under house arrest in Burma. Write a letter to her followers, with words to inspire them to keep working for democracy.
  2. Create a timeline of Burma’s history, covering its repeated cycles of protest and oppression. Do you think hope for the future is misplaced?

Some People Say...

“There should be no deals with dictators – whatever the circumstances.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What have Burma’s democrats achieved before?
Democracy activists have struggled against the military Junta for decades. In 1988, protests erupted when ruler General Ne Win called certain currency notes out of circulation, creating an economic crisis. An estimated 3,000 people were killed in the crackdown.
What happened to people like Aung San Suu Kyi?
During those uprisings, Suu Kyi emerged as a hero of democracy, and the NLD was formed. But when the party won a huge majority in the 1990 elections, the government refused to recognise the result. Suu Kyi was under house arrest for a total of 15 years before being released one year ago.
But does this current movement towards democracy look stable?
Many are optimistic, but some worry the military will seize power again if there are signs of unrest.

Word Watch

Burma
Formerly a British colony, Burma is now also known as Myanmar. It lies between India and China along the fertile valley of the Irrawaddy River.
Aung San Suu Kyi
A Burmese political activist. Suu Kyi became involved in Burmese politics in the late eighties after violent crackdowns by military rulers. She spent two decades under sporadic house arrest until her release one year ago.
National League for Democracy
Burma’s leading democratic force, set up after the bloody riots of 1988. The party has been brutally oppressed over the years: many members have been imprisoned, or put under house arrest like Suu Kyi, and it was banned for long periods by the ruling party.
Cosmetic
‘Cosmetics’ means make-up. It comes from the Ancient Greek word kosmeo, meaning ‘I arrange’ or ‘I adorn’ – the same root as ‘cosmos’, which is the arrangement of stars in the sky. Metaphorically, a ‘cosmetic’ change is one that only goes skin deep.
Trade sanctions
Many countries around the world have imposed trade sanctions on Burma to protest against abuses by the military regime. Sanctions prohibit certain kinds of trade with the targeted country, and have a big impact on target economies.

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