By Benedict Rogers
Five years ago, the overwhelming election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma heralded the dawn of a new democratic era after over fifty years of brutal military dictatorship and civil war.
After a total of 15 years under house arrest and more than a quarter of a century of courageous struggle for democracy, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate known to everyone as “The Lady” was poised to head her country’s government. And although the military had deliberately drafted a constitution that excluded her from becoming President, her advisers ingeniously created a new role that circumvented that restriction – the position of State Counsellor, de facto prime minister. With the exception of the three key ministerial roles given to the military under the constitution – home affairs, defence and border affairs – she has absolute oversight of the civilian government.
Yet five years on, it’s a very different picture. Burma approached the crossroads of democratization, peace-building and national reconciliation – and went into reverse.
The gains that were made in terms of human rights have largely been lost – today, once again, there is the tragedy of political prisoners, refugees, media censorship, religious intolerance, continuing military offensives against ethnic groups involving war crimes and crimes against humanity and, most shockingly, a genocide that Aung San Suu Kyi herself went to the International Court of Justice in the Hague last year to defend. Her own key constitutional adviser U Ko Ni, a Burmese Muslim, who reportedly came up with the ‘State Counsellor’ idea, was assassinated at Yangon (Rangoon) airport in 2017, his grandson in his arms – hailing a taxi in a spot I have myself stood many times. She didn’t go to his funeral.
Too many of us are guilty of having put Daw Suu – as she is known – on too high a pedestal. Too many people had unfair, unrealistic expectations. Too many expected miracles too soon. All of that is true. But none of us expected her government to have been as bad as this.
Most fair-minded people would acknowledge the limitations she was under. Most thoughtful people would accept that the transition from pro-democracy campaigner and people’s heroine to head of government is not easy. Many would point to similar disappointments when South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel, Poland’s Lech Walesa or East Timor’s Xanana Gusmao moved from leading a dissident movement to leading a government. But almost no one would have predicted where we would be today.
This Sunday, Burma goes to the polls again – only the second elections since the fragile democratic transition, and only the third elections of any sort in the past three decades. Yet the mood is very different this time round.
Five years ago, Burma’s ethnic nationalities – which make up an estimated 40% of the population and inhabit approximately 60% of the territory, mostly around the peripheries – voted overwhelmingly for the NLD, at the expense of their own ethnic parties. They did so for one simple reason: their only priority, at all costs, was to rid the country of military-dominated government, and they knew the NLD was the only party that could defeat the military’s political party at the ballot box.
When I visited Kachin State in late 2015 soon after the elections, ethnic Kachin friends made it clear to me that their votes for the NLD were “on loan.” They had a cautious trust that Daw Suu was the one Burman who might unite the country’s ethnic groups, counter religious intolerance and bring genuine democracy and peace. Their cautiousness was tangible – but they were willing to give her a chance. She blew it.
When Burma’s Union Election Committee unilaterally decided to cancel voting in 56 townships in ethnic areas, disenfranchising more than a million people, my heart sank. When you take into account the internally displaced, the refugees who are still on Burma’s borders and have not been able to return home, the entire Rohingya people, the disenfranchised population tops two million, and the disenchanted far exceeds it.
Over the past five years not only has the NLD-led civilian government failed to build trust with the ethnic groups or to advance peace and end conflict, it has presided over a military that continues to commit atrocity crimes – and defends them.
Granted, the civilian government has little control over what the military does. But it does have control over what it itself says. Daw Suu did not have to go the Hague to defend genocide.
Nang Zun Moe, Executive Director of Progressive Voice, put it very well when she said: “The current electoral process legitimizes and further entrenches the grievous discrimination and systematic racism experienced by ethnic and religious minorities for decades. This is not just another election; it is an election in a country that has committed grave international crimes, including genocide.” She adds that the world should ensure that Burma’s elections “meet international standards” and that means the world should not endorse election activities, materials or tools that, in her words, “legitimize and entrench discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities and incite hate.”
Progressive Voice published a briefing on the elections last week titled depressingly: “A Vote With No Confidence”.
On top of all this, the COVID-19 pandemic makes voting more difficult and more dangerous. Although Burma escaped the first wave remarkably lightly, it is suffering far more in a second wave. Some democrats even called for the postponement of the elections due to the pandemic – a call that was ignored.
Despite all this – or, rather, all the more because of it – we must pray for Burma on Sunday.
The past five years have seen hopes dashed, the cause of freedom, human rights, democracy and peace set back, the new dawn clouded with darkness. But all the more reason to pray that on Sunday those who can will turn out to vote, and that those in the ethnic areas whose voting has been cancelled might have their deferred chance to vote soon. Pray that voting is peaceful. Pray that the voices of hate are drowned out and that the voices of hope and unity in diversity prevail. Pray, in the words of Burma’s inspiring Cardinal Charles Bo, for “the flowering of a robust democracy” which is, he says, “the only hope for curing this nation, bleeding with fraternal conflict”. Pray for the “servant leaders” Cardinal Bo appeals for, who will tackle the challenges of poverty, hatred, the environment and conflict.
Pray above all that despite the odds, out of Sunday will emerge a new government – whatever its shape – that will find a way to end conflict, defend freedom of religion or belief, heal wounds, entrench democracy and human rights, pursue and secure real peace, true freedom and genuine justice and reconciliation for all.
The last five years may have been dark and disappointing – but pray they are but a prelude to a brighter future for this truly beautiful but benighted country that has suffered too much for too long.
Benedict Rogers is Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW and author of three books on Burma, including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”.