April 09, 2012

A New Cyclone comes to Myanmar

Just about four years ago, on May 2, 2008, the worst cyclone to hit Burma in recorded history struck the country. The storm, ironically dubbed Nargis or “daffodil,” caused more than 138,000 deaths and the nation’s ruling military junta initially refused all offers of international humanitarian assistance. It did so, fearful that permitting such support would unduly open the nation to forces over which it did not possess control. There is no question that the government’s refusal to assure prompt aid exacerbated an unprecedentedly difficult scenario for the country.

Given this recent history, it is all the more remarkable that the military regime, in power in one guise or another since 1962, allowed the long banned National League for Democracy (NLD) party to compete for 45 Parliamentary seats located in and around the nation’s capital city, and also permitted that party’s long imprisoned leader, Aung San Suu Kyi to compete for a seat herself on April 1 of this year. Just as remarkably, the NLD won 44 of the 45 seats in contest. The League lost the last place only because its candidate was disqualified from the ballot. In truth, none of this matters in terms of control of the government as the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) still dominates the 650-seat legislature. But the by-election signaled powerfully strong popular support for General Thein Sein’s recent efforts to open the nation to reforms, even if the ruler’s intent was only to secure increased international investment and aid. The lopsided character of the election surely represented an embarrassment for the junta and pointed up its lack of legitimacy. What is not clear as this is written is how the military will react and whether this turn suggests the government has now lost control of its own change process.

Lower level military officers could accept this sea change or they could rebel against it to maintain their (often corrupt) perquisites. It is nonetheless clear that were a result like this one to obtain in the 2015 national general election, the USDP would lose all or nearly all of its seats and Ms. Suu Kyi would be the nation’s new president. No one knows at this writing whether Burma’s current rulers are willing to permit this result or even, were they willing to do so, whether lesser ranking officers are prepared to allow it.  Democracy quite literally hangs in the balance in Myanmar.

Still, while it has lately become fashionable in some circles to disparage hope, this situation would appear a fine candidate for just such an expectation. Few analysts imagined Dr. Suu Kyi would be freed from house arrest in 2008, and fewer still would have been prepared to argue for the likelihood of the recent parliamentary by-election, let alone imagine its outcome. The current situation is indeed unprecedented and as such appears to merit a healthy hurrah followed by measured concern that even electoral democracy in Myanmar remains a tantalizing possibility and not a sure bet. Democracy is not secured by elections alone and much besides free polls must occur to begin to create a truly open regime and the possibility of a path to more sustainable development in this desperately poor, but materially rich nation. One must start somewhere and one may devoutly hope that Myanmar can continue on its current trajectory. Even the possibility that it may do so represents a hopeful turn.

About the Author

Max Stephenson Jr.

Max Stephenson, Jr. presently serves as Professor of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and Director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. He has published widely on policy, civil society and governance concerns. He is the author most recently, with Laura Zanotti, of Peacebuilding through Community-Based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities, Kumarian Press (2012) and editor with Laura Zanotti of Building Walls and Dissolving Borders: The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space. Ashgate Publishers, 2013.

Max Stephenson Jr.

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