PROF. BIRENDRA P MISHRA
Myanmar’s democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s tryst with the participation in the by-elections held in April seems to resemble partly BP Koirala’s decision to participate in the 1959 parliamentary election. After waiting for eight long years to have a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, Koirala chose to participate in the election keeping in view the provision of the constitution empowering the king to dissolve the elected parliament. Perhaps, he made a political experiment to participate in the election with optimism to evolve the democratic process gradually making the parliament sovereign in due course. But he failed in his calculation as the Lower House was dissolved, and he was arrested along with his cabinet colleagues in December 1960. The parliamentary democracy was restored only in 1990 after the people’s movement. It was again usurped by the monarch, who happens to be the last king as the country has been declared a republic in 2008 by the Constituent Assembly elected by the people.
Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, has taken the oath as a member of parliament along with the other newly elected members of the National League of Democracy (NLD) on May 1, 2012 after securing 43 seats out of forty 45 seats. She had waited unsuccessfully for a couple of days for getting changes in the wording of the oath from “ safeguard” to “respect” the constitution. She has joined the parliamentary system, a nominal
dominated by the generals, who put her under house arrest during her long
struggle against dictatorship. While joining she said with a cautious optimistic note, “Only time will tell… We have decided to comply at this juncture, because we do not want a political
problem or tension…The reason we accept, firstly
is the desire of the people. Our voters voted for us because they want to see us in parliament.”
Knowing well that her party’s role will be limited to that of an opposition, she has accepted the new political challenges by ushering in a new political era. Of course, her party will avail of the opportunity it was deprived of in 1990 when her party had swept the national election held after the students’ agitation in 1988. The election results were not accepted by the junta. The junta ruled the country under the State Law and Order Council from 1988 to 1997, and under the State and Development Council from 1997 to 2010. The punitive sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union, the role of the ASEAN in not allowing Myanmar to head it when its turn came and the consistent opposition by Suu Kyi forced the junta to come out with some kind of political settlement with her. Historically, the people of Burman origin have dominated Myanmar, previously known as Burma, since it became independent from British rule. There are nationalities like Kachin, Chin, Shan, Rakhine, Karen, Mon, Kayah and others. In 1947,there was agreement between the Burmans and the other nationalities at the Panglong Conference leading to the creation of the Union of Burma with a promise to have a federal structure with autonomy and right to secession.
But nothing changed. The Karen National Union is engaged in the world’s longest ethnic war with the present regime. Other nationalities toed the line of the Burmans in uniform.
After more than two decades of struggle against military rule, she engaged herself with the new president a former general Thein Sein who took over the reign of the nominal civilian government in March 2011 after the 2010 election. The new constitution passed in 2008 provides for a parliament with two Houses- the Lower House (LH) to have 435 members with 110 seats reserved for the military, and the Upper House (UH) to have 224 seats with 56 seats reserved for the military. The general election, which was held in November 2010 was boycotted by the NLD. In return, the Election Commission derecognized it. In the election, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which was set up by the military two years ago a part of the transition to ‘Civilian rule’, had won 219 seats in the LH and 123 seats in the UH. Even after the April 1, 2012 by-elections, the present government has replaced fifty-nine majors with senior officers from the ranks of lieutenant colonel to brigadier general on April 22. The replacements have been carried out to make military representation stronger.
The last minute hitch over the wording of the oath symbolizes the attitude of the military rulers. It is worth maintaining that Suu Kyi had agreed to participate in the election only after the government made some reforms. The right to protest and the release of political prisoners from the jails paved the way for the registration of the NLD as a political party with the Election Commission. Although, the presence of NLD is negligible in the House, yet its voice will be a beacon’s light guiding democratic reforms. The backing of the international community, especially, the US and the EU, is needed more, and it must extend its full support to her, otherwise the political risks, which she has taken, will lead her no where. And democracy will remain elusive as ever.