Commentary

Myanmar’s democratic transition in limbo

Myanmar’s democratic transition in limbo
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Reuters
Aung San Suu Kyi in a tight spot, as she makes her own transition from opposition deity to president-in-waiting
Published: March 16, 2:34 PM
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After 25 years of campaigning for free elections in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has at long last been able to hold some elections of its own. Last weekend almost 1,000 NLD delegates mustered in Yangon to elect a central committee.

The irony was that not all members of the party were thrilled with the idea. After years of operating clandestinely under repressive military rule, the party is struggling to make the transition to a modern political organisation capable of taking the reins of power.

Older members, some of whom spent years being tortured in the country’s grisly jails, resent the fact that younger upstarts are moving in.

Ructions and jealousies are inevitable as the former opposition adjusts to the changes that have swept the country since the junta gave way to a form of controlled democracy in 2010. In many ways, Myanmar - which has held free by-elections, taken an axe to censorship and re-established diplomatic ties with the west - has come far further than almost anyone predicted even two years ago.

Many western businesses are now salivating at the prospect of the next Asian frontier, though most have, probably wisely, held off making big bets until the lie of the land becomes clearer. That will partly depend on how things like the much-haggled-over foreign investment law works in practice. Crucially, it will also hang on what happens politically.

ETHNIC FRAGILITY

Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian who has studied societies in transition, worries that Myanmar’s process could stall. Not for Ms Suu Kyi, he says, is the three-month whirlwind that swept Václav Havel from “persecuted dissident to the president’s castle” in Czechoslovakia.

General elections that could conceivably make Ms Suu Kyi president will not take place until 2015. By then, she will be 70. True, that gives her party, which has no experience of running a tea shop let alone a country, time to prepare for office. On the other hand, it puts the transition in a kind of limbo.

Perhaps the greatest danger would be if no political settlement were found before 2015 to ethnic conflicts that have rumbled on since independence in 1948.

At least 30 per cent of Myanmar’s estimated 55 million to 60 million people (no proper census has been taken in decades) are from ethnic minorities other than the majority Burmans. If minorities are not satisfied that they are fairly represented within a federal union, their politicians may be tempted to campaign for outright independence.

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