Quest for Bona Fide Democracy: Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar

12/07/2010 11:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The news of Aung San Suu Kyi's release less than a month ago on the November 13, 2010, after nearly two decades of state surveillance and house arrest was greeted by jubilation from all four corners, nourishing the yearning soul of the democracy movement in Burma (or more recently termed: "The Republic of the Union of Myanmar;" renamed yet again in the country's tumultuous history).

In a country that has been de facto ruled by a military junta since the coup of 1962, and only days after a highly disputed parliamentary elections -- the nation's first since 1990 -- that saw the ruling elite win by a landslide (a purported 80 percent of the votes were cast in favor of the Union Solidarity and Development Party), the release of the prominent pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi is no trivial event. Her new found freedom is not only a testament to her resilience and courageous personal stance, but also to the enduring strength of the democratic movement in Burma that she so fittingly personifies.

For those who cherish genuine democracy and -- countless brave souls who -- struggle against autocratic rule, Aung San Suu Kyi's release is an important reminder that the path to democracy is long and arduous, but that it must be travelled to effect gradual change. This process, by definition, will face ups and downs but the general trajectory is upward evolutionary towards curbing absolute authority, and ultimately, attaining democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi's affection for her country and hope for its future is of course a family affair. It was after all her father, Bogyoke Aung San, who is largely credited with freeing the country from colonial rule and establishing the Union of Burma -- a pivotal event in the country's modern history he never could witness firsthand as he was callously assassinated just six months before independence was achieved (he is affectionately recognized as a national hero and the father of the country's independence). The Burmese dream of an autonomous, democratic and thriving homeland post colonial rule was, however, short-lived and soon shattered through yet other set backs: intense political divisions, and failures in state governance, only this time indigenously born and sealed at the hands of a military dictatorship under whose reign the country has become one of the poorest in Southeast Asia; a tragic fact in view of the vast resources the country has been blessed with, from forestry goods and extremely fertile soil to precious stones and sizable offshore reserves of oil and gas, not to mention that the country possesses the potentials for a most lucrative tourist industry, which if sensibly managed, could pay significant financial dividends for the local population.

As is often the case with nations subjected to external exploitation and subjugation, the domestic governance culture of victimized nations will suffer from the lack of political maturity. A nation with such a political stunt-growth will need -- by evolutionary necessity -- time and delicate nurturing to see it develop the institutions and the political culture required to realize good governance. During this growing pains period, which can span across generations, the lives of ordinary citizens can, alas, become intolerable due to the failures of a system that is incapable and/or unwilling to deliver 'adult' and refined policies. Burma, while certainly not alone in this classification, is a tragic case in point.

Seen in this light, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, while long overdue, will not be a universal remedy for Burma's countless difficulties; nor will it result in an overnight transformation of the country. Burma's challenges -- from ethnic tensions and democratic deficits to a crumbling economy, abject poverty, forced labor and corruption -- rank amongst the worst corrupt nations in the world according to the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index; quite tellingly, outdone only by Somalia, they are not going to suddenly vanish. A well entrenched domestic political landscape, where there is no tolerance for moderate voices; where human rights and equality are given negligible value, and where democratic principles are forced to take a back seat to rule by the iron fist, is unlikely to blossom overnight into a full fledged modern democracy. To effectively counter a system grounded in avidity for power at any cost and to establish sustainable democracy and national unity, a long term strategy of peaceful opposition is required; an indigenous movement averse to violence and committed to inclusivity, forgiveness and reconciliation.

With independence in 1948, the 1988 uprising and the Saffron revolution of 2007 in their past, the people of Burma should look to Aung San Suu Kyi's recent release as yet another critical milestone in their collective journey towards a more hopeful future for their country. Whether Aung San Suu Kyi is allowed to effectively exercise political influence is a separate question. Regardless, what is important to acknowledge is that her inspiring life story and what she stands for is representative of a simmering political consciousness of a people who have undergone tremendous hardship, and who tired of the status quo, want to see their nation prosper and progress in unity, their lives enhanced in freedom and the future of their children guaranteed.

In the 21st century, kratocratic regimes that lavish in kleptocracy are draconian oddities in the modern world whose "term in office" will be short-lived and their transient stop in human history lost to the winds of change brought by future generations. Despotism by its very existence is the root of social and political decay; an impurity in governance, which degenerates the corpus politic. The despot and the system he builds in his own image, either fail to appreciate or are willfully blind to the fact that the arbitrary denial of "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" of the citizen is unnatural and repugnant to human existence and rationality. In Machiavellian arithmetic, it may seem politically expedient to silent political dissent in an attempt to maintain one's monopoly on power. Yet the record of history has demonstrated that ignoring and silencing the popular aspirations of the people is not sustainable. The winning formula lies in the supremacy of ideas (democracy v. tyranny), and not sheer force or physical prowess (of the state security apparatus). The former will trump and triumph over the latter. It is simply a function of time.

The existing internal political dynamics in Burma, unless it sees significant reform, will only beget more suffering for the people and further weaken Burma as a nation. Burma's political leaders must finally arrive at the realization that continued ill-treatment of their own citizens will merely deepen the gap between the government and the people; fuel ethnic tensions and contribute to the loss of the country's most important asset: its citizens, who continue to flee the country in large numbers. To liberally label legitimate voices of dissent as enemies of the state or threats to national security, and then deny them due process and inalienable fundamental rights is untenable and an affront to the most basic of human values and sensibilities. Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed. It is past time for the countless other prisoners of conscience who continue to be unlawfully detained in prisons across Burma to also have their freedom and dignity restored.

In lieu of jailing and stifling any expression of political dissent, Naypyitaw should aim to strengthen the country and national unity through reconciliation (something Aung San Suu Kyi has declared she is committed to immediately following her release) and, work to meet the people's peaceful aspirations for civil rights, democracy and the rule of law. The establishment, in good faith, of a truth and reconciliation commission to allow the nation to face its demons, heal and move forward may be entertained. A further recognition to be had is that repressive domestic policies of the state in fact jeopardize the country's national interests at the world stage by diluting and detracting away from the real issues at stake or any legitimate claim Burma as a sovereign nation may have. When you marry repressive policies at home, you effectively and for a variety of reasons -- dearth of credibility and rendering yourself an easy target, begging to be outflanked by rivals, are two obvious examples -- severely undermine the ability to advance the country's legitimate interests abroad.

One day a united and prosperous Burma will come to exist. That day is when the people of Burma are finally sovereign.

Let us celebrate Aung San Suu Kyi's release and all that it symbolizes: not the least, that there may be generations of drought, but that the rains will ultimately fall; dreaming of a bona fide representative democracy for Burma, Iran et al.

The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Criminal Court.