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Burma: Hard Yards Ahead for Aung San Suu Kyi

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After winning a landslide victory in April 1 by-elections in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) will face the hard yards of politicking in a parliament dominated by the same military and its allies that the NLD trounced in Sunday's vote.

Late on Monday, the Burmese election commission announced that the NLD had swept 40 out of 45 seats available, with results pending in the remaining constituencies. The loss of face for the army and its Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was compounded by the NLD taking all 4 seats in the former junta's purpose-built capital in Naypyidaw.

Despite the understandable euphoria among party supporters in Rangoon and elsewhere in Burma as tallies came through suggesting that the NLD would win most, if not all, of the 45 seats on offer, some Burmese are less than sanguine.

Soe Aung, a Thailand-based Burmese activist, said that the NLD will have to prioritise amendments to the oppressive laws that remain in place in Burma, which are underpinned by the country's 2008 constitution, a document which critics say gives the military decisive behind-the-scenes sway, and which bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President of Burma.

The army has a 25% reserved block of seats in the country's legislature, while the army-backed USDP won itself a landslide victory in 2010 elections, taking almost 80% of the remaining seats in a vote dismissed as rigged.

Tough job looms

"It is definitely a tough job ahead for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow party candidates", he said. "After all, they will still be a minority compared to he combined regime-backed USDP and military representatives in the parliament." The 45 seats up for grabs on Sunday represent only around 5% of the total legislative seats in Burma's upper, lower and regional houses of parliament.

However some reforms have already been enacted by the Burmese government, and prior to the April 1 by-election, the Burmese government released hundreds of political prisoners, suspended a controversial dam project in war-torn Kachin state, enacted new laws allowing limited public protests and relaxed restrictions on the country's media.

After the by-elections, western governments may relax or drop some of the economic sanctions imposed on the Burmese government, paving the way for investment as Burma weighs up new foreign investment laws and plans to open up sectors such as telecommunications.

According to a US Congressional Research Service report published last week, the US could remove some sanctions quickly. "Under current law, President Barack Obama has the authority to waive many, but not all, of the existing sanctions on Burma, and he may choose to exercise that authority following the by-elections," read the report.

Great Expectations

The rush to reform could generate undue expectations among ordinary Burmese, millions of whom live in poverty, and, say activists, could see laws passed that emulate other southeast Asian countries by trampling on the rights of Burmese and unduly favouring investors.

One such possible reform is the the Farmland Bill, which as currently-drafted, said Soe Aung, "grants broad discretionary power to the government to confiscate land for a wide range of activities and projects, such as the construction of factories, railways, pipelines, and amusement parks".

Given the parliamentary arithmetic, the NLD might have its work cut out to stop potentially-unpopular laws such as the Farmland Bill coming into place, and the party could, in turn, be tarnished as a result. That said, there is precedent in the previous parliament sittings for members of the USDP to vote with opposition parties and defy what the government is proposing, and it is plausible that Aung San Suu Kyi's charisma and moral legitimacy could sway even USDP members to vote her way come the time.

On the other hand, the apparent trouncing received by the USDP at the hands of the NLD in Sunday's by-elections could focus minds and prompt a re-think in the military-backed party, with nationwide elections scheduled for 2015. If the by-election trend is repeated in three years time, it would mean a NLD-dominated parliament and, possibly, a Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi as President.

But the NLD win could offer a leg-up for hard-pressed opposition MPs already in parliament. Speaking by telephone from Lashio, in Burma's Shan state, opposition parliamentarian Khin Maung Swe of the National Democratic Force (NDF) congratulated the Aung San Suu Kyi on her party's win. 'Once the NLD comes into parliament, we are ready to work with them for reform for the good of the people", he said.

In the meantime, one much-needed and overdue reform came into effect on April 2, with the Burmese government permitting a currency float that would end the outdated and confusing exchange rate system for the country's currency, the kyat.

According to Tony Nash, Managing Director, IHS Consulting in Singapore, the revised currency rate - set close to the real market rate which has fluctuated at around 800 kyat to the dollar in recent times, means that "foreign investors will have more certainty with regard to the real value of their investments."

However Mr. Nash cautioned that "This is not to say that Myanmar is a "safe" investment by any stretch. Non-trivial problems like political opacity, creaky infrastructure, armed conflict, corruption, declining health and education indicators and drugs problem with skyrocketing methamphetamine and opium production remain."

Such a list of problems points to a weighty legislative agenda for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD once they take their places in Burma's parliament. A new press code will come before parliament during the next session - with the likelihood that Burma's notorious censorship board will be scrapped and that daily newspapers will be allowed for the first time since 1962. The changes are needed, said London-based NGO Article 19, which took part in a recent media seminar organised by UNESCO in Burma, an event that was backed by the Burmese government.

"Since the 2010 elections, the government has failed to change laws restricting the right to freedom of expression", said Article 19, which added that the government has, at times, turned a blind eye to publications that pushed the boundaries of the law. Now, says Article 19, there is a quasi legal vacuum, in which Burmese government has "created an environment of uncertainty in which people take risks, unsure of the repercussions."

Reforms distant in minority regions

With fighting ongoing in Burma's northern Kachin state, between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), critics say that the reforms taking place in Burma are not being felt outside the ethnic Burman heartland of the country.

Around 60% of Burma's population are estimated to be Burman, with the remainder divided up between hundreds of ethnic minorities that mostly live in border regions closer to Thailand, China and India than to Burma's capital Naypidaw or largest city Rangoon.

Zoya Phan is a Karen activist working for Burma Campaign UK. She recently visited her homeland in Burma's Karen state, where a civil war has dragged on since the late 1940′s, in a landmine-festooned jungle and mountain region close to Burma's frontier with Thailand.

With several million Karen living in central Burma and around Rangoon, she says that many of that ethnic group voted for the NLD in Sunday's by-elections and were delighted with the outcome.

But for the Karen living in eastern Burma, where decades of fighting has seen hundreds of thousands of people driven from their homes, it is a different story. "They will barely know about the by-elections, they might as well be happening in another country", said Zoya Phan.

For some ethnic minority leaders, there is tentative hope that Sung San Suu Kyi's election to parliament could help bring about peace inside Burma. However Ms Phan downplayed this prospect.

"I don't think the by-elections yesterday is relevant to the peace negotiations between Thein Sein's government and the KNU. The parliament has no say in the peace negotiation. Therefore, I don't think it would have much effect on the on-going peace negotiations", she concluded.