Historic barely begins to describe the events taking place in Burma today. Less than two years on from a sham general election designed to entrench the rule of the military and its proxies, unprecedentedly free polling in forty-five by-elections looks set to return a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Its a small step on a long road and just like during the campaigns, a number of irregularities in the polling highlighted the continuing obstacles that the NLD faces. Yet the positives far outweigh the negatives: phenomenal victories for Aung San Suu Kyi and HIV/AIDS activist Phyu Phyu Tin; NLD success in the military-dominated capital of Naypyidaw and celebrations on the streets of Rangoon that just a couple of years ago would have been broken up by riot police and the participants thrown in jail.
The by-elections, in short, are undoubtedly a significant milestone on what activists hope to be a continual road towards democracy. This progress however is fragile and no one is in any doubt that, whilst democratic momentum is building, all the changes so far are reversible. The future depends heavily on a number of factors:
The power of parliament and the pluralism of the USPD
When Burma’s new parliament was formed in 2010 it was written off by many as nothing more than a rubber stamp. Of course this assertion has some basis; with 25% of seats reserved for the military and the majority of the remainder stocked by its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the bicameral legislature was never going to seriously undermine the status quo.
However, its dynamism and assertiveness has come as a welcome surprise: the legalisation of microfinance, labour unions and peaceful protests, as well as changes to election law allowing the NLD to re-register, all came through the parliament. The government has suffered some small defeats and after an initial black-out journalists are now allowed in to report on proceedings.
In amongst this, the USDP deputies have proved more diverse and open to debate than was expected. Whilst the party clearly remains a puppet of the military, a number of individual representatives seem prepared to consider some amount of derision from the official line.
If the parliament and the USDP continue along these lines, the influx of NLD deputies will help create even greater pluralism and allow some of the fledging democratic developments to become entrenched.
Conversely if the government were to claw-back powers from the legislature and tighten discipline in the USDP, there is a real danger that NLD by-election victories could be rendered largely impotent.
The health of Suu Kyi and Thein Sein
The fundamental importance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the democratisation process is undisputed. Despite some fractures in the democracy movement, she is a unifying figure commanding incredible respect across the board, including amongst many of Burma’s ethnic groups. Her political knowledge, charisma and experience is nothing short of essential and with no obvious successor her health and security are paramount. Yet whilst the energy that Suu Kyi has brought to the by-election campaign is phenomenal for any sixty-six year old, the pressures have taken a clear physical toll on her.
On the other side of the table, President Thein Sein, widely considered to be personally responsible for the reformist direction of the government, is himself in poor health and dependent upon a permanent pacemaker. It would be naive to presume that the military old-guard, favouring destruction of the democracy movement and ethnic cleansing of the country have disappeared; and it is likely some are waiting in the wings to make their move should Thein Sein withdraw from politics. Little wonder that some Burmese are for the first time in fifty years praying that the President lives rather than dies.
It would be am oversimplification to say that the future of Burma’s political progress rests wholly upon the personal health of two individuals, but a medical setback to either would have a drastic and damaging effect.
The crisis in Kachin State
Whilst the world watches the by-elections with excitement and optimism, the continuing conflict and human rights abuses in Kachin State reflect a throwback to the very worst of military rule. Despite various talks and intermittent ceasefires with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Burmese government troops continue to rape civilians, destroy villages and launch attacks against defensive KIA battalions.
The conflict has created a humanitarian catastrophe with over 50 000 Internally Displaced People; voting was suspended in some Kachin constituencies; and government pre-conditions for a peace agreement consistently ignore legitimate Kachin claims for autonomy and freedom of religion.
None of this presents a stable foundation on which to build a new democracy, raising the possibility of conflict in Kachin State and neighbouring Shan State undermining the positive advances of previous years.
Perhaps most worrying are signs that the central government does not have full control of troops on the ground, raising serious questions about internal power struggles. Whilst there are no immediate signs of hardliners exploiting the situation, there is significant precedent in Burma for such moves; not least General Ne Win’s 1962 coup which took place in the context of ethnic strife and rebellion.
The reaction of the international community
Members of the international community not least the UK and USA have thus far encouraged the reform process along with with marked success; skilfully balancing support for the democracy movement and gradual concessions to Thein Sein’s government.
The promise of sanctions being eased further following the by-elections is likely to provide further encouragement to the reformist president, as are rumours of Obama visiting Burma should he win a second term.
Yet ever present is the danger of too many concessions being given far too fast. Germany, Italy and many major multinationals are pushing for an incredibly rapid removal of sanctions, focussing on the business and investment case above the political clout that they could carry. If they are allowed to sacrifice influence in pursuit of profit, the international work that has been so important in facilitating progress so far may end up derailed.
Ultimately tonight is a time for celebration in Burma, throughout the diaspora and amongst all who have worked so hard over the years for freedom and democracy. Yet it is more importantly a time for renewal of commitment to a process that is unprecedented, positive but overwhelmingly fragile.