Democracy in Myanmar? Perhaps not yet

A vegetable seller bought a copy of a newspaper featuring Myanmar’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and patron Tin Oo on the cover in Yangon Wednesday.
Gemunu Amarasinghe/associated press
A vegetable seller bought a copy of a newspaper featuring Myanmar’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and patron Tin Oo on the cover in Yangon Wednesday.


This is a noisy country even at the best of times, with loudspeakers playing earsplitting music on festive occasions and religious holidays. In the weeks before the election, the country got a lot noisier. In riverside towns up and down the Irrawaddy, the mightiest of Myanmar rivers, could be heard high-volume admonitions to get out the vote for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy Party blaring out over the pagoda-dotted hills.

It was no surprise that the better organized NLD won the election, but expectations that Myanmar (formerly Burma) is finally to be rid of the last vestiges of military rule after half a century are premature at best. Unless “The Lady,” as Aung San Suu Kyi is invariably called, can change the constitution, the military will still control the ministry of defense and the police, and maintain control of the borders. And 25 percent of the parliamentary seats are automatically reserved for the army. The hard tasks of forming coalitions and testing just how much democracy the generals are willing to allow lie still ahead.


The world is fascinated by Aung San Suu Kyi. A Nobel Peace Prize will do that for you. Hers is an almost fairy-tale story. She is the daughter of Aung San, the martyred founder of independent Burma who at first fought for the Japanese because they promised independence and then allied with the British when he discovered Japan’s true design for the country. He became a George Washington to his people, only to be assassinated before he could realize his promise.

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His daughter came back to Burma, after living in England, married to an Oxford don with two children, when her mother lay dying. She found her country reeling from a repressed student uprising that exposed the brutality of the generals who had run the country since their coup in 1962.

She and her party won an election in 1990, only to have the generals dismiss the results and put her under house arrest for the best part of the next 20 years. The ogre imprisoning the princess in a dark tower is a powerful narrative.

There were 92 political parties contesting last week’s election, but only two of them were of real significance: the NLD and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, headed by President Thein Sein, a rather colorless former general who was chosen to make the transition to civilian rule because he was the least tainted with corruption. The Myanmar Army, like its counterpart in China, controls vast commercial enterprises and makes sacks full of money from Myanmar’s resources in gemstones and timber.

And indeed there have been real reforms in recent years. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and allowed to organize her political party. Many, if not all, political prisoners were released. Universities, which had been closed under military rule, were opened, and press censorship was lifted. According to Tony Child, general manager of the English-language Myanmar Times, you could make a case for the country’s press being more free than any in Southeast Asia.


Businesses are flocking to Myanmar these days, and Yangon, formerly Rangoon, its major city, is being transformed from a Havana-like moldering relic of crumbling colonial buildings to a city sprouting high-rise office buildings and glamorous new hotels.

But the dour Thein Sein never was able to articulate these quite real reforms to the electorate, and he fell into Aung San Suu Kyi’s playbook as the villainous face of the military to which he once belonged. All he could say was his party’s defeat would mean Communism, which is no longer a credible threat.

The country’s fall into isolation when the semi-literate General Ne Win took over in 1962 was bizarre. He called it the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” and what it meant was total withdrawal from the modern world and tight, almost Orwellian control over the population. Those of us who had brief glimpses of Burma in the ’60s found a country frozen in amber, much like Mao’s China. The generals did weird things. They changed the name of the country and many of its towns and rivers. They decided one night to have citizens drive on the right, instead of the left, on the advice of astrologers. Then without warning they made a new capital in the jungle called Naypydaw, which like Brasilia in Brazil, is grand but isolated.

What caused Myanmar’s military to come out of its shell in the 21st century and relax its grip? The student uprisings in 1988, which were brutally suppressed, followed by the shooting of demonstrating monks shook this overwhelmingly Buddhist country. A terrible cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, after which the government at first refused foreign aid and then relented, exposed that the Burmese Way to Socialism was hopelessly inadequate to deal with the modern world.

The added factor was the increasing grip of China. Thein Sein canceled a giant Chinese dam project on the Irrawaddy, most of the power from which would have gone to China without benefiting the Burmese. Myanmar needed allies in the West to counter China’s power. And according to the Chinese press, China has a vast road and rail plan in mind to link Yunan’s capital Kunming, with a new Chinese-built port in Myanmar on the Bay of Bengal. How much of this will come to pass is now anybody’s guess.


If it was never in doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi would win, how she would govern is unknown. Can she get along with the military that will still retain great power? She is battling a constitution designed to keep her from the presidency by banning anyone with foreign children. She has said she would rule above a chosen president, but this is going to cause difficulties.

Aung San Suu Kyi is also known to be dictatorial and inflexible within her own party, surrounding herself with sycophants. Nobel Prize glamour is not always a key to governing. Her practical decision to ignore the plight of the persecuted and disenfranchised Muslims — she has not allowed one to run in her party — does not bode well for human rights. The Burmese Way to Democracy is still strewn with problems.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editor of the Globe’s editorial pages and the author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.”