Ecstatic scenes have marked the electoral successes of Burma National League for Democracy party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. But the reconciliation she is calling for with the other political parties will not bring true democracy.
The NLD has claimed 43 out of the 45 parliamentary seats which it contested in Sunday’s by-elections. The army and its allies still dominate the 664-seat parliament.
It was the first time that the party’s leader has been allowed to campaign in an election. Daughter of assassinated revolutionary Aung San, modern Burma’s founding father, she founded the NLD in 1988. But she was placed under house arrest in 1989 and remained there for a total of 22 years.
The Nobel prize winner was banned from standing in 1990, but the NLD still won 59% of the vote, which guaranteed it 80% of parliamentary seats. The ruling military junta promptly nullified the election results.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now 66, survived an attack by 200 thugs acting on behalf of the regime whilst travelling in a motorcade in 1996. She defied illness to campaign in the poorest areas of Burma.
NLD party officials complained about poster defacing and the use of waxed ballot papers. Among other irregularities, the Democratic Voice of Burma, said that some 6,000 names were missing from the voters’ lists in Ward 1 of Myaung Mya constituency in Irrawaddy Division. But the presence of foreign journalists and teams of monitors was a first under a regime which has sought to hide its crimes.
Of course there is plenty of caution and realism mixed in with the joy. Many realise that the vote will not shatter the brutal control exercised by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is a proxy for the military junta.
The release of political prisoners over the past year and increased political freedom is construed by many as the regime’s cynical attempt to get Western sanctions lifted.
Those in refugee camps are watching developments anxiously to see if it is safe to return home. The brutality of the regime towards Burma’s ethnic minorities created desperate conditions for many, forcing them to become refugees. The UN estimates that there are some 163,700 Burmese refugees in Thailand, and 229,000 in Bangladesh who have been in border camps for more than 20 years. Another 150,000 people are internally displaced.
Burma’s rich natural resources have allowed its ruling elite to negotiate deals with the Chinese government and profit-hungry investors. Villagers in Kachin state fear the resumption of work on the Myitsone Dam project on the Irrawaddy river. The dam, which is being financed by China Power Investment Corporation, will dislocate thousands of people. Ninety percent of its power is destined for China.
According to Zoya Phan of Burma Campaign UK, human rights abuses have increased over the past year. She points out that hundreds of political prisoners have been released, but many more remain in jail, while there is a continued failure to recognise the rights of ethnic minorities who make up 40% of the population.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s protracted and fearless campaign has provided the people of Burma with a powerful symbol of their aspirations. The have spoken through to reject their old rulers. She is right to say that “it is the rising political awareness of our people that we regard as our greatest triumph.”
Whatever the final results, the turn-out for the NLD shows that Burmese people were desperate to speak out. The results so far shed a big chink of light in a country blighted so long by military dictatorship and extreme poverty for the many. Now is the time, inside and outside Burma, to take up the torch and move from a little democracy to real economic and political democracy.
A World to Win secretary