A Step in the Right Direction

By Aung Zaw 2 May 2012

It came as a big relief to many Burmese when the National League for Democracy (NLD) announced on Monday that it would take its seats in Parliament despite its objections to the wording a swearing-in oath that pledged to “safeguard” the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

The news sent a signal that Aung San Suu Kyi, the party’s leader and Burma’s democracy icon, was prepared to compromise for the sake of the country. Her willingness to engage in the politics of give and take augurs well for Burma’s prospects for further progress along the road to reform.

If the NLD had hardened its stance over the oath issue, it would definitely have backfired. Hardliners in the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and among senior military leaders would been emboldened to use this standoff as a pretext to undermine more reformist elements. It would also have hurt the NLD’s potential allies from other opposition parties already in Parliament.

The NLD’s image would also have suffered, and Suu Kyi would have been accused of dragging her feet and wasting precious time. If the NLD is serious about becoming a formidable force in Parliament, it will have to strive for a more board-based alliance. That is the only way it will ever be in a position to lead the country out of its grinding poverty and decades of social and political stagnation.

Interestingly, the decision to drop the oath issue came during a visit by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who in the first address to Parliament by a foreigner praised Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein for their “vision, leadership and courage”.

Ban also offered some faint words of encouragement to those worried about whether the reforms would continue. “The path to change is fragile and uncertain but it is too narrow to turn back,” he said.

No one would dispute the first part of that statement, and there is a growing consensus that Burma has indeed reached a point of no return, but the obstacles on the road ahead remain daunting.

Among the many issues that still need to be addressed are the hundreds of political prisoners who continue to languish in Burma’s gulag, widespread human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas and the deep-seated suspicion most ordinary Burmese still feel toward the new nominally civilian regime.

The most pressing issue is the ongoing conflict in Kachin State, which Ban referred to in his address to Parliament: “The situation in Kachin state is inconsistent with the successful conclusion of ceasefire agreements with all the other major groups. The Kachin people should no longer be denied the opportunities that a ceasefire and a political agreement can bring for peace and development.”

There are also lingering concerns about the continuing presence of hardliners in the government and the military. They remain the most powerful bloc in Burmese politics, even if, for the moment, they are keeping a low profile. Many fear they are merely biding their time, waiting for the right moment to reclaim full control.

Adding to this anxiety is the knowledge that Thein Sein, who is seen as the government’s key reformist, is in poor health. He is believed to have a pacemaker, and many people joke, rather grimly, that if his pacemaker stops, so will Burma’s reforms.

Even more essential to further progress is Suu Kyi, who for more than two decades has been the beacon of Burma’s democratic aspirations. Many have asked if the NLD could survive without her. And without the NLD, can Burma finally throw off the yoke of the military’s supremacy?

For the time being, however, most Burmese are prepared to put their faith in Suu Kyi’s leadership and hope for the best. They are even ready to give Thein Sein their conditional support, accepting his intentions as sincere, even though they know that he was part of the brutal junta that has kept Burma down for so long.

Burma’s chances for a better future are thus in the hands of a man who represents the new face of military rule and a woman committed to ending the army’s stranglehold on power. Both are in an extremely precarious position: Thein Sein must deliver the legitimacy the army craves without threatening its hold on power, and Suu Kyi must try to restore to the people of Burma the rights they have long been denied.

Ironically, to succeed, they will need each other’s support. As long as there is trust between them, they can keep more reactionary forces at bay and work toward a stable transition to genuine democracy.

The international community will also have a key role to play in this delicate process. It must continue to pressure the government to keep up a steady pace of reform, while rewarding any meaningful changes with concessions that will send a message that it is on the right track.

What the West and other countries must not do, however, is put their own eagerness for access to Burma’s resources and investment potential ahead of the country’s own interests. It would be unforgivable at this stage for foreign governments and corporations to heedlessly rush in without regard for how their actions affect Burma’s long-term development.

The right way forward for Burma is a steady, step-by-step series of compromises that will ultimately give the country’s people the peace and prosperity they deserve. By deciding to enter Parliament today, Suu Kyi and her party have taken the first step.