New Parliament another Stepping Stone in a Long Struggle

By Aung Zaw 1 February 2016

At the end of January, 2012, I was able to go back to Burma for the first time after living in exile for 24 years. It was the beginning of the political opening in the country under President Thein Sein and it was a privilege to be allowed back to observe the political changes firsthand.

That same year, our publication that was once banned in Burma, was allowed to operate.

During that first visit back, there were hopeful smiles on the streets but, equally, an overriding sense of caution. We drove to Naypyidaw, the city without a soul, which I saw with my own eyes for the first time.

It was a limited stay on a five-day visa but, memorably, Aung San Suu Kyi graciously accepted my request to meet. The country and people I missed so much warmly embraced me.

In Rangoon, the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s humble office was full of visitors, supporters and curious tourists.

I met the uncles who founded the opposition party and senior NLD members sitting and conversing. The late U Win Tin smiled as he explained how Suu Kyi enjoyed celebrity status in the country and beyond.

“Daw Suu’s status is gigantic,” he said, looking me straight in the eyes.

Win Tin always maintained a healthy distrust of the government, a stance I really respected.

Suu Kyi, I thought, was thinking slightly differently. Since her return to Burma in 1988, she met with many of the country’s top military leaders and her take on them was very different from the fiery Win Tin.

The NLD was then preparing to contest the by-election in April 2012, in which the party would ultimately win all but one of the seats it contested. In the NLD office, members and volunteers were extremely busy preparing.

In August 2011, Suu Kyi was invited to meet President Thein Sein at the presidential palace. She then decided to take part in the coming by-election, despite skepticism from some among the party, including Win Tin.

Clearly, many were wary of lending underserved legitimacy to the quasi-civilian administration. However, the ever-pragmatic Suu Kyi took a gamble and decided to play by the rules of the military-backed establishment.

I could sense Suu Kyi’s quiet determination when I met her in person that year. She bristled when we discussed criticism of her decision to contest the by-election. But I could clearly see she had firmly made up her mind and stood by the call.

In order to lead the country, she realized she had to work with the military, her former captors. She found new allies and partners who agreed to work with her and believed in her charismatic leadership and international stature.

One of them is Shwe Mann, a former general and the number three ranking leader in the former ruling regime.

The NLD’s strong showing in April 2012 was an indicator the party would also perform well in the 2015 general election. In the end, few predicted the extent of the NLD’s victory in a poll which may signal an irreversible change in the country’s political fortunes.

It has been a long and bumpy ride, with the outgoing government seemingly practicing a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ approach to reform that caused many exiles to ponder whether they were fated to live abroad permanently.

The rise of anti-Muslim violence, renewed fighting in the country’s north, and the ongoing repression of student activists, farmers and ordinary citizens, among a long list of other issues, cause many Burmese to doubt the so-called democratic transition.

But it also galvanized people to vote for change on Nov. 8.

The people thought, enough was enough, and were determined to see the back of the old regime.

However, despite the result, many remained deeply concerned over whether the transfer of power would proceed smoothly. Thus far, their worst fears have not materialized.

Last week, the final session of Parliament concluded with karaoke, dancing and laughter. On Monday, newly elected representatives of the Lower House assumed their seats for the first time.

But few are under any illusions as to the formidable challenges awaiting incoming lawmakers, 390 of whom, in the national legislature, are from the NLD. The honeymoon period will be brief. All the hard work lies ahead.

The opening of a new Parliament is a momentous day for Burma. Many will be hoping it is a stepping stone to a new, more constructive and democratic political order.

Four years on since I first returned to the country of my birth, I hope this is a moment all Burmese can grasp; a time to rebuild, reform and continue down the democratic path. It’s a hopeful vision that many, including the late Win Tin, who stood fearlessly against the old regime, would welcome.