On November 8, Myanmar (or Burma) held its first openly contested general election since 1990. Only just officially finalized, the results of the election proved to be a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 77% of the contested seats and secured the two-thirds majority required to select the country’s next president. Led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the internationally recognized political activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate known as “The Lady,” the NLD has endured as a national symbol of democracy and opposition to the oppressive military junta that ruled Burma from 1962 to 2011. Taken at a glance, the results of the 2015 Myanmar general election appear to be poetically decisive: after 20 years under house arrest, The Lady has risen from the ashes to lead her country to a new era of justice and democracy.
It is easy enough to paint the election results as an heroic victory, but the truth is that Myanmar still has a long way to go before overcoming its troubled past. 25% of the seats in parliament remain reserved for military representatives, who have veto-power over any constitutional changes. Moreover, it is unclear if the moderate NLD will be able to deliver on all of the optimism that it has stirred both domestically and abroad; already, accusers have claimed that the new regime has proved itself to be “democratic” only when convenient. Although recognized as the functional “opposition party” in Burma, Suu’s NLD has actually come to power as something of a compromise between the interests of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (recognized as the military party) and an increasingly vocal segment of political activists whose disposition lies somewhere to the left of the NLD.
To appreciate the significance of Myanmar’s return to democratic governance, we should look back to the original circumstances of its independence.
Trouble from the beginning
Part of a wave of postwar decolonization, the British government left Burma with a democratic constitution and a weak state in 1948. Constitutional authority was initially handed down to the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), led by Suu’s father Aung San, for their cooperation in fighting against the Japanese occupation. However, all did not go smoothly: much of the country’s infrastructure had been destroyed during the war, and power was transitioned from the British colonial structure to the newly formed democratic state too quickly to ensure that all of the cracks were patched. It became quickly apparent that the AFPFL lacked the administrative capacity to effectively control Burma, and that the state had not established a convincing monopoly on violence after the war.
During the 1950s, the Burmese government essentially conceded regional autonomy to a cohort of so-called “pocket armies,” or private militias that operated independently of the central authority. Some of these sought to cooperate with the regime, in effect undermining the legitimacy of Burma’s “democracy”: private militias could control local and regional elections through intimidation, often installing leaders from within their own ranks. The Burmese state was remarkably unstable and thoroughly corrupt; the pocket armies were not disarmed until an emergency military government was temporarily installed in 1958, and in 1962, power was formally transferred to a military government with reasonably popular support.
The democratic Burma of 1948-62 was an ineffective, failed state. Although Myanmar has not seen much social advancement under military rule, that is not without caveat. The regime was actually quite stable from 1962-88, and Suu’s popular opposition has responded more directly to the government that has existed since ’88 than the one that replaced her father’s AFPFL in ’62.
What does that mean, exactly?
In 1988, Myanmar’s state-run economy collapsed after the government demonetized a number of bills and effectively destroyed the country’s significant informal sector. This happened right around the time Suu returned to the country, quickly leading a series of mass demonstrations that quickly brought down the Burma Socialist Programme Party. However, the BSPP had fused the state apparatus to their party structure so thoroughly that when they collapsed, the only remaining infrastructure was the military. Without a clear directive, and with the state’s administrative capacity in shambles once again, Suu’s movement was unable to effectively take power. Suu was imprisoned in 1990 along with the rest of the party leadership, and the military intervened to take control in a “moment of madness.”
This is the precarious historical positioning of Suu’s National League for Democracy, and their recent rise to power has not taken place without external agitation. The junta has been partly pressured to concede power in response to a wave of mass student protests, and negotiating with the NLD can be seen as something as a compromise on the part of the regime. The results of Myanmar’s recent election are certainly an historical occasion, but The Lady must tread carefully if she is to successfully build a stable and effective state structure.
It is unfair to Burma’s complex history to reduce the political struggle of the last 50 years to a binary opposition between a “good,” benevolent resistance movement and an “evil,” authoritarian regime. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD is not the same organization as her father’s AFPFL, the dictatorship that stepped down in 2011 is not the same one that took power in 1962, and today’s agitators are not exactly pining for the Burmese democracy that existed in the 1950s. In a country with more than one name, it seems only fitting that there should exist more than one interpretation of history. It is too early to say whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to deliver on the international hope that she has inspired. At the moment, all we can do is hold our breath.
To learn about Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal journey, and how it fits in to Burma’s political history, read The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham. Peter Popham distills five years of research—including covert trips to Burma, meetings with Suu Kyi and her friends and family, and extracts from the unpublished diaries of her co-campaigner and former confidante Ma Thanegi—into this vivid portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, illuminating her public successes and private sorrows, her intellect and enduring sense of humor, her commitment to peaceful revolution, and the extreme price she has paid for it.
Peter Popham has been an foreign correspondent and commentator for The Independent for over twenty years, reporting from Albania, Mongolia, South Asia, and now Italy. He is also the author of Tokyo: The City at the End of the World. Married with two children, Popham currently lives and works in both Milan and England.