The courageous pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi should have been the one to guide Myanmar (formerly Burma) from the darkness of military rule to the light of democratic governance.  Instead, she spent most of the last 20 years in prison or under house arrest after her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a decisive election victory in 1990.

Burma’s Nobel Dissident:

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi

Ms. Suu Kyi was born in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1945 to Aung San, ironically the founder of the modern Burmese army.  Aung San negotiated Burma’s independence from the British Empire in 1947, only to be assassinated by his rivals later the same year.

Ms. Suu Kyi followed her mother to India and Nepal on her mother’s assignments as Burma’s ambassador to both countries.  Eventually, she earned a Ph.D. at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in 1985.  Three years later, she returned home to Burma to care for her ailing mother.  In 1988, she helped found the National League for Democracy in the wake of the retirement of Burma’s long-time military leader and mass democracy demonstrations that were violently suppressed by the military in the so-called 8888 Uprising.  She was placed under house arrest on July 20, 1989.  She refused the government’s offer to be set free if she would leave the country.

Ms. Suu Kyi deserves much credit for incessantly pushing the cause of democracy for more than 20 years directly under the noses of Myanmar’s hostile military rulers, who seem to have little regard for human suffering judging by the plight of the country’s people.

Democracy by Military Rule

It’s no coincidence that Ms. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest last Saturday, November 13, 2010, a matter of days after Myanmar held its first election since her party’s bittersweet victory 20 years earlier.  The rest of the voting and other governmental affairs were similarly suspect.  The incumbent military junta restricted campaigning, censored candidates’ statements, co-opted the media, and canceled voting in certain ethnic minority areas.  Many chose not to vote out of fear or a lack of faith based on the 1990 election proceedings.  A North Korean ambassador led a tour of voting places after EU and US embassies declined to participate.  President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton condemned the sham elections as fundamentally flawed and neither free nor fair.

Though the election nominally crowned a civilian-led government, a new Constitution, supposedly approved by a mind-boggling 92 percent of the electorate, guarantees a central role for the military.  Twenty-five percent of Parliamentary seats are reserved for military men.  Officers are slated to head top government ministries.  Article 413 of the Constitution gives the commander in chief of the armed forces near carte blanche power to take control of the country in “times of emergency.”

Development Takes a Back Seat

There’s little doubt that more of the same military rule does not bode well for the people of Myanmar.  The country’s military junta has been labeled the “most corrupt regime” in the world.  While the military establishment and privileged elites have enriched themselves on the country’s abundant natural resources, most of Myanmar’s 47 million people have been left to struggle for survival in a moribund, command-controlled economy.

  • Despite its endowment of natural resources, Myanmar only manages a GDP per capita of $1,100 (at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)).
  • Nearly one third of Myanmar’s population lived below the poverty line in 2007.
  • Myanmar’s economy is over-run with the inefficient, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that mostly operate at a loss and consume over 60 percent of the government budget.
  • Due to the recent global financial crisis, real wages of teachers in Myanmar have fallen by as much as 40 percent according to the 2010 UNDP Human Development Report.

Beyond Diplomatic Relations

It turns out that Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea runs more than skin deep.  In 1992, Senior General Than Shwe, then leader of Burma’s ruling military junta, sought to renew ties with North Korea that were cut in 1983 when the hermit kingdom tried to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan on a visit to Burma’s capital city of Rangoon (Yangon).  General Shwe used a revenue windfall from the sale of natural gas to Thailand to acquire North Korean missile technology.  In 2006, the junta resumed diplomatic relations with North Korea.  In 2008, it signed a military cooperation agreement to obtain North Korea’s help with constructing tunnels and caves to hide missiles, aircraft, and ships.

Understandably, the US, EU, Canada, and Australia have all imposed financial and economic sanctions on Myanmar.  The country does not receive coverage in major development indexes, including the UNDP HDI, or other leading statistical publications.

Glimmer of Hope

Considering the political obstacles, what can be done to help the people of Myanmar?

  • For one, the US, EU, and other powers could discourage the international community from lending legitimacy to Myanmar’s electoral process.
  • The UN and international community could also expand efforts to facilitate dialogue and cooperation between Ms. Suu Kyi and her supporters and the new government.
  • To help make Myanmar more receptive to foreign intervention, the US could work on carefully downplaying Myanmar’s apparent fears of being at risk of attack, ideally while seeking humanitarian and development concessions in return.
  • On another front, democratic powers might look for ways to discretely support the agendas of Myanmar’s more progressively minded political and business interests.

Despite the political process and electoral outcomes, there are those who dare to think that a shifting political landscape could still provide opportunity for opposition parties and ethnic voices.  The outpouring of support for Ms. Suu Kyi after her release suggests that Myanmar still holds out hope for a brighter future.

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Burma.  CIA World Factbook.  Updated November 9, 2010.

Htut, Aung Lynn.  The Burma-North Korea Axis.  International Herald Tribune.  June 18, 2010.

Lintner, Bertle.  The Burmese Junta’s Latest Ruse.  International Herald Tribune.  November 14, 2010.

Turnout Appears Light in Mayanmar’s Election.  New York Times.  November 7, 2010.

2010 UNDP Human Development Report.  United Nations Development Programme.