Myanmar's Facade: Gestures of Democracy. (Global Notebook)

By Elsea, Zachary T. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Myanmar's Facade: Gestures of Democracy. (Global Notebook)


Elsea, Zachary T., Harvard International Review


Close observers of Myanmar should know not to get their hopes up. In May 2002, the military regime in Yangon released Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), after 19 months of house arrest and demonstrated further good faith by subsequently releasing hundreds of other political prisoners.

With little additional information by which to judge this isolated country's secretive ruling military junta, many in the global community dared to hope that these developments boded well for reconciliation and human rights in Myanmar. Some optimistic observers even believed that Aung San Suu Kyi's release might be Myanmar's first step toward democracy and development. As a senior Bangkok-based UN official told the Inter Press Service, EU members "thought that what happened in South Africa after Nelson Mandela's release would happen in Myanmar after Suu Kyi's freedom."

In October 2002, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer made the first diplomatic visit from his country to Myanmar in nearly 20 years. He arrived hoping to find the political dialogue open and steps underway toward reconciliation between the ruling government and the NLD. Instead, he found the political climate had remained unchanged since Suu Kyi's release. "It seems that progress at the moment--if there is progress at all--is painfully slow," Downer told Australia's ABC Radio. General Than Shwe's military regime has tried to placate its critics with steps that appear to promote peace and reconciliation, but the international community has observed a pattern of human rights abuse and political suppression long enough to see through this thinly-veiled public relations campaign.

The government's overtures are suspect when considered in an historical context. Myanmar is ruled by a small military junta called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which officially seized power in 1988. Juntas are nothing new in Myanmar, which has been ruled by a series of martial dictatorships since General Ne Win seized power in 1962. Formerly the State Law and Order Restoration Council, more commonly known as SLORC, the current regime has been perennially criticized for human rights abuses. In 1990, for example, the NLD won a landslide victory of 457 out of 485 government seats in a free election, but the military regime refused to allow the freely elected government to take power. They jailed most of the winners and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest.

The current regime is known for its ruthlessness. It has literally enslaved its civilian population to work on infrastructural improvements, conscripted children into the military, relocated segments of the population at will, and been repeatedly accused of allowing the military to rape girls and women across the country. The SPDC has silenced political dissenters with threats of incarceration, torture, and death, as a UN special reporter on human rights explained in a July 2002 report.

As a result of the junta's restrictions on human rights and its gross mismanagement of the economy, most of the population lives in extreme poverty. While many Western businesses have divested from Myanmar or faced domestic pressure to move out, the country remains the world's largest producer of illicit opium, and the government continues to increase military spending. While rebel groups have opposed the junta, many have been effectively co-opted by promises of limited autonomy and shared benefits from the government's rule. The average citizen of Myanmar is left not struggling for democracy, but scraping for sustenance in a land from which more than 50 multinational businesses have departed in recent years.

Thus, it is not surprising that there has been no significant progress since Suu Kyi's release. While she herself is no longer confined, her political party remains severely handicapped by the SPDC; members of the NLD remain under strict surveillance and are required to apply for a permit to print any materials, including membership cards. …

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