Standing in front of the National League for Democracy Headquarters in Ragoon, Myanmar on Nov. 9, supporters of the NLD party and of Aung San Suu Kyi rejoiced exuberantly while cheering, singing and waving red balloons to celebrate the recent electoral victories. Supporters adorned in T-shirts with Suu Kyi’s face emblazoned on the front filled the streets.
For the first time in 25 years, Myanmar, or commonly known as Burma, held free elections last Sunday in which Suu Kyi’s NLD party clearly won a majority even though 25 percent of the seats in parliament go to the military. The current Burmese President Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party conceded defeat, admitting that the USDP had not won.
What is the context?
Formerly a British colony, Burma created a parliamentary democracy upon gaining independence, but in 1962 General U Ne Win led a military coup, starting a brutal and oppressive military dictatorship that only recently began to be reformed. In 1988, Burma hosted elections in which Suu Kyi’s NLD party won the majority of the seats in the parliament but the military government denounced this win and did not allow this party to take power, returning to their authoritarian regime riddled with human-rights violations.
In recent years, as a result of international sanctions and pressure from the United States, Burma has taken measures to become more of a free state. In 2011, the junta, or Burma’s military led government, dissolved and a civilian government replaced it, appointing Sein as president. Although democratic progress had been made, voter fraud and corruption plagued recent elections.
Who is Suu Kyi?
In 1989, Suu Kyi was arrested, ultimately serving 15 years in both prison and on house arrest. However, while arrested, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights,” according to the Norwegian Nobel Institute.
As a popular leader and head of the opposition NLD party, Suu Kyi may seem like the obvious choice for president for the new democratic government. However, a military constitution prohibits anyone with foreign relatives from serving as president and Suu Kyi married the late Michael Aris, a British man. Although unable to serve as president, Suu Kyi was reelected to her seat in parliament as representative of the Kawhmu constituency in Rangon.
Why does anyone care, or perhaps the better question, does anyone care?
While sharing this news with a classmate in the hallway, I received an apathetic response.
Startled by the remark, I stammered and failed to find a satisfactory answer for this passerby. Many Americans view our country as the center of the world, the hub of all things culturally, politically and economically important. We sometimes get caught up in our own politics and affairs that we fail to notice such great milestones of other countries. In America, we often hear the words “politics as usual” followed by a loud sigh and a hopeful yet snarky comment that maybe one day Congress will pass a bipartisan bill.
However, for Burma, “politics as usual” has encompassed military authoritarianism and only recently has resulted in a change towards democracy. For the Burmese people, this recent election gave them hope that peaceful change was possible.
The process of democratization can be tumultuous and erratic. Nigeria has been enthralled in a cyclical process switching from democracies to military dictatorship with power switching through coups. But Burma will set the precedent for how to transform from an authoritarian military regime to a democratic nation without a civil war, revolution or coup.
While the military government may still have a small presence and a stable democracy will take years to develop, Burma has made the first step towards an elected, representative and free government.
To all those who do not care about Burma or their recent elections, I prompt you to take a moment from your busy lives and celebrate this fantastic accomplishment and cheer with the citizens on the Burmese streets because now citizens have the opportunity to truly participate in their government, to hold their elected officials accountable, and to choose how their country will progress.