The Struggle for Democracy in Myanmar
By: Becca Shipler
On Monday, Apr. 2, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burmese opposition party, the National League for Democracy, announced it had won at least 43 out of the 44 seats it ran for in the parliamentary by-elections in Myanmar. However, this is only the party’s estimate for the outcome of the elections; the official results will not be available until later in the week. Nevertheless, even if the NLD officially wins all the 44 seats it contested for, it will not be able to control the parliament. Yet this is still an enormous step towards democracy in Myanmar, previously known as Burma, especially when put into perspective.
The leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi herself, won a seat in parliament in the by-elections. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been fighting for democracy in Myanmar for decades, and after spending 15 years under house arrest to support her cause, it seems change is finally beginning to occur.
The government had previously promised the elections would be free and fair and even allowed international observation of the polling. However, the NLD said they had received over 50 reports of voting irregularities including wax being placed over the check box for the NLD, making it easy to erase the mark and annul the vote. One area also reported that ballots were already filled out. In response, Suu Kyi said her party will file a complaint about these irregularities.
Myanmar, previously Burma, was for a long time controlled by the country’s military since the coup d’état on Mar. 2,1962 until its dissolution in March 2011. Due to the government’s economic mismanagement and foreign sanctions, Burma became an impoverished country.
Throughout military rule there were many sporadic protests and most were violently suppressed by the government. For instance, in 1962, the military killed 15 student protestors at Rangoon University. This type of forceful oppression arose again from 1975-1977.
In 1988, many pro-democracy protests emerged throughout the country, known as the 8888 Uprising. This led to the 1989 coup staged by General Saw Maung, after which he declared martial law over the nation. At this time the country’s name was changed from the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” to the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”
Under this new republic, the government held the first free elections in almost 30 years in 1990. The NLD won 392 out of the 489 seats available, which should have given them control of the parliament. However, the military junta would not give up power and continued to rule the country until 2011. It was around this time, on July 20, 1989, that the military junta first placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, beginning her 15 year sentence, which would last until her release on Nov. 13, 2010.
Harsh economic times later ensued because of the increase in price of diesel and petrol, and in response there were a series of protests that turned into a campaign of civil resistance known as the Saffron Revolution, in August 2007. These protests were led by Buddhist monks who defied Suu Kyi’s house arrest by paying their respects at her home. On Sep. 26, 2007 the government violently suppressed the monks’ protests.
In 2010, the government held general elections inspired by the 2008 constitutional referendum, which promised “discipline-flourishing democracy.” While the elections were peaceful, much of the world condemned them as fraudulent. The official turnout was 77 percent and the military claimed they won 80 percent of the votes. Pro-democracy groups disputed this claim, saying that this was achieved through fraud.
Since the 2010 elections, the Burmese government has taken steps towards democracy and a mixed economy. With the release of Suu Kyi and over 200 other political prisoners, the admission of labor unions and strikes, the reduction of censorship, the procurement of a cease fire with Karen rebels, the regulation of the currency and the establishment of the Human Rights Convention, reform is progressing in Myanmar. However, there are still 1,600 unreleased political prisoners and ongoing clashes between the Burmese army and ethnic minority groups. Yet despite these obstacles the road for reform is taking shape, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s dream of a democratic Myanmar may still be achieved in the future.
For anyone with further interest in this topic, a recent film entitled The Lady depicts the story of Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle to achieve democracy in Burma, starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis.