Hail Asia’s new democracy

Dictatorships can be surprisingly fragile when it becomes clear that the people, history and time are unequivocally against them, especially with a people as amenable as the Myanmarese.
There is no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi and her relentless opposition to the junta provided the key to the final push for democracy. But decades of stolid resistance to government abuse and obstruction of their daily lives through such things as the denial of university education kept up the pressure from the people and elements of the Buddhist church for a more normal life over the years that the Lady was detained under house arrest.
But her years with only the BBC World Service for company are likely to be as nothing compared with what she now faces in turning political dreams into reality.
Despite her landslide win she faces myriad challenges, not least in allowing her electorate to see that the waif-faced figure visible behind the gate of her home on University Avenue hides a determined, if not authoritarian, figure ready to fight for what she believes is right, even if it means continuing to deny citizenship to one million Rohingya Muslims on the border with India. Other conflicts along the Chinese border can be expected to produce similar problems and it is very likely that the government can be relied on to produce Suu Kyi to take care of their diplomatic dirty work for them.
With the military government’s notion of ‘guided democracy’ off the agenda at home, all bets are off as to how things develop. Suu Kyi, assuming she is going to be an early player in policy-making, sets off with the advantage of having made no concrete promises beyond the notions of greater freedom, democracy and development. She will very quickly need to be more specific.
In the meantime she will have to hope that the civil servants of the General Administrative Department, a key policy-making body which, like every other top institution, is controlled by the military, play by the new, democratic book of rules until she can take on a full role.
And therein lies the rub: why the authorities will wait until next February to set up the government is unclear. This will leave plenty of time for manipulation of the political situation against Suu Kyi. It would be a great shame if, having run a relatively clean election, the military spoiled things by rigging the subsequent government against her. So far they appear to have behaved very well, given the electoral and public humiliation that has been heaped upon them.
After all, the army still holds all the key cards in the governmental deck: while the government’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has been defeated, it still controls one quarter of the house and it will still appoint the ministers of defence, interior and border affairs.
As things stand, absent constitutional reform, which was rejected by the parliament before the election, the highest rank Suu Kyi can achieve is as Speaker, a job normally without great political power but which she might transform under her own political weight.
Under the present constitution she cannot take up her rightful position as president, the most powerful person in the country, because of her late foreign husband and children. But certainly she has said that she will outshine any figure beneath her in terms of making reform come true and it is to be hoped that she will be surrounded by like-minded people.
She might try and use her powerful personal standing to control the presidency. That could be one way to get things moving fast but she might attract jealousy and her attachment to one individual’s fortunes could be risky.
Suu Kyi has come under criticism over the years for her willingness to compromise with and talk to the military. That decision is now seen to have been an intelligent and far-sighted one, though one that perhaps only someone with her strength of character and prestige could carry off. Those links should now come in handy as she tries to build her own political position in the nation and across the world.
But the prize open to the new government is unprecedented in recent years: breaking the enclosing ring of less than democratic governments in South-East Asia. The countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations may be among the most successful on the planet but they have begun to let their democratic credentials suffer. Thailand is under a seemingly endless martial law government; Malaysia is riven with corruption at the highest levels; question marks remain over Laos, and Vietnam is still prone to detain anyone who questions communist party rule.
It would be a glorious moment were Myanmar to emerge as the region’s ‘queen of democracy’.

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