Myanmar: Cautious Optimism for Democracy

Near the top of a long, covered stairway leading to a golden monastery overlooking the administrative town of Kalaw in the hills of Myanmar’s southern Shan state, a Burmese man and I attempted to communicate. He spoke no English; I spoke no Burmese. He tried to say something. I didn’t understand. I tried to tell him that I didn’t understand; he didn’t understand. Then he said ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’, the global icon of opposition to military rule in Myanmar and head of the National League of Democracy (NLD) party, and I indicated that I knew her name. His face lit up and he broke out into a beaming smile, followed by attempts to aggressively shake my hand and express positive feelings in any way he could without actually being able to say anything that I would understand. For about ten minutes, this was the extent of our conversation, the only point of mutual understanding hidden between myriad ways to say “I don’t understand.”

If this were an isolated incident, I would have let it pass: I wanted to avoid a Thomas Friedman-esque understanding of political change based on the opinions of the first cab driver you encounter. (Important note: the first cab driver I met in Myanmar spoke great English and worked as a radio operator on ships all over the world. We had a great conversation. I learned a lot from him.) But throughout Myanmar, whether on the streets of Yangon or the hills of Kalaw — and in conversations with locals and foreigners alike — it became clear that this was far more systemic. Everywhere, everyone wanted to express similar feelings: “Aung San Suu Kyi — very good!” “I definitely voted for the NLD!” “The military gov’t is corrupt and stupid!” Etc.

Coming from China, whose central government is further cracking down on political dissent and activism, the open and frank discussion of politics and unreserved disdain for the previous era of military rule that pervades the streets of Myanmar is as foreign to me as fish-paste noodles for breakfast (delicious) or clear blue skies (also delicious). There seems to be a collective release among the population of pent up frustrations built up over 53 years of military or military-backed rule, unfair elections, violent suppression of resistance, and economic concentration in the hand of military elites.

But it is a cautious optimism: even ardent supporters of the NLD are trying very hard to keep their expectations in check. State institutions have a long path to go, and so many things can go, and have gone, wrong amid cycles of hope and failure to move toward democracy. The NLD has to maintain a delicate balance to keep many constituencies happy while building effective governance institutions that have been missing for decades. “Hopes are high, but so too is skepticism born of half a century of military dictatorship and the memories of earlier, lost moments of promise,” writes Trevor Wilson.

Since the NLD came into being with Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm following the 1988 protests, it has won every election it has participated in. In the first parliamentary elections in 1990, it won a resounding majority of 80 percent of seats. The military government quickly and violently annulled the results, and the NLD never took power. The NLD refused to participate in the 2010 elections, considered fraudulent by international observers; when, following Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, the NLD ran for parliamentary seats that opened up when elected representatives were appointed to the cabinet, it won 43 of the 44 available spots.

For the last 30 years, one analyst told me, it has been clear that if you hold free elections in Myanmar, the NLD will win. Or, perhaps more accurately, that Aung San Suu Kyi, who represents an alternative to the military, will win. As Tommy Aung, a Kalaw community leader and a long-time NLD supporter explained, “People want change. They don’t know who the candidates are; they just want change.”

But never before has the NLD actually had the opportunity to govern. The NLD appears to be making an effort to integrate the old governance system with the new, rather than start from scratch, as they try to keep various constituencies — including the military and military-connected elites — happy while they tackling huge political and economic challenges. Amid hopes of a radical and historic overhaul, it is betting on gradual change. It is a difficult but fascinating attempt to work with, rather than against, some of the institutions that people in the country have come to deeply despise.

Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly assured military that whatever happened in the past will be forgiven, an important branch of peace to the military who fears public retribution for the last 50 years of rule. It is a stark reversal from 1990, when, following the NLD victory, a party spokesman referenced the Nuremberg trials of former Nazi officials in hinting that military leaders might face public revenge. It was these comments, many believe, which led to the military’s decision to void election results, arrest NLD leaders, and increase their grasp on power. The NLD also selected a representative of the former ruling USDP party as deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament.

For Aung San Suu Kyi’s pragmatic strategy to work, it will require allowing the military’s and business leaders’ ill-gotten gains to not only persist but potentially grow. To push through more aggressive economic reforms that will balance the playing field and restore economic justice to the people who brought her to power “carries the danger of panicking the military and triggering a coup,” write Kai Ostwald and Paul Schuler. More likely, they say, “is that the NLD, conscious of its need to work with the military, will be cautious in reforming in deference to the military. For this strategy to succeed, the NLD will need to temper the expectations of a country that expects momentous changes in line with the momentous election. […But] will citizens abide by the military’s continued domination of several key economic sectors?”

It is the scale of those challenges, and the failure of reform-minded activists-cum-leaders around the globe to realize the full scope of their ambitions, that gives Myanmar’s people pause about what remains to come. Commentators around the globe want to compare Aung San Suu Kyi to Nelson Mandela, both of whom won Nobel Peace Prizes and endured many years of captivity by the ruling party before taking the reins. But Mandela comparisons hold a cautionary tale, Tommy Aung told me. Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, took the reins on a platform of unity and cooperation after helping break down apartheid rule. But 20 years later, the ANC is saddled with corruption scandals and reformers decry the continuing economic and political inequality that favors the elites who held power before the transition.

The NLD faces an equally monumental task. It must build governance capacity, manage expectations for reform, keep powerful elites and ethnic minorities from breaking into revolt, find a new model for economic growth, and much more. The military still has not given up full control, politically or economically. There is pervasive optimism across the country, but it comes with plenty of caveats. “I don’t think the future is as rosy as many people say,” Aung said. “We are on a path to democracy, but are not yet a democracy. We don’t yet have the infrastructure to govern. So far, things have been good. But we are still only on the path; let’s wait to see how things work out.”

I think the man on the hill would have said the same, but all I could understand was “Aung San Suu Kyi.