New democratic era dawning in Burma

NAYPYITAW, Burma - Led by a triumphant Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma is preparing to take a historic leap into uncharted territory, having only known democracy for 14 of its 1,000 years of recorded history.

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Suu Kyi, who scored a stunning victory in last year's elections, follows a procession of absolute monarchs, British colonial rulers and home-bred generals who are still standing tall in the wings.

The new era dawns April 1, when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which captured nearly 80 per cent of the contested parliamentary seats, takes over power from a military-dominated regime and attempts to shed decades of political oppression, civil war and economic ruin in this resource-blessed Southeast Asian nation once hailed as the continent's rising star.

What happens next is being touted as "a political and economic renaissance" or, as one local editorial predicted, "Burma's best year yet." But others fear the victors, having spent much of their lives as opposition activists and prisoners rather than in government, may, as the Burmese proverb goes, simply be "overwhelmed by 16,000 problems."

Among them, the NLD faces the world's longest running insurgency by Burma's ethnic minorities with tens of thousands still under arms and deeply distrustful of the central government and a military that will continue to control the country's civil administration, three key ministries, 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament and economic holdings amassed during its half-century in power.

"The NLD victory is just one step in Burma's democratic process, not a major turning point," said Yan Myo Thein, a veteran analyst and former political prisoner.

Adding to its woes, Burma falls among the world's poorest countries with abysmal education and health systems and is burdened with pervasive corruption. It ranks 147 among 168 countries on Transparency International's latest global corruption index.

The new government will also have to re-order its relationship with China, formerly a staunch supporter of the generals, deciding how far it can risk alienating its powerful neighbour by veering toward the United States and Europe and curbing ravages Chinese companies are inflicting on Burma's environment.

The team to tackle such a spectrum of problems is currently being shaped under tight wraps in this surreal, military-built capital hacked out of the jungle. Suu Kyi recently announced that only she among her party members could speak to the press, but not before her spokesman Nyan Win said the team-building was proving difficult.

"It's going to be tough for anybody to run that place. The expectations are likely to be too great for her to succeed in the way people want," says David Steinberg, an American scholar who has tracked Burma since the 1950s.

The 70-year-old Suu Kyi is barred from leading the country, although the Nobel Prize laureate has made it clear that she will be "above the president," calling the shots. By the constitution the president, to be selected this month, cannot like Suu Kyi have been married to a foreigner or have children of foreign citizenship.

Some of her behaviour has raised questions about Suu Kyi's leadership, with some NLD members calling her a "democratic dictator" who has surrounded herself with a generally sycophantic inner circle. In the 28 years since the party was founded, only one other figure of national stature has emerged: Tin Oo, a former armed forces commander turned democracy champion. But he is now 88.

"The NLD is not a democratic party. It's her view on what is going to prevail that's important," says Steinberg. "There is nobody of stature within the NLD who has the experience to run things. She has kept down a generation of leadership within the party."

Still, after decades of military rule, the political transition seems to be going relatively well, said Richard Horsey, an adviser to the think-tank International Crisis Group, noting in particular Suu Kyi's crucial meetings with armed forces chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and former junta leader Than Shwe, who is widely believed to still advise the military on critical decisions.

The meetings appeared to be efforts to formulate a future working relationship with the military that will require of Suu Kyi an ingenious tightrope act: forging ahead with her democratization agenda while not overly infringing on the military's power and pride lest this ignites a backlash and plunge the country into its militaristic past.

The most optimistic scenario, Horsey says, would have the military "rehabilitate itself into a standard, modern army, and to be seen as protecting the realm rather than a source of domestic oppression. They will need the NLD for that."

Another possibility sees parallel government and economic structures emerging, with the military ignoring the government when it so chooses.

"You must remember that the military is autonomous. They will not take orders from the president, only from their commander-in-chief," says Bertil Lintner, author of several books on Burma including a biography of Suu Kyi.

The Home Ministry, headed by a military-appointed minister, will retain its power over civil administration down to the village level as well as the police and domestic espionage. From its business conglomerates, the Union of Burma Economic Holdings and Burma Economic Corporation, it will be able to draw funds well beyond those it is allocated under government budgets.

Given that the technocratic elite is mostly comprised of retired or serving military officers, Suu Kyi will have little choice but retain many. But Yan Myo Thein and others say Suu Kyi may go too far, including more than the mandated number of military in her Cabinet as well as at least one member of the military-backed party she trounced in the elections.

"I worry that she may rely too much on the military. She is always trying to compromise with them, and they hold the upper hand," said Yan Myo Thein, who has close contacts with NLD members. "I am not certain whether the co-operation between the NLD and the military will be beneficial for our country."

This would certainly alienate the many with deep-seated hatred of the military, especially the ethnic minorities who have suffered brutal army campaigns against them and are hoping the new government will move toward a federal system allowing more autonomy and end warfare that has plagued the country since independence from Britain in 1948.

Hopeful too are Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, where hundreds have been killed and 140,000 driven from their homes in communal violence.

Talk to ordinary citizens, and many will describe Suu Kyi in almost saintly terms although others say they voted not so much for her but rather to get rid of the detested military.

"I used to like her a lot but she is now behaving very differently from the past. I don't know what to expect from her. She used to be humbler. She behaves more like a hierarchical figure now," said Maung Maung a 46-year-old security guard. "We will wait and see how she will lead the country."


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