What would real democracy look like in Burma?

Aung San Suu Kyi waves to the crowd in Burma, with her party celebrating a major victory in the by-elections. Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

The excitement on the streets of Rangoon is palpable, and who can deny their right to celebrate this moment? When I arrived on the Thai-Burma border four years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and over 2,000 political prisoners were behind bars. This week’s by-elections in Burma brings Daw Suu, as she is respectfully called, and 42 other members of her until-recently-banned party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) into the belly of the beast — Burma’s fledgling parliament.

There is real cause to celebrate — not in Burma’s apparent democratic transformation (which, for the record, remains to be seen), but in the very climate of public engagement in politics. The significance here is not the now 5 percent presence of the NLD in an otherwise military-dominated parliament, but the potential for people to move the political conversation from hushed whispers in a teashop corner to the classroom, the streets, and at the ballot box in 2015’s general election.

As Human Rights Watch’s David Scott Mathieson has pointed out, “The real danger of the by-elections is the overblown expectations many in the West have cast on them.” It is an opinion shared by many of my friends and colleagues in the Burma movement, who have kept the movement alive and well since the crushed student-led uprising of 1988, here on the Thai-Burma border, during the many years Daw Suu was locked up by the military regime. Some may feel the words of caution expressed in the interviews and op-eds of exiled movement leaders intend to dampen the mood of an otherwise celebratory occasion.

But there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical. Daw Suu’s party will have just 43 out of approximately 600 seats in parliament (only 45 were contested in these by-elections). The parliament remains under the control of the military’s National Security and Defense Council, which holds the legal right to stage a coup should they feel their power is sufficiently threatened. Perhaps most significantly, as Zoya Phan and other leaders of Burma’s ethnic minority communities have emphasized, conflicts in Burma’s ethnic areas are far from over. While Daw Suu’s popularity among Burma’s diverse ethnic groups continues (as exhibited by her election to a largely ethnic Karen constituency in the Irrawaddy Delta), the significance of the election for the tens of thousands of ethnic people still displaced from civil war remains to be felt.

As Daw Suu herself said on the eve of elections: “An election alone is not going to change the country. It’s the people, a change in the spirit of our people, which will change our nation.” Getting people engaged in politics again — this is the reason Daw Suu has given time and time again when explaining her party’s decision to contest elections they knew would be far from free and fair. It cannot be denied that elections have provided a renewed sense of hope, a change in “spirit” if you will, the power of which should not be undervalued. As Daw Suu and other NLD leaders take their seats in parliament, however, the responsibility for the larger movement — not just the NLD and other pro-democracy ethnic political parties, but the next generation of community leaders from all ethnic areas of Burma — to mobilize the grassroots will be even greater.

As Ko Ko Gyi, a student leader in the 1988 uprising said recently, “We accept the parliamentary process, but we cannot rely on parliament alone.” While all eyes are on the new parliament, the significance of the elections will be determined by the ability of the wider democracy movement to foster “direct democracy” in the townships and villages as far as the mountains of Kachin and Shan states. In the past twenty years, much of this critical work — of fostering the next generation of Burma’s democracy movement leaders — through trainings on community organizing and nonviolent action, has taken place on the Thai-Burma border. Ironically, with the focus on the spirited streets of Rangoon and on parliamentary politics in the new capitol Naypyidaw, there is markedly less attention and funding to support the critical cross-border work of organizations based in Burma’s neighboring countries.

Last week, on the eve of the election, I was facilitating a training for a group of 25 young community organizers representing a dozen ethnic communities throughout Burma. Some had traveled three days to reach the Thai-Burma border to attend a one-month training on nonviolent movement-building. “What would real democracy look like in your community?” It was this question that instigated the most passionate and insightful responses. Interestingly enough, none of the responses included “elections,” per se. In some of their communities, Kachin state, for example, the elections were cancelled, due to ongoing civil war. In others, pro-democracy ethnic political parties have parliamentary seats but have yet to respond to the most pressing issues in the community — forced labor and land confiscation as a result of destructive development projects, for example. Ultimately the list they came up with included local government responsiveness to community demands, reduced human rights abuses, freedom of association for political parties and community-based organizations, and a rise in living standards. These are the things they plan to monitor in their communities over the coming months, and of course, will be organizing around. They won’t be waiting around until the next general election in 2015 — there’s a lot of work to be done in the meantime.

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