By Medha Chaturvedi
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s ‘super-woman’ of democracy will be contesting the upcoming by-elections in the country in December. This statement from her publicist came soon after her party, the National League for Democracy, announced its decision to re-register itself as a political party and go the parliamentary way. She has not yet decided on the constituency she wants to contest the elections from, among the 48 available constituencies. This decision came after the civilian government in Myanmar scrapped the article in the 2008 Constitution which disqualified Suu Kyi from taking part in any parliamentary process in the country. What impact would this development have on the political future of Myanmar? Would Suu Kyi be able to provide a balance in the political structure of the country? What would this mean for the ethnic minorities in Myanmar? And, how would the west see this step?
Suu Kyi’s Decision
Since her release this year and subsequent meeting with President Thein Sein and the Union Labour Minister, Aung Kyi (who serves as a mediator between the USDP-led civilian government in Myanmar and Suu Kyi), she, has toned down her opposition for the government. She has also expressed willingness to work with President Sein in integrating the ethnic minorities of the country.
Because of her father, Gen Aung San’s legacy of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, Suu Kyi has always been seen by the ethnic minorities as someone who sympathizes with their cause and may be instrumental in solving the stalemate with the government. Now, her decision to contest the upcoming by-elections may further strengthen the case of the ethnic minorities as they will find a strong supporter in Suu Kyi, should she get elected.
However, some ethnic minorities now feel that she is going soft and may not be able to help them in the way they want if she becomes a part of the system. Suu Kyi, since her release, has indicated her desire to convene a second Panglong-like conference with the ethnic minorities’ representation, but so far, no concrete action has taken place on that. In addition, her open letter to the government and the ethnic armies in July, asking for an unconditional ceasefire, made some of the ethnic armies a little disappointed in her.
Ethnic Armies: The Coming Respite
President Sein’s representative held a fresh round of talks with five ethnic armies to reach a compromise and put an end to the fighting which intensified since January this year. Reports suggest that the government is urging the insurgent groups to give up arms in return for economic development. Murmurs within the political circle suggest that if the talks materialize, the government may be willing to give up on its 2009 proposal of merging the ethnic armed groups with the Border Guard Forces, under direct military rule. Three ethnic armies – The United Wa State Army which is the largest ethnic army, National Democratic Alliance Army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army – have thus far signed formal ceasefire agreements with the government. The government is in talks with the others too.
As a step towards national reconciliation, President Sein has also suspended the US$ 3.6 billion dam being built by a Chinese enterprise on River Irrawaddy in Myitsone, Kachin state. A government statement says that the dam was suspended to safeguard the interests of the ethnic minorities in the region.
On the issue of release of political prisoners, a third batch of prisoners is due to be released soon. So far 200 prisoners have already been released; however, the government plans to take it slow to avoid an ‘Arab Spring’ like situation.
However, reports suggest that fresh reinforcements are being sent to Kachin, Shan and Karen state in the frontier areas. This signifies that the while the government is calling upon the ethnic armies to come to the table, the dialogue will be initiated by Nay Pi Taw from a position of authority.
The west is hopeful that this crisis would be solved in the near future. A sign of faith towards the present government is US state secretary, Hillary Clinton’s ongoing visit to the country. One of the primary US condition for any future engagement with Myanmar is for the government to resolve the six decades old ethnic conflict, thus, putting an end to the longest running civil war in the world. Clinton also met Suu Kyi and leaders from the major ethnic minorities to push for a compromise.
While, it is too early to tell if these efforts will bear some concrete results, this is the first time that the government is taking proactive measures to solve the ethnic conflict in the country rather than just repressing it. May be, it is time to view the future developments with cautious optimism and patience as they unfold.
Research Officer, IPCS