Today Aung San Suu Kyi announced she will stand as a candidate to be an MP in by-elections due soon in Burma. This does not mean that problems in Burma are finally solved. There is still a long way to go, and Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma will continue to need our support.
A short Q&A follows on recent developments and what they might mean.
Aung San Suu Kyi Suu is standing to be an MP, and is likely to be elected. Does this mean there is democracy in Burma now?
No. Earlier this year a new military drafted constitution came into force which legalised dictatorship with a civilian front. A Parliament was created, but the military have 25 percent of the seats, and so can veto any legislation in Parliament to change the constitution and make it more democratic. Rigged elections mean Parliament is dominated by pro-military parties. Parliament also has limited power. Above parliament is the President, above the President is the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) which has 10 of its 11 members either military or ex-military, and above the NDSC is the Military, which has a Constitutional right to step in and take direct control again and is not accountable to parliament or the president.
Why is Aung San Suu Kyi and her party standing in elections now when they boycotted the elections last year?
Last year new election laws were introduced which were designed to stop the National League for Democracy (NLD) taking part. They required the NLD to expel convicted members (political prisoners), and to support and defend the military drafted constitution. Those laws have now been changed, which means the NLD can register as a party again, and take part in elections.
If Parliament is dominated by the military, and pro-military parties, what difference can Aung San Suu Kyi make there?
She is probably hoping that even though the NLD will only have a very small number of MPs, they can use Parliament as a platform for pushing for greater reforms. Perhaps in four years time when there are new elections they will be able to win more seats, but even then there will still be the reserved seats for soldiers, and limited powers of Parliament. If more reforms can be made it is likely to be a slow and difficult process, which is why it is essential that we don’t stop campaigning and supporting Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma now. There is still a long long way to go.
I have seen in newspapers that things are improving and reforms are being made. Isn’t this positive?
Aung San Suu Kyi has been cautious saying reforms are: “to a certain extent encouraging”, but that there is still much more that needs to be done. There have been some reforms which are significant compared to the usual situation in Burma, but there no major democratic reforms yet. One reform has been the lifting of the ban on some news websites, but only 0.3 percent of people in Burma can even access the internet. There is a slight relaxation of censorship, and politicians are allowed more freedom to debate, but no changes yet which impact most ordinary people. At the same time, most political prisoners are still in jail, and Burmese Army attacks against ethnic civilians have actually increased. Almost 150,000 ethnic people were forced to flee their homes in the past year, double the average number. There has also been a big increase in the use of gang-rape by the Burmese Army. Despite some reforms, in the past year human rights abuses have actually increased.
With things changing now, is it time to lift sanctions?
Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of Burma’s democracy movement are not calling for the lifting of economic sanctions yet. Thein Sein, Burma’s new President, and his government want international legitimacy and sanctions lifted. This is one of the reasons why they have started making some reforms. To lift too many sanctions too fast removes the incentive for them to keep making more reforms. Some of the diplomatic sanctions have been lifted to show more sanctions will be lifted if they make real change, but changes so far are not fundamental, and human rights abuses are increasing. The danger is that many American and European companies are lobbying for sanctions to be lifted now, despite the human rights situation, because they want access to Burma’s natural resources. We must ensure governments base their decisions on the human rights situation in Burma and what is best for the people, not the profits of Shell and mining companies.
Does Burma Campaign UK think there will be real change soon?
One thing we have learnt in 20 years of campaigning for human rights and democracy in Burma is to judge the government of Burma on its actions, not its words. They have said they want change, and have taken some steps which are significant compared to the past, but they haven’t delivered real change yet. The fact that they have not released all political prisoners, and they have actually increased attacks against ethnic civilians, are not good indicators that they are genuine about reform. On the other hand, there is clearly potential for reform. Thein Sein may just be wanting to make some small reforms in order to get sanctions lifted and have normal international relations, to be a ‘normal’ dictatorship, but Burma’s democracy movement will be pushing for more, and we must ensure that there is still a strong international movement to support them.
The danger now with some small reforms being made is that many people will start to think the problems in Burma are being solved. They will stop campaigning and paying attention to what is going on. But actually now is the time when their support is needed more than ever. The sanctions we campaigned for all these years are working, they are acting as pressure for reform. There is more hope now, but we need to keep pushing. There is potential for change, but at the same time human rights abuses are increasing. The people of Burma still need our support. Burma Campaign UK will always be there to defend the victims of human rights abuses in Burma, no matter how long it takes.
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