A year after the National League for Democracy (NLD) won Myanmar’s first democratic election in decades, is disaffection setting in?
It appears so. This month, the government, led by the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi, came under attack for its handling of escalating tensions in Rakhine state, with reports of grave human rights abuses committed by the military. This comes as pressure mounts on the NLD and Suu Kyi from varying groups and communities to come good on its promise of social change and justice.
According to a recent article published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, following the NLD’s electoral success “many activists hoped the victory would enable LGBT people to come out of the shadows. But a year on, many have been disappointed by a lack of progress.” Indeed, earlier this year, Win Htein, a close confidant of Suu Kyi, said he was simply “not interested” in LGBT issues, perhaps an indication of the government’s opinion. Aung Myo Min, the founder of Equality Myanmar, was quoted in the aforementioned article as saying the government thinks “the LGBT issue is different, that it’s not a priority. [But] it is a struggle within a struggle.”
On top of that, the NLD government appears to be curtailing freedom of speech: first when alleged government pressure forced the Myanmar Times into sacking reporter Fiona MacGregor, after she reported on the systematic rape by security forces in Rakhine state, and then with the imprisonment of two Burmese journalists from the country’s largest newspaper. “The press crackdown is clearly meant as intimidation. Myanmar officials – and this includes Ms. Suu Kyi – have never operated in an atmosphere of a free press… the firing of MacGregor and the arrests of the top newspaper executives are a bad sign, to say the least,” reads an editorial in the Bangkok Post.
Than Htut Aung, CEO of the Eleven Media Group, who was arrested this month, gave a damning indictment of the NLD’s languid pace of reforms when writing for the Asia News Network a week before his detention. “Across the country, commodity prices have increased at an alarming rate and inflation is in the double digits. The government has been largely unable to address the problem of growing income inequality. Demonstrations and protests have occurred in numerous places and for a variety of reasons. The NLD has also failed to tackle the corruption and crony capitalism that were prevalent in the previous government,” he wrote, adding:
“Citizens have become disappointed with the close ties that some NLD members formed with crony capitalists. The newly elected NLD officials’ rosy relations with the corrupt officials from the previous bureaucracy are grave concerns for the Myanmar people. In social media, stories have circulated about a newly elected minister, making just $2,500 a month, being seen wearing a $100,000 Patek Philippe watch. For many Myanmar people who make $2 a day, this is a source of great disbelief and resentment.”
(It should be noted that it was this allegation of quid pro quo, reprinted on Facebook in Burmese, that led to Than Htut Aung being sued by Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein for defamation and his arrest.)
Bertil Lintner is a highly respected commentator, and one should give pause when he says that the NLD “stood for a new order” and the vote for it “was a vote for change – and that was what people expected from the new government. But, what many are seeing is just more of the same.” As he termed it, Suu Kyi’s halo is slipping. He went on: “A year after the party in the streets of Yangon and elsewhere, a bitter reality is setting in. It was much easier to be the heroine of democracy than to rule a country torn apart for decades by civil war and ethnic and political strife.”
Comparisons between Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela had become cliché and journalistic prettification long before the NLD’s victory last year. But, inadvertently, such a comparison might be more perceptive than first glance allows. Granted, both individuals endured decades of sacrifice and struggle to liberate their respective countries from tyrannies. But what employers of this equivalence often miss is what happened afterwards.
Twenty-two years after the end of apartheid, the lives of many black South Africans remain as perilous and poor as they were back then. As numerous writers have noted, the most radical change to take place once the racial laws were torn up was that the old, white ruling class was joined by a small, new black elite. What had gone wrong? I quote Slavoj Žižek from his book Trouble in Paradise: “The old African National Congress” – the party of Nelson Mandela – “promised not only the end of apartheid, but also social justice, even a kind of socialism.” But, once in power, the promise of a new world was eroded, either by the forces of capital or by the tempting influence of power. The degradation of an ideal and the unfulfilled promises is not only despairing for South Africa but also cautionary for other would-be liberators.
Back to Myanmar, is not the same happening now? Democracy has been achieved but missing is the realization of the social justice that was thought to accompany it. As Than Htut Aung wrote: “The people of Myanmar are still anxiously waiting for the reforms that the NLD government promised.”
Here is my argument: The NLD thought democracy was the end, not the means. But one is not empowered by ticking a box; one is empowered by what happens after ticking that box. This, the electorate knew: the USDP, after all, could impose some reforms but these were mere window dressing; that is why the electorate voted overwhelmingly for change. Such change was to be a democratic revolt, the harbinger of genuine social change and justice. But, because of the NLD’s mistake, the party has grown lazy and self-congratulatory, perhaps even accustomed to power. Indeed, it was precisely after the November elections that NLD’s task really began, when all of its energy was needed and when Suu Kyi’s worth could be measured. Achieving power is relatively easy compared to changing a society. It is not enough to get rid of the ancien regime if one isn’t going to create a new social order.
There is still hope, however.
History teaches us that social revolts typically come in couplets: 1789/1793, for the French Revolution; February/October, for the Russian, for example. The first stage tends to culminate in an all-popular uprising against a certain figure or institution. These typically include all strata of society, from the poorest to the richest, and thus provide a sense of unity and collective will. Antagonisms are forgotten and personal interests put aside for the sake of a common goal. History then teaches us that the worth of a social revolt can only be measured once the tyrant has been overthrown, because it is at this moment that unity begins to crumble. Hegel once said that the price of victory for a political movement is that it splits into antagonistic factions. Indeed, new, or rather, suppressed, antagonisms begin to reappear: between the poor and rich, the rural and urban, secular and the religious, socialists and free-market capitalists. This is now happening in Burma.
At this juncture, some will claim the revolt to be over (Robespierre’s mockery of a “revolution without a revolution”) and that life can return to normal. Others, the ones most loyal to the people’s demand for social change, and not just a changing of the guard, will insist that it is just the beginning and the real work is now to be done. Such is this division that it is at this moment when most revolts either wither away, or descend into tyranny, with each faction decrying the other to be “counter-revolutionary,” or succeed.
This is what I mean by Suu Kyi’s second revolution: the realization of what are the means (democracy) and what are the ends (social justice). It is not enough to rid Myanmar of military tyranny if the successor is to offer nothing different to the people, except a cosmetic alteration; nor is it sufficient to say that the military dictatorship has been overthrown, now let’s return to normal life.
Naing Ko Ko, writing in the Myanmar Times in June, opined that analysis of Suu Kyi’s “achievements as a leader can be carried out one or two years from now. An overly hasty analysis will not accomplish anything.” Granted, but neither will passivity and acquiescence accomplish anything either. The time for the NLD to come good on its promise for social change and justice is now, not one year, two years, three years down the line. Otherwise, the Burmese electorate has simply voted for Robespierre’s dictum of a “revolution without a revolution.” And, while Naing Ko Ko is correct in saying “no political leader in Myanmar has ever gained more legitimacy than her in post-independence Myanmar,” corollaries must be added: no political leader in Myanmar has had such popular support to introduce radical changes; and no political leader in Myanmar has had so much responsibility to the people who voted her in.
Indeed, the enthusiasm of the Burmese people that went into the November elections should not be seen as a hindrance, but an asset: the Burmese people have done their part, rejecting decades of oppression and the status-quo, and now it is time for the NLD to act.