Few countries have been as oppressive in recent decades as Myanmar, which has been ruled by a military junta whose stranglehold on its citizens defied international condemnation.
It’s perhaps premature to say the country is suddenly embracing democracy, but elections just held for 45 seats in the 664-seat parliament might help lead it across a threshold millions of Myanmar’s citizens have longed for.
That dream’s personification is Aung San Suu Kyi, a longtime democracy activist and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who had been confined, mostly to house arrest, for most of the last two decades. Now 66, she was one of the successful candidates of the National League for Democracy party, apparently winning easily. Overall, the elections, though imperfect, were clean by Myanmar’s standards.
How much difference her election makes in Myanmar, which also is known as Burma, is impossible to gauge. Already speculation has surfaced about whether she might be appointed to a cabinet post as well as seek the presidency in 2015.
If Myanmar is changing, it isn’t doing so solely to please Suu Kyi. More likely the regime has recognized that international sanctions imposed because of its oppression have stymied economic progress. The country’s poverty is all the more conspicuous given the prosperity many of its neighbors enjoy.
Last year, the junta turned much of its authority over to a civilian government — if a government led by retired military officers can truly be considered civilian. But changes have come; the government has released a number of political prisoners, eased press censorship, agreed to cease-fires with rebel groups and, perhaps most important, reached out to Suu Kyi, releasing her in 2010.
Assuming her election victory is confirmed, she will be much more than a member of parliament. Having persuaded her party to boycott the 2010 elections, she now lends legitimacy to the government. It’s possible she’ll be swallowed up by her opposition. But if, as seems more likely given her years of struggle, she can influence government policy from within, then all of Myanmar can benefit.
Suu Kyi, who was not even able to accept her Nobel Prize in 1991, sounds no less committed to open, responsive government now than she was then. Addressing supporters, she said, “It is not so much our triumph as a triumph of the people who have decided that they have to be involved in the political process in this country. We hope it will be the beginning of a new era.”