It has been a long road for the Burmese. As the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) received news of its landslide victory in national elections, thousands gathered outside the party’s headquarters in Rangoon. It has been a long road in particular for the party’s 88-year-old chairman, the retired army general Tin Oo, whose face hung on banners over NLD supporters gathered on consecutive nights to celebrate as the results roll in.
The NLD is best known for its association with “The Lady” – as Suu Kyi is known – and yet the election she has dominated will not lead to her elevation to the role of president, because of a law that appears designed to keep her out. The president of Burma cannot have a foreign spouse, as she did (the Oxford scholar Michael Aris), though days before the election, Suu Kyi told a press conference that she would be “above the president”, leading to speculation that a proxy would represent her in the job.
This is just one of many limits to the NLD’s impressive mandate, the work of an obstinate and belligerent military regime that seized power in 1962 and has dominated Burmese politics ever since. It was their failure and brutality that made a folk legend out of Suu Kyi – and produced a nation desperate for change. On polling day, voters were often unaware who the local NLD candidate was. “I voted for Daw Suu,” said Tun Thein, in Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt constituency, displaying his inky thumb. “I don’t know or care who the candidate is here.”
When I first visited Rangoon in 2010, it was to cover that year’s election. This was widely regarded as a farce, the military and its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), attempting to mimic civilian rulers to secure a political future. In those days the city was poorly lit and its buildings were haunted by a sense of paranoia. Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. Her NLD boycotted the polls and the USDP was selected to run the country with a constitution voted in by means of a dubious referendum.
Reporting from the country was complicated. Burmese journalists were frequently jailed and tortured – though things began to change as the military tried to shore up its position and regenerate the country’s flagging economy. Foreign journalists now pack out popular hotels in Rangoon. KFC has arrived, along with a wave of foreign investment to the tune of £5.6bn per year.
Still, as the former Irish president Mary Robinson noted this past week, observing the elections on behalf of an American NGO, “there are serious flaws in the constitutional framework”. The highest body in the Burmese government is the 11-member National Defence and Security Council, dominated by unelected military personnel who can legally declare a state of emergency at any moment. What’s more, the military automatically occupy 25 per cent of parliament and are granted portfolios in the ministries of defence, home affairs and border areas. To change the 2008 constitution, a party needs over 75 per cent of the vote – in effect allowing the armed forces a legal veto on almost everything.
“The military has locked itself in power with the 2008 constitution and no matter how large the NLD landslide nothing is going to change that fact,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
The economy, too, has been reorganised to suit the regime. Western trade sanctions were dropped after 2010 and yet the money coming in was monopolised by the same people western governments sought to disenfranchise – a clique known locally as “the cronies”. These are business people with connections in such places as China and Singapore who import arms and refined oil in exchange for natural resources and narcotics.
After 2010, state-owned assets were “privatised”, with crony businessmen and military holding companies picking up the best assets. The Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, for instance, was “first at the trough for any profitable enterprise that the government had regulatory control over”, Robertson said. “Any new government will have little power to demand accountability from this military-dominated conglomerate.”
The IMF says tenders were handed out in closed processes before 2011. The jade industry alone is worth £20bn a year, according to the NGO Global Witness. The value of this industry vastly outstrips government spending on health services. Burma may have voted for change now, but the task of wresting key budgets from camouflaged hands has yet to begin.
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain