Tryst with destiny
Aung San Suu Kyi’s reported landslide victory in parliamentary by-elections, while still awaiting official confirmation, represents a historic milestone in Myanmar’s history. Her victory is a vindication of her quiet leadership of a non-violent mass struggle for democracy. Although she is Myanmar’s most popular leader, it is for the first time that she will assume public office and enter Parliament. She had led the National League for Democracy to a stunning victory in 1991 elections but the country’s generals refused to hand over power to her then. In the decades since, they tried every trick in the book to keep her out. She and hundreds of other NLD activists were jailed. Even the constitution was written to ensure not only the military’s domination of parliament but also, her exclusion from the electoral fray. But ultimately they had to relent as Parliament lacked legitimacy so long as Suu Kyi was not allowed in. Her win is a triumph for democratic politics in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi’s huge mandate reflects not only her immense popularity but also, the great expectations that the public have of her new role as parliamentarian. While she has public support, she lacks influence in Parliament as the NLD holds just a fraction of seats in the House. She will have to build bridges with other parties to bring about change. She must reach out to the ethnic parties, who are wary of the NLD’s overwhelmingly Burmese leadership. For decades, Myanmar’s generals have been suspicious and fearful of Suu Kyi’s immense public standing. Especially the hardliners among them are likely to feel insecure with her in Parliament. They can be expected to find some excuse to reverse the electoral verdict, the democratisation process, etc. President Thein Sein, a former general himself, will come under pressure to go slow, even retrace the several steps he has taken towards democratising Myanmar. He too needs allies.
Suu Kyi and Thein Sein might be on opposite sides in Parliament but their political survival, indeed the future of Myanmar’s nascent democracy rests on their joining forces to work together. Bitter memories of the treatment they were meted out by the junta could make NLD parliamentarians resist co-operation with Thein Sein. But they must understand that a pragmatic approach is needed at the moment. The NLD’s new role in Parliament will require deft manoeuvering if it should be able to play a meaningful role in Myanmar’s march to democracy.