Since last Friday the world news has been dominated completely by the terrorist attacks in Paris, displacing altogether from the radar the stunning electoral victory of Myanmar’s ‘Grand Lady’ and leader of the Opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD). This election was remarkable on several counts: it was the first openly contested one to be held after nearly 25 years of military rule (the outgoing ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party was militarily backed); the elections were judged to be free and fair; they took place peacefully; and the military acknowledged and accepted the people’s verdict without any protest.
But more remarkable was the margin of the electoral victory by the NLD: over 80%, almost matching its score of 82% in the general elections of 1990, although Aung San Suu Kyi was personally banned from standing then and the generals refused to accept the results – and that is why this peaceful transition to democratic rule, with the turnaround in the military’s attitude, is a watershed event for Myanmar, auguring well for the country’s future.
Interestingly, this score exceeds by far the 66% that the NLD required to win, taking into account that 25% of the seats in Parliament are reserved for the military. With his landslide victory the NLD has secured a majority in both houses of Parliament, with Suu Kyi being able to name the next President and control the legislative process, although she is barred from being President herself.
It goes without saying that with this massive mandate come equally high expectations of the people in this country of about 53 million people where poverty and underdevelopment are deemed to be ‘entrenched’. Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in Asia; ranking 149th among 186 nations rated in the 2013 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme.
In 2011, its GDP amounted to about US$55 billion, averaging US$916 per capita, and its annual GDP growth rate was 5.5%, despite rich endowments of land and water, and favourable climates for agriculture. In 2010, the agriculture sector accounted for 36 per cent of GDP, the service sector 38%, and the industrial and manufacturing sector 26%.
It has been noted that ‘despite its potential for growth, the agriculture sector has suffered chronically from insufficient investment in research, extension, technology transfer, infrastructure development, value chain upgrading and marketing. Furthermore, farmers have not received remunerative prices for their products, leading to declining rural incomes.’
The democratic transition therefore presents huge challenges, since the people expect that the election result will transform both their lives and the country for the better dramatically. But it is equally clear that no leader and no party could deliver what the people expect, certainly not in a single term of office. Part of the reason will be that, as has been observed, ‘almost all the NLD politicians are new to politics. They have no experience of policy development and parliamentary processes, and will be paid extremely low salaries. Further, because of the restrictions on the party and need to focus on the election, the NLD has developed little by way of detailed policy.’
However, it has also been opined that ‘the NLD could also turn this into a strategic advantage through extensive consultation, which would demonstrate real interest in the people’s needs and opinions,’ through a process of ‘deliberative or participatory democracy’. This means engaging with citizens in a variety of forums using civil society networks, and factoring the distilled inputs into policy decisions to meet people’s expectations which are essentially related to improvements in education, health, transport (especially new roads), electricity and clean drinking water services.
When we think that we take these services and facilities for granted in Mauritius, we ought really to be thankful that we have come a long way indeed!
During an interview on Indian television about two years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi had said that ‘politics was about ethics, service, responsibility.’ Given her track record of relentless struggle against military rule, which included periods of imprisonment for her and her party activists (besides her protracted house arrest), her personal sacrifice (separation from her two children and her dying husband), and her perseverance in pursuing a peaceful, democratic political process that has finally been hugely successful, it can be safely assumed that she will continue to demonstrate her sense of ‘ethics, service, responsibility’.
We can only wish her and country a bright and prosperous future which they have the potential for as they breathe the air of new freedom that has escaped them for so long.
- Published in print edition on 20 November 2015