June 22, 2012
New “Burmese Road” for Democracy: Cohabitation with the Military
by John Teo@www.nst.com.my
PATH FORWARD: Country in a delicate dance between the military and new leaders in the mould of Aung San Suu Kyi
Despite the worldwide adulation she commands ever since her party was cheated out of a clear victory in the polls more than two decades ago, the Myanmar military actually did her a great turn by absorbing all the near-universal odium heaped on it and the country for ignoring the election results.
For if the election victory then were respected, Suu Kyi’s unsullied reputation might have long ago been compromised by the very messy business of governing Myanmar, which has known little but military government since Independence. It would have been even messier, perhaps impossible, if she had to govern without at least the military’s tacit goodwill.
Perhaps even more difficult than taking a hardline and principled stand on democracy is the path Suu Kyi now takes of cohabitation with the military and accepting working within the new rules of political engagement that allows a constitutionally-enshrined political role for the military.
Successful governance must temper political idealism with a healthy dose of realism. The political reality in Myanmar is that the military will remain — perhaps for quite a while — as the only truly effective governing institution with a national reach across the ethnically divided country.
For Myanmar’s own best interests, the functional fusing of political idealism and realism is probably the only viable option even if it is also fraught with deep challenges. These are yet early days, and already the spectre of a Yugoslavia-style splintering of Myanmar is not too far-fetched with the latest ethnic flare-up there.
All eyes are rightly now with the Lady, as Suu Kyi is widely known, even if she is still merely an Opposition Member of Parliament. For the path forward for Myanmar may still be set largely by its military-backed civilian government but her voice matters, not least because of the megaphone-like quality that attaches to it owing to her iconic international status.
The Myanmar government and the Lady must both know that they now either must hang together or they hang separately. This is what makes her public pronouncements now not just very important but very interesting.
She has so far evinced few signs of selling out her ideals in her careful choice of words. Part of that may be attributed to the luxury afforded her for not being in government and, therefore, not having to choose among tough public policy choices.
She says she will be on the look-out for “ethical” investors who pick local partners to ensure development and its benefits reach ordinary people. All very fine words in an ideal world, of course.
But we do not live in an ideal world and the comparative models of Myanmar’s two giant neighbours with which it shares borders — China and India — are instructive. The two Asian giants are infinitely bigger in every sense and should in fact have great leeway with investors, but in reality they do not.
Following a more “ethical” path towards economic development would seem to suggest Suu Kyi prefers to go the “Indian” route rather than the “Chinese” one. Both routes carry benefits but also come with huge costs.
The Myanmar government’s and its opposition’s political and economic views may have their respective merits. The old “Burmese road” to development, with its autarchic undertones beloved of its generals, may have long ago been derided.
But Myanmar may be on a new, equally syncretic road involving a rather delicate dance between battle-hardened leaders of a rather military bent and new, thoughtful ones in the mould of Suu Kyi.
The world must be fully invested in this new “Burmese road” for the sake of all of Myanmar’s people.