The ‘new Burma’ is trapped between its past and the future.
It had all the trappings of a story whose happy ending was only a matter of time. In a flash, Myanmar had left behind it half a century of paranoid dictatorship and isolation and begun opening up to the world, setting the country formerly known as Burma on a path towards development and freedom. Less than three years on, that initial euphoria has vanished without trace.
The ‘new Burma’ on the path to democracy is today at a crossroads, and it’s unclear what direction it will take. In the space of just a few months in 2011, the new civil government of former General Thein Sein introduced a parliamentary system, freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released hundreds of political prisoners and abolished media censorship. Dozens of newspapers and magazines sprang up and the potential of a country with a population of 55 million, strategically located between China and India, whet the appetites of international investors who had avoided it for decades. Many thought the ‘Burmese Spring’ would inevitably lead to economic progress and a more just society, ideally crowned by Suu Kyi in the role of President.
This easing of tension stemmed from the trust built up between Thein Sein and ‘The Lady’, who became a member of parliament and backed the reforms, in an attempt to win over the armed forces. Indeed, the country’s constitution sets aside a quarter of parliamentary seats for members of the military, thus guaranteeing them an effective power of veto over every reform. Suu Kyi really needs their support to be able to stand for election in 2015, given that a charter was written into the Constitution specifically to prevent her presidency: Article 59(f) bars anyone who marries a foreigner to run for president, and Suu Kyi is the widow of a British national.