In the ridiculous multi-billion dollar vanity capital of Naypyidaw, Aung San Suu Kyi greeted us in her new modest lodgings on the edge of this preposterous city and all I was worried about was the mud on my shoes, acquired through walking through the soaking surroundings, courtesy of a Burma monsoon.
Naypyidaw must be about the strangest capital in the world. The military Government decided that they wanted to copy the example of former Burmese dynasties and arrogantly relocate the capital. The infrastructure of Government was therefore moved from Rangoon to a remote rural location 200 miles up the road. Huge buildings were created and what must be the largest Parliament building in the world was constructed with huge six lane highways to link all of this incredible infrastructure together. Except there are no cars are on the highways and very few people in the new buildings, and the huge cavernous Parliamentary estate feels like its constantly on recess. There is nothing to do and the joke kicking round Rangoon is that Aung San Suu Kyi swapped house arrest for city arrest!
I was in Burma as part of a cross-party delegation from the Westminster Foundation of Democracy. We were there to see if the UK could offer assistance to help increase the capacity of the emerging Parliamentary institutions and if there was any help we could give to their numerous new political parties.
Burma’s democratic reform has been as dramatic as it has been unexpected. In just over a year the iron grasp of Burma’s military rulers has loosened and there now seems a very real opportunity for Burma to join the community of democratic nations. Burma offers so much. Sandwiched between India, China and the fast-growing economies of South East Asia it is supremely placed geopolitically. There are natural resources aplenty and the unspoiled Indochina countryside and coast line will be a mecca for tourists determined to find an authentic taste of South-East Asia.
When asked what the catalyst to these reforms was, most people point to the military Government’s response to cyclone Nargis in 2008 when hundreds of people were killed and thousands more displaced. The military Government refused to accept foreign aid, tried to play down the scale of the crisis and even arrested some of those who were on the ground offering help. It was all too much for a population held back for decades, suffering economic hardship in what should be the bread basket of Asia.
Unsatisfactory elections were then held, the Arab spring was unleashed and the military Government faced the prospect of more decades as a pariah state. They instead chose to test the air of democracy and, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, they started a process of democratic reform. They have now gone so far that it would be almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.
The first test of the new democracy were by-elections, made necessary by the creation of a new Government. Aung San Suu Kyi’s newly re-registered National League for Democracy won 40 out of the 45 constituencies and, for the first time, Burma’s Parliament had an opposition. There is now a commitment to hold full Parliamentary elections in 2014 where the NLD must be in line for a resounding victory.
Whilst Aung San Suu Kyi is quite rightly the public face of these reforms much credit must be given to the reformers in the military Government – President Thein Sein, who initiated the reforms, and speaker Shwe Mann, who has championed the emerging Parliament. Without either of them taking these first important steps Burma would still be under strict military rule.
Fears still exist though. The military are still reserved 20% of parliamentary seats and 75% of the votes in Parliament are required to amend the constitution. Ethnic tensions and conflicts continue in many parts of this diverse country and it will be a real effort to bring peace and stability.
But there is real optimism. The military have swapped their uniforms for the politicians suit and they will now have to test public opinion. Those that spent so long incarcerated have fully engaged with the democratic process without any bitterness or resentment and, with the positive profile of Aung San Suu Kyi there is enormous international goodwill.
Burma is a fascinating, multi-faceted nation that should regain a predominant position in the region. I am sure that the UK and the rest of the international community will be fully engaged in the democratic restoration of this fantastic country.
Pete is a Governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and manages the SNP’s WFD programmes.