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Is Myanmar about to rejoin the world?

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Some regime opponents remain skeptical. "I know these people," says former Air Force Capt. Zaw Nyunt, who joined the 1988 uprising and then spent six years in exile in Thailand. "This is a period of soft political winds, but it won't last long. When they've got the right engagement with the West ... the winds will change."

Most of those hoping for change, though, are focusing more on what use they can make of the new political space that has opened up, now that the generals appear to have decided that "politics" is not a threat to Myanmar's security.

Most dramatically they voted overwhelmingly for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in the April 1 elections, giving the party 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats at stake and propelling Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, where she had spent 15 of the past 20 years, to a leading national role.

"This is a free country. We have a right to vote," said Win Win Aye, a housewife explaining why she had gone to the polls. "Aung San Suu Kyi is like a mother to us."

The by-election results will not change the formal balance of power in parliament, where the military's proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) holds the lion's share of the 664 seats. The NLD will not have the votes to amend the Constitution, which the military wrote in 2008 to ensure its continued power: Chapter 1 guarantees the Army's "national political leadership role" and 25 percent of the members of parliament are military officers, a large enough bloc to prevent the majority needed for major constitutional change.

"Essential power will remain with the military, and they will play a central role for the foreseeable future," says David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and doyen of American Myanmar scholars. "I don't think Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to change that."

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