Burma Election a 'Welcome Step Toward Change'

Kristin Wright | Open Doors USA | Updated: Apr 24, 2012

Burma Election a 'Welcome Step Toward Change'

Aung San Suu Kyi's landmark victory in Burma on Monday could mark the beginning of a new era, activists say. “This is clearly a very significant and very welcome result, and it shows the true feeling of the Burmese people,” says Ben Rogers, Christian Solidarity Worldwide's East Asia Team Leader. “Their clearly expressed desire is for freedom, justice and democracy, values represented by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) whom voters have overwhelmingly supported.”

Rogers, among others, is optimistic that change is in the air. But he takes a cautionary tone when speaking of the long-ruling military junta that has prevented the nation's progress toward democracy for years. “This is just the beginning, and there is still a very long way to go,” he says.

While Aung San Suu Kyi's sweeping victory (43 out of 45 contested seats in Parliament) is remarkable, her National League for Democracy party remains in the minority. They now occupy just 43 out of 664 total seats in Parliament – enough cause for cautious optimism, according to Suu Kyi. "It is not so much our triumph as a triumph of the people who have decided that they have to be involved in the political process in this country," she said of election results. "We hope this will be the beginning of a new era."

Indeed, hopes remain high for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party. The last time the NLD took home a landslide victory was 1990, and it didn’t last long. Burma’s military junta annulled the results of the election, and Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest while other leaders were exiled.

This year, while the number of seats gained is significantly less than in 1990 (it is a by-election), the results are clearer, and the NLD has the leadership it was lacking in 1990 – this year, Aung San Suu Kyi is a free woman.

Ben Rogers is convinced that real change can occur when the government engages the marginalized and persecuted ethnic minority groups. UNHCR estimates that over 400,000 refugees have fled Burma as a result of systematic human rights violations. Burma’s military regime is targeting civilians of varying ethnic backgrounds. Chin, Shan, Karenni, and Kachin ethnic groups are among those who have fled the country as a result of the government’s brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.

“We urge the government of Burma to initiate a political dialogue with the ethnic nationalities, to secure a political agreement and a peace process that will end more than sixty years of civil war and stop the military’s crimes against humanity,” says Ben Rogers. “Until these steps are taken, the international community should be careful about how it responds to the by-election results. The reforms so far should be recognized, welcomed and encouraged, but pressure should be maintained for more.”

Rogers wants to see justice for the victims, individuals whose homes have been burned, who have been raped, forced to work for the military, kidnapped, tortured, and even murdered as a result of Burma’s brutal military regime.

Zoya Phan, a refugee from Burma, says that the election results are good, but they are only the first step. “Too much importance has been attached to these by-elections, whose significance is more symbolic than practical,” she says. “Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, will have about 5 percent of the seats in parliament, compared with 80 percent for the military and the main military-backed party.”

Phan says that the positive results will have a limited impact, if any. “Even if Aung San Suu Kyi had a majority, parliament has very limited power, and the military has an effective veto over its decisions,” she says.

Ben Rogers echoes her concerns, and hopes that the United States and other countries don’t rush to lift sanctions. “While some sanctions should be lifted in order to recognize the changes so far, the European Union, the United States, Canada and Australia should not lift all their sanctions in one go, and should ensure that some measures are retained until there is significant further progress, particularly an end to crimes against humanity and war crimes in the ethnic states and a genuine peace process,” he says.

Rogers believes that the election signifies a vital first step, but the battle for freedom is far from won. “Until all the people of Burma can live in peace and freedom, we cannot say that Burma is free,” he says. “Today Burma has taken a welcome step forward towards change, but it has not yet changed.”

Kristin Wright is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, international travel, social justice, women's issues, religious freedom, and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email [email protected].

Publication date: April 3, 2012

Burma Election a 'Welcome Step Toward Change'