I have dreamed for many years of seeing Aung San Suu Kyi elected to parliament and watching thousands of people celebrating in the streets. Yet, while the scenes made me happy, I also felt a strange emptiness inside.
We always expected that Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to take a seat in parliament would be a final step on the road to democracy. Instead, it is only the first. Aung San Suu Kyi is even more cautious. Asked last week how democratic Burma was on a scale of one to 10, she answered “on the way to one“.
Too much importance has been attached to these byelections, whose significance is more symbolic than practical. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, will have about 5% of the seats in parliament, compared with 80% for the military and the main military-backed party. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi had a majority, parliament has very limited power, and the military has an effective veto over its decisions.
Yet, as Aung San Suu Kyi hoped, the byelection campaign has successfully mobilised many people, breaking down the fear of engaging in politics after generations of dictatorship. Now she is trying to use the limited new political space to bring genuine democratic reform, but the challenges are immense. To use these byelections as a benchmark for judging change is a mistake. Even had they been free and fair, and they were not, they don’t mean Burma is now free.
I have another reason for feeling cautious. I am from the Karen ethnic group, which has faced appalling repression since Burma gained independence. Aged 16 I had to flee my village, when without warning, the army fired mortars into the village, while I was doing my homework. That was 15 years ago but, under the “reforming” Thein Sein, attacks like that by the army haven’t decreased. Quite the opposite.
While the international community gets excited about the changes taking place in Burma, many people from ethnic minorities, who make up 40% of the population, feel left behind and forgotten. The only change for many people from ethnic minorities under Thein Sein has been that things have got worse.
The government broke ceasefires with some armed ethnic political parties, and its soldiers went on the rampage, raping, killing, looting, burning villages, using villagers as slave labour. In the past year more than 150,000 people in ethnic minority states fled their homes because of army attacks. If this had happened in or around Burma’s capital, Rangoon, there would be international outrage. No one would be talking about lifting sanctions. But because it happens out of sight in the mountains in ethnic minority states, the international community ignores what is going on.
I can’t help thinking how people in the refugee camps in Thailand, facing yet more cuts in rations because the EU is cutting funding, and who cannot safely return home, will feel seeing pictures of celebrations in Rangoon. How will a mother in Kachin state, living in an overcrowded temporary camp and whose child is sick from malnutrition because Thein Sein won’t allow aid to them, feel when she sees those pictures? There has always been a divide and mistrust between ethnic minorities and the Burman population in central Burma. My father, a Karen leader who was assassinated in 2008 by government agents, said the dictatorship’s successful divide and rule strategy was one of the main reasons we hadn’t won our freedom.
The contrast in experiences between the changes for those in central Burma, and new horrors for ethnic minorities in the border areas, is enormous, but we must not allow it to increase resentment and mistrust. There are reasons for optimism as well. Aung San Suu Kyi won her seat in the Irrawaddy delta thanks to the overwhelming support of the ethnic Karen who live in her constituency. Burma’s reform process might be leaving ethnic minorities behind, but we should still stay united for our common cause: freedom.
Zoya Phan, one of Burma’s leading democracy activists in Europe, is from the Karen ethnic group.