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A file photo of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi

A file photo of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi

A diffcult dawn in Myanmar

A diffcult dawn in Myanmar

Once upon a time, there lived a prince who fought demons and liberated his land, only to be murdered treacherously before he could be crowned king. A long, dark night followed, as evil forces took over the land, which turned dry.

His daughter, now a princess, lived in a faraway land. As her mother lay dying, she returned. The people rose and greeted her; her mother died; the evil forces jailed the princess in a fortress by the lake.

Many years later, the kingdom’s new king asked the people what they wanted. And they wanted the princess. She strode confidently towards the capital; the people crowned her queen. And everyone lived happily ever after.

A file photo of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Despite the scale of NLD’s victory margins, the party’s parliamentary presence will be small. A quarter of the 664 members of parliament belong to the military and many others who have benefited from the status quo aren’t joyous about the results. Suu Kyi will need significantly more support from outside—other opposition parties, as well as the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party—to get anything meaningful done. Outside the parliament, her party desperately needs younger leaders, as many of NLD’s stalwarts are old. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s leadership remains opaque and nobody knows the extent to which President Thein Sein commands support within the military to sustain these reforms.

When Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), he didn’t intend to break up the Soviet Union, but so it happened. His calculation was tactical—to reform the union internally and reduce the rapidly rising costs of the arms race which were crippling what remained of the Soviet economy. The Soviet Union could no longer match the US defence budget ruble-for-dollar, particularly after president Ronald Reagan announced the strategic defence initiative. When F.W. de Klerk sought peace with Nelson Mandela, he knew that in the post-Cold War era, South Africa had lost its pre-eminent status as the frontline bulwark against Soviet expansionism in Africa. It was time for change.

Do Myanmar’s rulers realize that? If not, what are Sein’s compulsions? And why would Myanmar’s patron, China, be happy with the democratization in Myanmar? To understand that, turn to what Bertil Lintner, my former colleague at Far Eastern Economic Review, and one of the foremost experts on Myanmar, has to say in a recent piece in Asia Times. Lintner says, persuasively, that many of Myanmar’s current leaders have fought wars with the Burmese Communist Party and some insurgencies which China backed. While an earlier generation of the Tatmadaw (as the armed forces are known) liked Mao-era China, the new generation wants to balance relations, Lintner argues, drawing on a confidential assessment probably drawn up by senior Myanmar officials.

To loosen the Chinese ties and maintain investment flows, Sein wants international engagement, the price of which is free elections and economic deregulation.

The logical consequence is reduced military role. The military’s business arm will find its lucrative trading monopolies disappear, as the NLD has already spoken of removing crony capitalism. Its political influence will diminish, if the NLD manages to get constitutional changes passed to make Myanmar look more like a real democracy. Why should an army that has enjoyed the best seats at the table for 60 years give up its privileges?

The Indonesian parallel offers some room for optimism. Where the army gradually realized that in the twilight of the Suharto era it had to relinquish powers and accept a secondary role. The so-called dwifungsi (dual functions) allowed the army to take seats in the parliament, establish dominance through Golkar Party, get plum jobs, including ambassadorships and oil company directorships, run businesses, and set up dubious yayasans (foundations) which ostensibly did charitable work. A dozen years after Suharto’s fall the army’s role has diminished considerably. In Myanmar’s case, it is in everyone’s interest that such a transition is uneventful and gradual, without bloodshed.

This is why it is not going to be a fairy tale. Suu Kyi will have to continue showing her enormous patience, unwavering determination, steely nerves, and act gracefully (as she always has) and articulate with moral clarity her just demand. Many years ago, the people of Myanmar had elected her. She was denied that role. A quarter century later, the people have shown that they haven’t changed their mind; neither has she. If the military wants international acceptability, the generals will have to abandon their past stubbornness and accept the inevitability.

Suu Kyi lives non-violence; she doesn’t have guns. It is the men with guns, in or out of uniforms, who will have to learn to walk like civilians and not march like soldiers. The music has changed. Retreat from the extreme, move towards the centre, and follow the middle path.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at

Also Read | Salil Tripathi’s previous columns

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