Burma in transition

Burma holds parliamentary by-elections on Sunday. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi fears irregularities, a fair ballot cannot be amed. Not long ago, simply saying the name of the democracy movement icon was taboo.

At first glance, the streets of bustling Rangoon are filled with the ordinary, and to Western observers, chaotic hustle and bustle of a major Asian city. Cookshops, stalls, hawkers, moneychangers and betel nut sellers dominate the scene. Much, however, in Rangoon is new and downright revolutionary for the Burmese, who have been oppressed for decades by a brutal military dictatorship and largely isolated from the outside world.

Satellite dishes are suddenly sprouting up on more and more houses; restaurants and cafes display the latest editions of international newspapers; WiFi has recently become standard in many hotels and cafes. But the clearest sign of change is the ubiquitous presence of Aung San Suu Kyi. Cab drivers have photos of the opposition leader on the dashboard of their cars; smart souvenir vendors hawk Aung San Suu Kyi keychains. Pirated copies of the film "The Lady," about the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner by Luc Besson, are on sale on every street corner for the equivalent of about 1.70 euros.

Happy, but also unsettled
Not long ago, simply saying the name of the democracy movement icon was taboo. The Burmese are happy, but also unsettled in view of this development, which President Thein Sein initiated to the surprise of almost all observers after taking office a year ago.

Archbishop Charles Bo, president of Burma's Catholic Bishops' Conference, is one of the many Burmese who are cautious about reform policies: "The degree of freedom has already improved. But it remains to be seen how serious they are."Too often in the past decades, the generals' promises of more democracy and freedom have been broken, the people suppressed, democracy fighters imprisoned and tortured.

Aung Shwe is a young man with a warm-hearted laugh who, thanks to Buddhist meditation, does not lose his balance easily. With his umbrella stretched out to protect him from the hot sun, the 30-year-old walks to work in an engineering office in his traditional longyi, the wrap-around skirt worn by both sexes in Burma. The street is full of potholes; manhole covers are missing; the battered houses on the right and left are reminiscent of Leipzig at the end of the GDR era. "Look at this," says Aung Shwe, adding with a laugh, "It could be that they're serious about reforms. But the government has no idea what it's like at the grassroots level."

Landslide victory expected for opposition party
The headquarters of the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) is bustling with activity. On the first floor of the shabby building in the shadow of the Shwedagon Pagoda, helpers are packing T-shirts with the golden-yellow party logo of the fighting peacock, brochures and other campaign materials for use in the 45 constituencies that will vote on 1. April by-elections are due. The NLD, which boycotted the 2010 parliamentary elections, is contesting all constituencies. There is little doubt that the opposition party and its top candidate Aung San Suu Kyi will win by a landslide.

Apart from a few minor incidents, the election campaign has been trouble-free so far. It is the local authorities who occasionally put obstacles in the way of the NLD. "But they are quickly called to order from "above," says NLD secretary Hantha Myint. The election will not change the overwhelming parliamentary majority of Thein Sein's USDP. But the party, which is close to the military, will have to get used to a self-confident opposition.

Hantha Myint has no doubt that the NLD will be Burma's ruling party after the next regular elections in four years' time. "No one has to be afraid of us when we are in power," party leader Aung San Suu Kyi's close confidant says in English. And he does not use the "if" which expresses uncertainty, but the "when" which leaves no room for doubt.

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