As someone forced to flee Burma as a teenager when the Burmese army attacked my village, I haven’t been able to stop watching the news from my country about the elections. As the results started to come through showing a likely landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), I was surprised to find myself having mixed feelings.
Here was the prospect of the first civilian government in more than 50 years. Friends of mine were voting for the first time. Some friends even stood as candidates and were winning seats. They will now be MPs. The love and support people have for Aung San Suu Kyi was being demonstrated by the big majorities NLD candidates were achieving. Isn’t this what we have been working towards for so long?
Part of my sadness is personal. I am not there to be part of it. Despite some reforms, I am still not allowed back into my own country. And I am not the only one excluded. There were at least 10 million people from Burma, mostly from ethnic and religious minorities as I am, who were not able to vote in the election.
I know the NLD government will be able to make many positive changes in my country, and this is really good news. At the same time however, deep down I know the military hasn’t completely handed over power. An NLD government is going to face many challenges because the army has inserted lots of clauses into the constitution to limit its power. This is designed to restrict the freedom of the NLD government to make big changes to the country.
The soldiers haven’t given up control, instead, they will exercise it in a different way. They still have ultimate power according to the constitution.
It’s not just about the 25 per cent of seats reserved for the military in parliament that enables them to block constitutional change. Imagine if in the UK the head of the British Army appointed the defence secretary and home secretary. That is the situation in Burma.
When the NLD forms a government, the head of the army will be appointing the government ministers responsible for border affairs, defence and home affairs. An NLD government won’t control the army, the police or the security services. This means the Burmese army attacks against ethnic minority civilians which drove me from my home, and which increased in the run-up to the election, can carry on. It also means peaceful political activists can still be arrested and jailed.
It makes me sad that for the first time there will be a civilian government which will genuinely want to end conflict, reach a political settlement with ethnic groups, and bring lasting peace to the country, but that it won’t have the constitutional power to actually do so. It won’t control the army and it won’t have the power to change the constitution.
As someone from the ethnic Karen group, I am worried about the positive impression being given by most reports on the election.
To know that children will still be experiencing the terror I did when I was doing my homework and bombs suddenly started landing in my village, but that the outside world is getting the impression that everything is now OK, makes me very worried for the future. This isn’t the end of our long struggle. It’s the start of a new phase of that struggle, and the military are as determined as ever not to give up control. Celebrate an NLD victory today, but tomorrow, we still need your support.
Zoya Phan is campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography is published under the title ‘Little Daughter’ (‘Undaunted’ in the USA)
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