Burma faces unknown after historic election
Military will not want to lose control of power regardless of people’s will
A shop selling calendars with the images of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. People in Rangoon did not foresee that her party would win by such a huge and decisive majority. Photograph: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA
The immense change in Burma (Myanmar) over the past decade is evident to the repeat visitor before they even step off the plane in Rangoon (Yangon).
The terminal at the airport in Mingaladon is not only new and far larger than the old building, but it’s being extended again. It is a hint at the movement of many people into a country that for years was shunned by the West due to its military regime.
This week, the world’s eyes were on Burma, as the first free elections since 1990 were held. The result was a genuine and welcome surprise for many people, not least those who live here. I was told in Rangoon by a number of people that prior to the election, nobody was able to call the outcome, despite what the world’s media was speculating. Those who live and work here did not foresee that the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, would win by a such a huge and decisive majority.
Such was the uncertain result that my hosts in Rangoon informed me by email prior to arrival that I was part of their evacuation plan, should unrest follow the count.
This was not scaremongering. A country ruled by a ruthless junta for decades, no matter how overwhelming a vote for democracy proves to be, is still a country that will remain unpredictable for some time.
This week, a constant stream of people, both locals and tourists, were pulling up in taxis and cars outside the house and taking pictures of themselves with mobile phones under the NLD banners draped over the front gate.
There are now three mobile phone providers in the country. The economy of the Sim card alone is telling. In 2010, according to my hosts, who have lived here for three years, a Sim card on the black market cost $2,500 (€2,350). In 2013, it was $250.
This week, walking around downtown Rangoon, Sim cards were openly being sold at stalls for $3. Undoubtedly, cheap mass communication must have helped consolidate opinion and galvanise voters in the months before the election.
However, like pretty much everything else in Burma, those three phone companies operate under the watchful eye of the military. Should they wish to shut down the networks and cut off communication, this could in theory happen at any time, so the new bridge between an unconnected country and a connected one remains a fragile one.
“The ultimate opulence of a luxurious lifestyle . . . At every level an elite luxurious lifestyle ignites,” read the words on a hoarding outside one particularly vast new high-rise residential development.
The question that is not easy to answer is who is benefiting from all this development. It appears very little of the new money being generated in Burma is filtering down to ordinary people. Vast tracts of the commercial land currently under development are owned by the military, as are many of the residential properties in the more desirable parts of Rangoon, which are rented out.
The military continues to control the majority of wealth in Burma, whether it’s the jade and ruby mines or the country’s ever more valuable real estate.
In theory, the country’s assets and natural resources should be used for the benefit of all people of Burma. The reality is that this had not happened in the past. The money generated in Burma in the last 40 years has not gone to its health or education systems, both of which are now in need of huge investment; it went almost exclusively to members of the military.
It doesn’t take too much searching to find the contrasts that remain in a capital city that can advertise a residential complex where an “elite luxurious lifestyle” is promised and also contains the so-called “scribes” I saw, who sit out on the pavements downtown with their ancient manual typewriters, bashing out letters and documents for those who need them.
Furthermore, the military will continue to control the country’s national defence and security council, along with the key ministries of home affairs and border control.
If the outcome for the NLD took everyone by surprise, so too did the fact that no unrest – to date – followed the count. A peaceful transition is what everyone wants.
The unknown quality of what lies ahead is the fact that the NLD has always been an activist party in opposition and has no experience of government.
There is also the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now 70 and who cannot be president due to constitutional law, has already said she will be “above the president”; a statement that nobody yet knows the meaning of, including, presumably, Suu Kyi.
Whoever occupies the role of president in the weeks and months to come will have to juggle a watching world, a still formidable opposition which remain an unknown quantity and the woman known as The Lady who led her party to power and will now continue to hover above it like a hawk.