Myanmar is a small country in Southeast Asia, isolated from the rest of the world for over half a century until recently. But thanks to Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s epic struggle for freedom in recent years has attracted the interest of powerful leaders from around the world. In particular, US President Obama, and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton both of whom took great care to include Myanmar as one of their foreign policy centrepieces.
Now, as Myanmar holds its first historic elections, western media continues to focus on communal violence, religious intolerance, and ethnic rebellions. But, under scrutiny, democracy has a much more profound and practical meaning for the ordinary Myanmar people.
From the beginning, the military has elected to adopt a form of constitution similar to America’s, which unlike the British, is written on paper. Yet, in spite of the lack of freedom to have any say in the making of Myanmar’s constitution, it is still the true essence of democracy, not the pomp and ceremony in isolated Naypyidaw that the people want.
No doubt that today’s election is Myanmar’s historic turning point, but the question remains to what end? For the leaders of Myanmar’s military, the seat of government invokes the image of a democracy. But for the people who pay the price for citizenship, the meaning of the Myanmar democratic system is what matters most. And how they perceive and react to the government’s rule will continue to predict the future of Myanmar.
Myanmar people are keenly aware of the core of the Myanmar constitution where the Myanmar military emphasizes common defence and domestic tranquillity above justice and welfare of ordinary citizens. Those are only two of the five elements that give the American constitution such enduring democracy. The Myanmar constitution curtails three other remaining crucial elements that guarantees and protect the freedom, lives and prosperity of the people.
Even more important, Myanmar’s constitution misinterprets the meaning of ‘common defence’ of the nation. For, in the United States, ordinary citizens’ rights to defend themselves trumps the government’s need to defend foreign hostility. The first four amendments to the American constitution explicitly make clear at the founding of the nation, that no soldier or government can interfere with ordinary citizens’ right to protect their own lives, freedom, and property including the use of firearms. While it has been touted in the news about a nationwide ceasefire in Myanmar, in reality without their rights being protected, Myanmar’s most powerful armed rebels have not joined the military style democracy in any measurable stride.
Unfortunately for the military, in recent months, Myanmar continues to experience bitter challenges to its openness to freedom of speech and religion. The army still fears losing political control, and Myanmar people continue to live under an oppressive quasi-military rule that punishes its perceived enemies. Until there is real freedom to exercise intellectual and spiritual conviction peacefully in Myanmar, the government will continue to clash with intellectuals, students and visionaries - fundamental forces necessary for enduring peace, progress, and prosperity. Unfortunately, with many such leaders and visionaries languishing in Myanmar prisons, in exile, or simply choosing to remain on the political periphery, the future of Myanmar is still in doubt.
However, in the end, even sceptics will concede that this election is the validation of Aung San Suu Kyi and her prowess, the finest hour when the Golden Peacock of NLD has risen to its greatest. At the same time, everyone will be asking whether it will become a force that can reckon with the ills of the nation, and carry it beyond the wounds of the past to meet the challenges beyond. For now it is our hope that it may indeed be the case.
May Ng is from Southern Shan State in Myanmar. She now lives in New York City. She has been writing articles on Myanmar since 2003.