Zoya Phan writes: I have dreamed for many years of seeing Aung San Suu Kyi elected to parliament and watching thousands of people celebrating in the streets. Yet, while the scenes made me happy, I also felt a strange emptiness inside.
We always expected that Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to take a seat in parliament would be a final step on the road to democracy. Instead, it is only the first. Aung San Suu Kyi is even more cautious. Asked last week how democratic Burma was on a scale of one to 10, she answered “on the way to one“.
Too much importance has been attached to these byelections, whose significance is more symbolic than practical. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, will have about 5% of the seats in parliament, compared with 80% for the military and the main military-backed party. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi had a majority, parliament has very limited power, and the military has an effective veto over its decisions.
Yet, as Aung San Suu Kyi hoped, the byelection campaign has successfully mobilised many people, breaking down the fear of engaging in politics after generations of dictatorship. Now she is trying to use the limited new political space to bring genuine democratic reform, but the challenges are immense. To use these byelections as a benchmark for judging change is a mistake. Even had they been free and fair, and they were not, they don’t mean Burma is now free.