A WAVE of discontent swept Burma on Aug. 8, 1988, a protest that came to be called the “four eights uprising.” Demonstrations in the weeks that followed saw the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi as an influential and popular figure. When elections were held in 1990, her National League for Democracy (NLD) won 80 percent of the parliamentary seats, but the outcome was ignored by military rulers, who isolated her under house arrest. For a quarter-century, the generals kept freedom and prosperity at bay as much of Southeast Asia moved forward. Burma’s story seemed to be one of hopes dashed, of retreat and retrenchment.
But it turns out that a large swath of Burma’s 51 million people have not given up on the promise of 1988. A reform process that the generals initiated a few years ago, which included freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, proceeded to national parliamentary elections on Sunday. And 25 years after Burma’s last free vote, early returns show that the NLD again has won a landslide victory. It may come close to enough seats in parliament to rule outright, without a coalition, even though the generals stacked the deck with a constitution that reserves one-quarter of parliament’s seats for them. No matter what the final outcome, the massive surge of voting for “The Lady,” as she is known, and for her party is a triumph for those who kept the flame alive.
The coming months will test patience still more. Burma, also known as Myanmar, has not rid itself of the army’s heavy-handed influence. Even if the NLD secures a majority, it will have to contend with the generals, who also retain control over key security posts. Moreover, they wrote into the constitution a provision that effectively bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. She recently declared that she would serve “above the president,” but did not say how. The parliament will be seated in February and select a president in March, so the coming months portend delicate negotiating over the shape of a future government.
The winning party also must lift up the disenfranchised and persecuted ethnic communities, including the Rohingya Muslims who have been treated miserably in this Buddhist-majority nation. Aung San Suu Kyi was reluctant to face this issue during the campaign, but she must confront it now. Persistent restrictions on journalists and free speech more broadly must end; political prisoners and former political prisoners should be granted unconditional freedom.
Prime credit for this opportunity goes to the Burmese people, and especially those who never gave up the fight for democracy despite terrible persecution. The Obama administration deserves credit, too, for its encouragement of reform. Along the way, though, we have faulted the administration for claiming victory too soon, thereby losing leverage, and that danger persists today: Trade preferences and improved military relations should await confirmation that, this time, the people’s wishes will not be thwarted.