It’s been 22 years coming, but it seems as though Myanmar’s persistent icon of democracy, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, will finally take her place in the country’s parliament after by-elections on April 1. “I feel like I want to dance,” the New York Times quoted a 65-year-old painter, Khin Maung Myint. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League fro Democracy, may take as many as 44 of the 45 contested seats in the by-elections, which could be shaved to 41 or 42 by the time the official tally comes out, but will effectively create a tiny, but influential opposition in Myanmar’s capital, the planned city of Napyidaw, where the military-led government moved in 2005.
What does this mean for the current debate about the virtues of authoritarian governments versus democracies? As we read almost constantly these days, go-to authoritarian governments (i.e., China) are showing up messy democracies created after the image of the United States (the Philippines being a leading example). Myanmar’s by-election is evening out the score to some extent. The Myanmarese have had it with their authoritarian government, which has been both cruel and incompetent. Its vulnerability has been starkly apparent over the last few months, with governments in Europe and North America essentially withholding benefits until they could see proof that the by-election was conducted fairly.
Although election monitors reported at least 50 “irregularities,” election monitors from outside the country were allowed, together with foreign journalists. Technically, the military and the government are not threatened by this development – even 44 seats out of 1,160 seats will have negligible voting power. But, with nearly every one of Myanmar’s 54 million people revering Suu Kyi as a goddess and technocrat rolled into one, the days of military rule seem numbered.
On a brief visit to Yangon and Bagan in early March, it seemed clear that money laundering was being conducted as a state enterprise. The generals are getting their money out. In a country without ATMs and credit cards, dollars are accepted everywhere – as long as they are perfectly crisp and unmarked. The most likely destination of all these dollar bills are to the Swiss bank accounts of the generals, who can see their power bases crumbling, if not now, within the next few years.
Suu Kyi’s rallying power is so extreme it would certainly operate effectively from beyond the grave, even should the Tatmadaw have the bright idea of getting rid of her permanently. Every newsstand carried half a dozen magazines with her photograph on the front page; one newsstand I passed created a collage of these. Every Myanmarese I talked to had something good to say about her – she understands finance; she understands trade; she can talk to the leaders of the world; she can lead us out of poverty. Everyone equally had a bad word for the generals, who have left Myanmar so far behind the general Asian level of prosperity that only North Korea, with its regular bouts of starvation outside Pyongyang, the manicured capital, is a serious rival.
Walking through downtown Yangon is a charming exercise in historical preservation – except that most of the gorgeous Victorian, Edwardian, and modernist structures have been preserved because there has virtually been no new construction since the 1960s. People make do with what they have got, together with ancient motor vehicles, typewriters, and food grinders that would have looked at home in a kitchen of the 1890s. Updated equipment such as mobile phones or new cars cost fortunes — far beyond the roughly $390 in gross income per capita income. People in Myanmar are so poor that they see Bangladesh as a land of promise, and crowd across the border seeking jobs.
So what does this say about the relationship between electoral democracy and economic growth? Perhaps nothing, but it does say that the flaw of the theory of authoritarian rule – often used interchangeably with Asian values – is that bad rulers are far more difficult to dislodge than under a democracy. And they can do extreme damage. To return briefly to the Philippines – it became a basket case after 1972, when former President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial rule and launched a 14-year effort at extracting everything of value that wasn’t nailed down for his and Imelda’s own Swiss bank accounts. The country was impoverished and its credibility ruined, like Myanmar today. Who knows how well Suu Kyi will do as a parliamentary gadfly, or as president? Expectations are so high for her that it is difficult to see how a mere human being could meet them. But she has shown that one of the fires that lights democracies is bad and brutal government, and authoritarians everywhere should take note.