By Cynthia Murillo
Many people living in democratic countries tend to take their daily rights for granted. Being able to vote for representatives to lead the decision-making processes for a community’s needs seems so natural and easy. However, most democracies have gone through long periods of civil unrest and even war to obtain such a privilege. In the United States, people wake up every day knowing that they can voice their opinions and ask for what they rightfully deserve, knowing that the law protects them. It is hard to fathom what life in a non-democratic country would be like nowadays, since democracy has become such a norm for us, but it is a reality for many people in many nations. On Nov. 8, the country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, had its first freely held elections in over 25 years of military-backed ruling. The results, although not officially finalized, already show promising signs of a Myanmar moving towards democracy. Its citizens are not only extremely optimistic, but are also realizing their collective power for the first time.
Myanmar, located in Southeast Asia, became an independent nation in 1948 after being a British colony. Although after its independence Myanmar was originally a democratic nation, it became a military dictatorship in 1962, which was not formally dissolved until 2011. Despite the dissolving of the military dictatorship, many government positions are still held by members of the military, meaning they are still highly influential in governmental affairs.
These elections marked a historic victory for the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. While Suu Kyi is the official leader of the NLD party, she cannot run for the presidency since a clause of the constitution prohibits it. This clause, believed to have been added solely to prevent Suu Kyi from becoming president, states that anyone with foreign spouses or children may not run for president; Suu Kyi’s husband is British and her children hold British passports.
The NLD’s victory in winning the Parliament majority came exactly five years after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest implemented by the military. Over the 20 years of her house arrest, Suu Kyi, a nobel laureate, had to give up her family, since she was allowed to leave Myanmar as long as she never came back. Suu Kyi decided to stay in her home country and sacrifice her family to continue fighting for the people of Myanmar and their right to live in a democratic nation. Today, Suu Kyi is not only highly respected by Burmese people, but she is also internationally recognized and acclaimed for her peaceful efforts to bring freedom to the people of her home country. In fact, Suu Kyi has been awarded several prizes for peace and freedom, including the Congressional Gold Medal, which is one of the highest civilian honors that exists in the United States.
By early Friday, on November 8, NLD was already in the lead in the long awaited elections. Although the tally has not been finalized, NLD currently has 369 seats out of the total 664, giving it the majority it needs to control Parliament and be able to choose the next president. Who exactly the next president will be remains unclear, but Suu Kyi has reportedly said she would be “above the president” in making decisions. The army still holds 25 percent of the seats and has vetoing power over any proposed constitutional changes. According to press reports by BBC, the election has “been remarkable both in the peaceful and largely fair way it was run, and by the response of the losing side.” Despite Myanmar’s elections being considered democratic, there remain ethnic conflicts that prevail in the country; for example, the Muslim Rohingya minority was not allowed to vote in the election.
2015 has seen many horrific events, such as the continuing violent attacks in the Middle East, and the recent mass terrorist attack in Paris. Despite these tragedies, events like Myanmar’s conversion to a democracy should not be overshadowed or forgotten about. Public freedom is necessary; that is, people must have the right to choose who governs them, who will make the best decisions for their country. The people of Myanmar have discovered that they can make significant change by working together, though it may not be easy and require personal sacrifices. Myanmar’s citizens have put all their trust in what Suu Kyi has instilled, and are excited for the promised changes. Now, the people of Myanmar can wake up every day knowing that they can voice their opinions freely, that what they ask for will be taken into consideration; however, it is too soon for them to take democracy for granted.