by Alan Nichols

It is very difficult for foreigners from long-term democracies like Australia to understand what it feels like to vote for the first time in 50 years for a government which takes office. That is why I have not imposed my personal opinion in covering events as they unfolded. We are used to disappointments and compromises, but they essentially don’t have a huge impact on the way we live. Our society is well grounded in the rule of law, participation of civil society and political representation.

When I went to the border of Thailand and Burma/Myanmar in 1991 to work with the Jesuit Refugee Service, there were contrasting hopes. The students who had led the 1988 uprising in universities and schools across Myanmar were coming to terms with the fact that democracy would not come quickly. Many thought they would be back in their classrooms within six months. Twenty five years later, they are now welcomed back home, but most have missed their education, family formation and opportunity for leadership.

By contrast, the 50,000 Karen in refugee camps in 1991 had grown accustomed to a civil war with the military government which had persisted since 1962. They were in for the long haul, and had an active and mobile army defending their territory.


In the 25 years since, we have had many reasons to visit the border camps. Sometimes I was an archdeacon running a ‘clergy school’, sometimes a World Vision worker, sometimes an Anglican Overseas Aid project officer, and more recently strengthening relations between the Anglican Church in Melbourne and the growing church on the border, both inside camps and emerging into the local community. Sometimes people were hopeful, other times depressed and anxious. The young people especially, many born in the camps, had never trodden on native soil, and they were very concerned about whether they had a future.

Very gradually, things changed. The 50,000 were joined by Karenni, Chin and Mon refugees, and 150,000 were in camps. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees started processing them.

In the process, for ten years Australian Immigration interviewed and brought to Australia about a thousand refugees a year. Whole communities have been transformed in Nhill (Victoria), Werribee and Hoppers Crossing (Melbourne). They have started tertiary education, become tradespeople and professionals.

By December 2010, Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a publishing product of the 1988 student uprising but based in Chiang Mai, could write: “Suu Kyi is entering into a new political arena, and faces a mountain of challenges.” The pro-democracy voices among the international community were becoming impatient. The United States lifted sanctions and started dealing with the generals. Suu Kyi’s first task, in Aung Zaw’s view at the time, was “putting her own house (the National League for Democracy) in order.”

All that has happened. Back in November, the first national democratic election confirmed Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity by her party receiving more than 80% of the vote. She could not be President because of a deliberately conceived constitutional amendment, but her close confidante Htin Kyaw is President. As from today, she herself has portfolios as Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, the latter a new invention. Many times during the election campaign she said she would be ‘above the President.’ Today’s comment on this from Noah Feldman, a Bloomfield View columnist, is: “Suu Kyi decided she could outfox the opposition politicians associated with the former military regime by creating a quasi-presidential role outside the official presidency. That shows her understanding that on some level, it doesn’t matter what the constitution says. What matters is what it will practically allow.”

The hopes of success have been fulfilled, but can the larger expectations? Journalists are raising Suu Kyi’s silence on the persecution of the Rohingyas prior to the election. Others are raising concern about how much negotiation she did to pacify the generals in order to hold the election at all.

Just this week, in the Myanmar-now news service, journalist Thin Lei Win writes about his memories as a ten year old of scuffles between students and security officials, and seeing prison vans. Now, watching the government handover in the capital Naypidaw, he has questions about the military’s continued grip on power and the appointment of one of the military’s hardliner as a vice-president.

He raises these questions: Can Suu Kyi handle multiple ministerial appointments? If women are important in leadership, why is only one woman in Cabinet? Why isn’t Cabinet more diverse, with more representation of ethnic groups?

Thin Lei Win concludes: “It will be a very hard and long road ahead, not just for the government and parliament but also for ordinary citizens who have suffered so much but remain hopeful. So despite misgivings, I’m trying to stay alert but positive. My country has had enough of negativity.”

Even compared to my experience in Rwanda, Cambodia and Israel-Palestine, I have certainly never seen such high hopes and expectations as are being expressed in Myanmar. May they not be disappointed.