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audio here (realplayer) – http://www.rte.ie/news/player/world-report/2012/0408/

The idea that Aung San Suu Kyi would be elected as a MP in Burma seemed far-fetched not so long ago.

Famously, the 1991 Nobel peace laureate won a 1990 election, but then spent 15 of the next 20 years under house arrest, while Burma’s military junta ignored the election result.

But, last Sunday April 1, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won 43 seats in by-elections. She will soon sit in a parliament set up after 2010 national elections, which were rigged to give the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party almost 80% of the seats available – a win on a scale befitting the Orwellian sounding party name.

And while there were understandable scenes of euphoria on the streets of Rangoon last week as results came thought – the reality is that Suu Kyi’s party has only around 5% of all seats going in Burma’s upper, lower and regional houses of parliament.

The country’s constitution ensures that one way or another, the army dominates government in Burma. It also means that Suu Kyi cannot become President, even if she wins the next national elections due in 2015.

No surprise then, that changing the constitution is a priority for the woman known in Burma as Aunty Suu, or, alternatively, The Lady, in keeping with the shamefully dull and mawkish Hollywood biopic about Suu Kyi released recently.

Burma’s government has allowed some reforms recently, and Suu Kyi has backed the president, ensuring that sceptical western governments gave some backing to the process by promising to reduce sanctions and allow western investment in a backward and impoverished economy, largely dominated by Thai and Chinese companies seeking to suck out the country’s oil, gas and hydropower resources.

To some, the reforms, and allowing Suu Kyi win the by-election, is all a PR exercise to get sanctions ended and legitimise behind-the-scenes army rule.

But, having reported from Burma twice in recent months, there is a definite dilution of the Big Brother feel. Foreign journalists typically entered Burma on tourist visas in the past – if they made it past the visa black list in the first place.

Then a cat-and-mouse game ensued, trying to arrange meetings and interviews while evading the notice of the ubiquitous military intelligence and plain-clothes snoops, who literally sat on every street corner, listening in to conversations in Burma’s tea-shops for any sign of dissidence.

Equally important, too, for reporters in Burma in the bad old days, was to ensure that local sources were not compromised. Under Burma’s laws, such alleged offences, such as talking to foreign media, could result in a 15 year jail term.

But on recent visits, I was able to meet recently-freed political prisoners in public, and they told me that while they were sure that the police were keeping tabs, it was not the same as before, when every movement was watched and jotted down.

People on the streets were relaxed talking to foreign press – another unthinkable just 5 or 6 months previously.

The question, now, however, is how long will this all last? Government officials say the reforms are irreversible. But many oppressive laws remain on the books, and, looking ahead to 2015, if Aung San Suu Kyi was to repeat her April 1 by-election result in a full national election, it would mean a humiliation for the country’s military and the current government. Will the former junta generals allow this to happen?

For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Bangkok.

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