Even a little democracy can be a good thing

Apr 3, 2012

OF ALL of the many words spoken in euphoria or in caution since Aung San Suu Kyi's victory in Sunday's Burmese byelections, which is likely to win her a seat in parliament, the most prescient were uttered by one of her supporters, a Rangoon goldsmith, U Min Zaw: ''This is just a little step, just a little democracy,'' he said. This articulates how the country is seen by the rest of the world. It is caught between the excesses of its repressive past and the simmering influences of its still powerful military presence in politics, and the more encouraging transformative measures introduced by the nominally civilian government, led by former general Thein Sein, who was elected President just over a year ago.

In truth, the byelections, called to fill just 48 vacant seats in the country's 664-seat national parliament, will not in themselves change Burmese politics. Indeed, the success of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy - the main opposition party - gives it a foothold in a parliament still dominated by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. But even a foothold gains Ms Suu Kyi access to what, not so long ago, was regarded as an unscaleable peak: true democracy.

There may indeed be precious little democracy in Burma at this stage; but, in context, Ms Suu Kyi's win must be regarded as remarkable and a portent for a wider, fairer and lasting democractic system too long denied to a country that has suffered cruel humanitarian, economic and social hardship in the face of brutality and repression. Perhaps, by 2015, when general elections are due to be held, there will be more political change, including the repeal of the constitutional requirement that 25 per cent of parliamentary seats be reserved for the military.

The important thing to bear in mind at this stage is that considerable reforms have already been introduced over the past 12 months: these include the release of political prisoners, lifting of censorship and media restrictions, allowing workers the right to form trade unions, and releasing Ms Suu Kyi herself after 15 years of house arrest. Even the elections themselves, conducted in the presence of hundreds of foreign journalists and teams of observers, have been in stark contrast to the secretive, manipulative processes of the past. There have been some allegations of irregularities, but, unlike previous elections, there have been no reports of arrests or killings.

There has been a careful international response to the byelections, which is pragmatic, considering the unpredictable volatility of Burmese leadership, and the fact that the military is still a potent force. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who visited Burma just a few months ago, cautiously says there are ''no guarantees for what lies ahead for the people of Burma''; Australia's Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, while saying Burma's reforms have been serious, acknowledges there could still be ''resistance'' to Burma's leadership by the military.

The crucial question hinges on what Burma wants and so desperately needs: the easing of US and European Union economic sanctions. Are President Sein's reforms genuine, or are they a military-backed ruse designed to trick foreign governments into easing sanctions? The best positive endorsement probably comes from Aung San Suu Kyi, who has said the President wants to ''achieve real positive change''. As to how effective she will be - or will be allowed to be - once she is in parliament cannot yet be known. The important part is that the Nobel peace prize-winning pro-democracy leader is poised to be a lawmaker, someone to be heeded as a figure of influence and change. Ms Suu Kyi has said that to be in parliament is to ensure that ''one voice can be heard loudly all over the world in this day and age''. For someone who has been kept silent for so many years, this is the real cause for hope for the 60 million people of Burma, who have suffered so much for so long.

Budget must clarify road ahead

THE Baillieu government's response to a stalling state economy and job losses has been notably, even worryingly, sedate. A factor in this slump is that several multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects are winding down. Business sees few projects on the horizon to pick up the slack. This is a critical time for Victoria. Managing prosperity is much easier than governing through a slump, so next month's state budget is looming as one of the most difficult and important in a decade. The government should use its second budget to offer more certainty about its long-term infrastructure plans. Few priorities rank higher than improving east-west transport links across Melbourne.

The government is loath to spend public money, but the proposed 18-kilometre east-west road link is potentially attractive to private investors. To cut costs, as The Saturday Age reported, the government is seeking ways to reduce tunnelling. Its submission to Infrastructure Australia for an initial $30 million for the project made it clear sections that are most attractive to public-private partnerships would be built first. The project is obviously in the early stage of assessing construction and financing options, but the government needs to give a solid lead to business by setting out a long-term schedule for this and other major infrastructure projects. Companies have hung on to skilled staff in anticipation of the next phase of infrastructure development, but they cannot hang on for ever.

The government also should not fall into the old trap of ignoring public transport. The head of Public Transport Victoria, Ian Dobbs, disputes the Auditor-General's finding that $30 billion must be spent in the next 10 years to save the city from being choked by congestion, but he does see the need for a Melbourne Metro tunnel linking South Yarra to South Kensington. With current capacities stretched to the limits, rail and road projects are both part of the mix that will be needed to cope with Melbourne's expected growth. The costs of building such infrastructure are daunting, but doing nothing has huge costs too in the form of job shedding and a multibillion-dollar congestion hit to productivity.

The Gillard and Baillieu governments are not each other's preferred political partner and may be tempted to play politics on infrastructure funding. That would be a betrayal of all Victorians, who expect governments to put their interests first. Business, industry and the public are united in demanding transport systems that keep up with their needs. The state budget needs to get the ball rolling and the Commonwealth should help it do so.

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