ON November 8, Burmese voters will head to the polls in what will be the country’s most important election since military rule took grip of the country in 1962, and expectations are high that these elections will be a significant step forward along the path to democracy.
Burma (also known as Myanmar) has only had two general elections since the 1962 coup d’état and both of these were seriously flawed. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, gaining 392 of the 492 seats, but the results were ignored by the military junta and the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the following 15 years. Suu Kyi’s party was then excluded from the 2010 elections which the military’s quasi-civilian party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), successfully won.
Since the 2010 elections gradual reforms have been introduced which have improved civil and political liberties. However there are still a number of serious challenges ahead which will test Asia’s third least developed nation as it attempts to transition to a fully-fledged democracy. Among the challenges facing the country are a constitution that strongly favours the military; legislation that disqualifies Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president; armed conflicts along border regions; ultra-nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment; and a climate of fear.
Burma’s constitution was drawn up by the military junta in 2008 and clearly signals its preference for military leadership. One of the constitution’s most controversial points is the provision that guarantees the military 25 percent of all parliamentary seats. The constitution also ensures the military is guaranteed one vice-presidential position and influence over key positions within the cabinet. Furthermore any amendments to the constitution must be backed by over 75 percent of parliament, giving the military the power to veto any constitutional amendments. Any hope of changing the constitution will need the backing of some factions from within the military.
Another provision of the constitution that has been criticized by the international community is the stipulation that candidates who marry foreign nationals cannot become the country’s president. It is widely believed that this provision was introduced by the military junta specifically to block Suu Kyi’s ambitions of leading the country forward.
In a recent interview with Karan Thapar for India Today, Suu Kyi spoke out about the constitution and defiantly claimed that if her party were to win the election she would be the leader: “If the NLD wins the elections and we form a government, I am going to be the leader of that government whether or not I am the president.” The democracy icon also indicated that she believed there were factions within the military willing to support changes to the constitution. “I do believe there are many members of the army who want what is best for the country and if we can agree with one another what would be best for the country then we can come to the arrangement,” she said.
Other challenges facing a peaceful transition to democracy are the ongoing conflicts in border regions. Of Burma’s population, 60 percent are Bamar and the remaining 40 percent are from a mix of ethnic groups, most of which live along the border regions. Many of these groups remain involved in ongoing conflicts with the Burmese military. Attempts are underway to implement a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) in time for the elections, with plans to sign an agreement on October 15. However negotiating the ceasefire has been fraught with difficulties.
Across Burma there are 21 armed ethnic groups, but the government only officially recognizes 15 of these groups and only eight have been involved in negotiations to sign the ceasefire agreement. Ethnic groups which have been excluded from negotiations have been critical of the NCA saying the pact is invalid because it does not involve all stakeholders.
There are also fears that the military is using the conflict as an excuse to cancel elections in certain regions. Recent news reports indicate that ‘security concerns’ are being used to exclude 20,000 Mons in Karen State from participating in the elections. The Karen State is a region where pro-government parties were expected to do poorly in the ballot. If boarder regions are excluded from the democratic process, the ability of an elected government to effectively govern the entire country will be severely impaired.
Another ethnic group that will be excluded from the 2015 elections are the Rohingya Muslims whose legal status has been systematically eroded. The Rohingya community had previously been issued temporary identification papers which had enabled them to vote in earlier elections but these papers have since been discontinued and an estimated 500,000 Rohingya, mostly from Rakhine State, have been removed from voter registration lists.
The erosion of the Rohingya Muslim’s rights has coincided with a tide of rising nationalism which has been bolstered by an organization of radical Buddhist monks known as Ma Ba Tha (Protection of Race and Religion). Prominent members of Ma Ba Tha have made international headlines for their outspoken anti-Muslim rhetoric. While monks are exempt from voting or running for office, these radical monks have become increasingly influential and the lack of Muslim representation in both the USDP and the NLD is believed to be the result of pressure from extremist monks. Ma Ba Tha has also been responsible for drafting and promoting recent legislation that restricts Muslims from having large families. There are genuine concerns that local political parties with ultra-nationalist ideologies could rise to power in the Rakhine State and introduce policies that will further persecute the Muslim community.
After decades of military rule by a regime that has been notorious for repressing public debate, freedom of speech and protest, the past few years have seen some genuine improvements to political and civil liberties. However, there are concerns these ‘reforms’ are only surface deep and the populous continues to be intimated by the government.
On October 7, Amnesty International released a report, ‘Going back to the old ways’, which accused the government in Burma of launching a crackdown on opponents in the run-up to the elections. Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar Researcher, explained: “Myanmar’s authorities have clearly been playing a long game ahead of the elections, with repression picking up pace at least nine months before the campaigning period started in September. Their goal has been straightforward – take ‘undesirable’ voices off the streets way ahead of the elections and make sure they’re not heard.”
The Amnesty International report also describes a climate of fear created by government surveillance, harassment, and intimidation, and argues that Burma’s improvements to civil liberties are little more than an illusion to please the international community.
“Myanmar’s government is trying to spin an alternate reality where all is rosy for human rights, which the international community is far too eager to accept. The reality on the ground could not be more different. Authorities have intensified a chilling crackdown on freedom of expression over the past year.”
When the Burmese electorate go to the polls on November 8 it will be participating in a genuinely historic election, the outcome of which will significantly influence the pace and direction of the country’s reforms. If the NLD is able to win a majority, as many observers predict, it will have made an important step forward but will then be faced with new, complex challenges that include wrestling power away from a military junta reluctant to lose control, engaging with ethnic groups excluded from the democratic process, dealing with the influential ultra-nationalist Ma Ba Tha and tackling the rising violence in minority ethnic regions.