ANYONE who spent election evening outside the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Yangon will know that the party’s victory means a great deal to millions of people, and for good reason. The crowds that gathered as early results came in did so to celebrate the looming shift in the composition of parliament, from a military-aligned majority towards a civilian majority. But they are also celebrating the mere ability to exercise voter freedom after a half century without that privilege. The celebrations are as much for the result as they are for the newfound power of the ballot box.
Yet many in Burma have been unable to share those rights, and the implications of this could be far-reaching. Sizeable, and politically important, communities in Burma have either been left out of the vote, or are staring at the prospect of a parliament that lacks obvious representative voices for their constituency.
Several weeks prior to the elections, the government Union Election Commission (UEC) announced it would scrap voting in several townships in Shan State where fighting persists between the Burmese military and Shan rebels. This presents a potentially significant problem for Burma after the elections. The Shan are fighting the government in part because they have long been sidelined from the political process. Power very much flows out from the centre in Burma, and the Shan, like all other ethnic minorities in the country, have at best been able to exercise only nominal influence over their own affairs, hence the recourse to fighting when the ballot box held little promise.
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Voting may well have been scrapped there for security reasons, but it occurred in an area in which seats would have almost certainly been taken from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), given its alignment with the same military that has been raining artillery down on Shan villages, and gone to ethnic parties or the NLD. But that never happened because constituents were denied the right to vote. The implication for these communities is that the ballot box still cannot be considered an instrument for political leverage. This raises the prospect of extended armed conflict, given that a population that has historically looked to an armed group to push for political change, given the lack of non-violent alternatives, has again been disenfranchised.
Another potential problem for the new parliament is the delicate question of what representation can be offered to the 10 percent of Burma’s population that are Muslims. Much has been made of the scrapping of voting rights for the Rohingya minority in the west, which is contiguous with a wider project to remove any rights they may have once enjoyed, but it also now appears that not a single Muslim candidate, Rohingya or otherwise, will sit in parliament.
Even if parliament is civilian, it will therefore lack the key quality of full representativeness. Many Muslim voters may well have backed the NLD because they knew that a Muslim candidate in parliament would struggle to wield much influence. Were a Muslim MP to lobby for support in overturning the recently passed “Race and Religion” laws that discriminate against Muslims, for instance, then the reaction would likely have been far more fierce than were it a Buddhist MP from the NLD. The move may have been seen as an attempt to sabotage Buddhist dominance of parliament, and the response may have sought to isolate that MP.
“We may well see post-election conflict escalate, particularly given the failure of the government to secure an all-inclusive ceasefire.”
It is understandable then if there is tactical support of the NLD by Muslims, despite the NLD buckling to pressure from ultra-nationalist groups and refusing the candidacy of its own Muslim members. But it reinforces this increasingly majoritarian stance that a Muslim lawmaker would be a dangerous presence in parliament, and in turn lends itself to a growing Buddhist superiority complex that could over time further deprive those very same Muslims that supported the NLD.
Unlike the heightened prospects for conflict that pre-election minority disenfranchisement often creates, the effects of this more subtle removal of Muslim lawmakers from the decision-making arena are likely to materialize slowly. It depends in part on what the NLD can do for Muslims amid this climate of worsening inter-religious hostility. If it continues to concede to pressure from ultra-nationalists then it may contribute to a simmering animosity among Muslims, the results of which could spill over into broader unrest.
On the other hand, the Shan — like other groups along Burma’s periphery that have a long history of fighting the government — are in a sense already primed for conflict when non-violent political channels are unavailable. Hence we may well see post-election conflict escalate, particularly given the failure of the government to secure an all-inclusive ceasefire. The NLD will then need to move quickly to convince all of these sidelined populations that they do have a political voice, that they can finally help to shape their own future, and that it is more committed than the previous government to peace as a wholesale, rather than selective, principal. Failure to do so could carry significant material and reputational costs for the newly empowered opposition, and beg questions of exactly what kind of democracy they are seeking to introduce.