The election in Burma/Myanmar this weekend has once again focussed international attention on the Southeast Asian nation. Much of it will centre on Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the main opposition National League for Democracy party.
There have been reports of vote rigging and vote buying, however, international election monitors are present and the elections are generally expected to be fair. The NLD is expected to win a big majority. The head of the army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has stated he will “respect the election results”. However, there are serious obstacles in the way in Burma’s democratic transition. Here are a few to look out for:
Winning the parliamentary election is not enough. Power lies with the president, and the military continue to pull the strings. The president will be nominated and voted for by MPs through a labyrinth process only after the parliamentary election. The process is skewed towards incumbent President Thein Sein, a former general and chairman of the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, or another nominated person from the ex-military ranks. As the constitution reserves 25% of seats in both the lower and upper houses for the military, the NLD and allied parties will need to win over two thirds of the contested seats in both houses to get a shot at the presidency. Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from running as she was married to a foreigner and has children who are British passport holders. Additionally, the constitution gives the military control of key ministries such as defence, foreign affairs and interior, as well as an option for a “democratic coup” in case of a threat to national security. Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments this week that she will be “above the president” indicates there will be argument and confusion for a long time after the polls. In any case, the new president is not expected to be voted through until after the new year.
Huge economic disparities exist between the super elite (an alliance of military and ex-military officer families with connected businessmen, known locally as the “cronies”) and ordinary people.
The super elite owns and controls much of the economy – oil, gas, timber, mining, banking, tourism, construction, and much else. Privatisation of state assets has further concentrated wealth in this small group. This has added to poverty and lack of basic services – such as clean water, sanitation, adequate healthcare and education. The rise of civil society and other grass roots groups, often issue-focussed with well-grounded popular support, is challenging the status quo. Watching how these groups fare and get treated by the authorities in the coming year will be a litmus test of Burma’s democratic transition.
The rise of Buddhist nationalism, especially the monks’ organisation Ma Ba Tha, has been a notable consequence of the opening up of the country. It is responsible for pushing the government to pass highly contentious laws, which observers say, are aimed at the Muslim minority. The laws passed earlier in the year include forbidding interfaith marriages, forbidding women from changing religion, and birth control orders. The persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority has been widely condemned by the United Nations and the international community. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has urged all participants in the election to refrain from using hate speech. How the newly elected government deals with this issue will be closely watched by the international community.
Ethnic Conflict and the Peace Initiative:
Burma boasts some of the world’s longest insurgencies going back decades, fighting for ethnic rights and autonomy. Last month, the government secured a “nationwide ceasefire” agreement, signed after two years of talks. The problem was only eight of the twenty odd ethnic armies signed – so not quite nationwide but a step in the right direction. The challenge in the coming year will be to bring into the ceasefire agreement the remaining conflict areas in the north and northeast – with two of the biggest ethnic armies, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army commanding ten thousand and three thousand armed soldiers respectively. Not least because China has a decades long interest in this border area. And in unison, a major effort needs to be made for a comprehensive peace treaty with those that have signed the current ceasefire agreement. Concessions to ethnic minority demands for political and economic autonomy are needed if the ceasefire is not to unravel in the coming year.
Nyan Naing Oo is a London based writer on Burmese affairs.