Myanmar may be abuzz with “change” but the transition from rule by the military to a more democratic form of governance faces serious hurdles
For Daw Aung San Suu Kyi it has been a long wait. Twenty-five years after the 1990 multi-party elections in Myanmar that saw her National League for Democracy win a landslide victory, The Lady went to the polling station in her constituency of Kawhmu on November 8 to once again cast her vote to bring “change,” as her party’s current slogan puts it.
Change will indeed come to Myanmar. But that change will not see a clean transition from a military-led regime to a fully democratic one, far from it.
The euphoria of the Suu Kyi party election landslide has been tempered by the reality that it is merely the long-delayed first step in a handover of power from the men in green to a more democratic bloc of power-holders.
As this magazine went to press, with the final vote tally still in the air, The Lady had won and surprised even some of the sceptics with the public drive to go red, rather than green – the colours of the opposition NLD and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, respectively.
Much will depend on how the NLD parlay their parliamentary presence, and the possibility of working with other similar-minded parties, particularly ethnic parties. What is clear is that the next few months will see the need for adjustment and some horse-trading as a new government is lined up. This will include working with the military, which is entrenched in the body politic, and the crucial challenges in terms of who will be elected president, a post currently off limits to Suu Kyi.
Maintaining a hold
Elation appeared to sweep the country last week as people grew excited in the lead up to the official results released by the Union Election Commission. Yet there was no lack of people on tenterhooks, fearful of the lessons from the past.
Some voiced concerns that history would repeat itself, with the military grabbing the reins of power from the victor, as happened in the wake of the May 1990 poll.
But the generals who have been working on the path to what they call “Discipline-flourishing democracy,” under a plan drawn up in 2003, appear more attuned today to the necessity to maintain the façade of respecting the public vote, aware that they are still well-placed to maintain a controlling hand.
It has been a tricky gamble, the continuation of their Seven-Point Plan for “democratization,” a game which admittedly is not playing out completely to their liking.
The smiles in defeat of key players like Thura U Shwe Mann and USDP co-chair U Htay Oo – who both lost to NLD candidates in their constituencies – indicated a shrewd recognition that it was better to smile and express acceptance of the outcome than bring troops onto the streets.
President U Thein Sein was out on the campaign trail before the election, stumping for the military-backed USDP. The president has done a passable job of bringing Myanmar in from the cold over the last five years, a change that saw the opening of the doors for business and diplomacy, including two visits by US President Barack Obama. The fact that Obama shook hands with Thein Sein and cuddled with “democracy icon” and fellow Nobel Peace Laureate Suu Kyi had as much to do with Washington’s recognition that the generals were making efforts to change their ways as a desire to draw the Golden Land into the Western fold, despite the underlying hawkish nature of a ruling regime still holding to the past.
Neither Thein Sein’s government nor Obama’s government were blind to the fact that this was a marriage of convenience that would benefit both sides, despite a plethora of problems grinding on in the Bamar Buddhist heartland and the ethnic fringes.
Thein Sein’s challenge has been to keep up the façade of democratic change and put on a good election show. Despite the critics, the election panned out without significant disruption, ignoring the president’s warning through a Facebook video, released days before the poll, that the situation on the streets could degenerate into a Myanmar version of the Arab Spring unless the electorate voted for his party.
So far, the rush of people onto the streets has become an ocean of red, with people chanting, singing and holding hands.
Free and fair?
Election monitors appear to be sighing with relief. The campaigning and polling appeared to be relatively trouble-free, bar the brutal attack by machete-wielding assailants on NLD candidate U Naing Ngan Lin in Theketa Township, several small-scale incidents of seemingly “organised” communal violence in Mawlamyine, Mon State, and some troubling incidents of irregularities in the polls, exposed by members of the public and NLD supporters.
The polls were held in a much more open environment than in 1990 and 2010. Myanmar has gone through a tech revolution and the media openness today means the poll is a much more public process. Back five years ago, there was no free press, and a SIM card for a mobile phone cost $2,000 or more. Today the press is far freer and the country’s internet and mobile phone reach has expanded dramatically, and dived in price to about a dollar.
In addition, outside observers played a bigger role, with some critical of the process.
Human Rights Watch, kicked in with criticism just days before polling day, claiming the Myanmar people had been “deprived of their right to freely elect their government.”
As Human Rights Watch pointed out, the electoral process was undermined by systematic and structural problems including the lack of an independent election commission, ruling party dominance of state media, the reservation of 25 percent of seats for the military, discriminatory voter registration laws, and mass disenfranchisement of voters in some parts of the country.
As Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW put it, the election was a key test of the military-backed government’s commitment to reforms and to building a democratic state. “This election, however, suffers from critical flaws, such as a biased election commission, a ruling party-dominated state media, and laws and policies preventing Rohingya and others from voting and standing as candidates.”
Such tough criticism may jar with the outcome. To all the flag-waving supporters of the two lead parties, the NLD and USDP, and the plethora of other parties, the sense of a new dawn was palpable as they listened to upbeat speeches.
The orderly lines of voters across the country – with a 80-percent-plus turnout – spoke of voter confidence that their votes would actually matter. Some got up well before dawn to queue.
The underlying problem
It was not a perfect poll, far from it. Adhering to international standards would have involved the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and movement; candidates and voters participating in an environment free from violence, threats and intimidation; universal and equal suffrage; the right to stand for election; the right to vote; the right to a secret ballot; and freedom from discrimination.
Clearly the poll fell short on several of these criteria.
Concerns that the central tenet of “one man, one vote” was being violated were voiced due to the unfair variation in population in electoral districts. As a survey by Myanmar Now noted, the average township population in the country is about 156,000 but ranges from 1,732, in Injangyang, to 687,867 in Hlaing Thar Yar. This 397 to 1 ratio is a far cry from international standards that call for constituencies to have populations that are as close to each other as possible.
It is clear that these rights were negatively affected by an election administration that had difficulty attempting to be unbiased.
Several critics have pointed to the alleged lack of impartiality of the Union Election Commission and its chairman, U Tin Aye, a former army general and member of the ruling USDP who has not been shy in voicing where his sympathies lie.
In June 2015, he said, “As a chairman, I am not supposed to have attachment to the party…. I have an attachment, but I don’t put it at the forefront of my mind…. I want the USDP to win, but to win fairly, not by cheating.”
As HRW noted, in April, he defended the constitutional provision guaranteeing 25 percent of parliamentary seats to serving military officers, claiming the quota was needed to avert a future coup. While promising that the 2015 elections would be free and fair, he said they would be conducted in “disciplined democracy style,” using rhetoric closely associated with past Myanmar military governments. On March 27, during the annual Armed Forces Day parade in Nay Pyi Taw, U Tin Aye wore his military uniform during the ceremony, saying: “I would give up my life to wear my uniform. I wear it because I want to. That’s why I wear it even if I have to quit [the UEC] because of that. But there is no law saying I should resign for wearing [my] uniform.”
U Tin Aye’s declarations made a mockery of the official claim by the UEC to be impartial.
The former general’s loyalty hints at the underlying stranglehold the military was trying to maintain over the both the election process and the governance of the country – whichever party wins the most votes.
The presidency conundrum
Efforts were made earlier this year by the opposition in parliament to amend the military-written 2008 Constitution to reduce the 75 percent vote needed to 70 percent to change the charter or remove the restrictions on requirements for the president. Both efforts fell flat. The military still hold 25 percent of the parliamentary seats, effectively vesting it with veto power over important issues.
Suu Kyi was caught in a bind as the votes were counted and her NLD party won the most seats with a hope to form a government. Nobody is blind to the fact that the 2008 Constitution dictates that the president, who will be elected in 2016 by the parliament established by the November 8 elections, cannot have a spouse or children possessing foreign citizenship - a provision aimed specifically at opposition leader Suu Kyi, whose two sons hold foreign passports.
There are concerns that even if the NLD has a parliamentary majority, it will still be unable to amend the constitution because the constitution requires a 75 percent vote to amend the charter and 25 percent of the seats are held by the military. The constitution also includes provisions that allow the military to dismiss parliament in the event of a “national emergency.”
However, there is the perception that the NLD will try to use “moral force” to compel the rest of parliament, and some military MPs, to join together in changing the constitution.
As for the presidency, Suu Kyi made clear in her press conference ahead of the poll that she would be in charge, whoever was voted in as president – a vote likely in February, after the official formation of the government.
The practicalities of how this would work out on the local and international stage are unclear.
Whatever form the new government takes, it will be faced with a host of challenges that will not evaporate because the “democracy icon” has swept onto the scene. In fact, the NLD’s role in power might actually exacerbate tensions.
It is no secret that the Buddhist nationalist Ma Ba Tha, or Organisation for the Protection of Religion, has been backing the ruling USDP party and Thein Sein. While the official Ma Ba Tha leadership has called on followers to avoid mixing religion and politics, the actions of members, including the general secretary Vimala Buddhi and outspoken monk Ashin Wirathu tell an altogether different story. The country is being torn between those seeking to exploit deep divisions between the majority Buddhists and the minorities, notably Muslims, and those intent on championing human rights and cracking down on hate speech.
Suu Kyi’s NLD has been “accused” of being “Muslim lovers,” despite the fact that the party refused to field any Muslim candidates in the election and has been reluctant to stand up for the embattled Muslim Rohingya, forced by communal violence to live in squalid camps in Rakhine State.
Suu Kyi’s call “not to exaggerate” the problems faced by the Rohingya, when speaking to the media ahead of the elections, is a clear sign that she will have to walk the tightrope on an issue which a recent Fortify Rights investigation said offered “strong evidence” that genocide was underway.
The challenge for Suu Kyi’s government going forward will be keeping those bent on disruption under control and attempting to transition from a military to a civilian government. There is no lack of concerned onlookers who wonder whether this is a bridge too far.
As Myanmar specialist and teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies Carlo Bonura put it, the military has no plans to allow Suu Kyi to become president.
“There are no changes on the table to enable her to take power after this election,” he told the BBC in the immediate wake of the election. “The military has a very clear roadmap in terms of the way it perceives the transition going. And I don’t think it would be willing under any conditions to change the system to allow her to become president. She can become parliamentary speaker, however it’s very unlikely even with mass protests that the military will allow her to take the presidential position”.
Experts do have a habit of getting things wrong. But the underlying message is that The Lady’s road to the presidency – one that has already taken 25 years - will be a tough journey.