Myanmar’s political journey: destination unknown

Myanmar’s political journey: destination unknown

TREVOR WILSON previews Myanmar’s second general election since the country began its political transition in 2011.

The Myanmar Union Election Commission recently announced that the second Myanmar general election since Myanmar began its political transition in 2011 would be held on Sunday, 8 November. This is pretty well the same timing chosen for the 2010 elections, which I observed, unofficially, in the north-western regional city of Kalay when visiting Myanmar at the time. Around 30 million Myanmar voters, inside and outside Myanmar, may be eligible to vote, in one of the larger worldwide, single-stage voting events.

The 2010 election was characterised by widespread vote rigging, and was deemed not to be free and fair. The 2015 election will be held under more transparent and rigorous procedures in the presence of international observers, but will not necessarily be seen as having strong legitimacy because the Myanmar military continues to exercise effective control over the political situation.

The 2015 election will be for 330 seats in the Lower House, for 168 seats in the Upper House, and for 644 seats in 14 regional assemblies, plus 29 seats reserved for ethnic representatives. In each house, 25 per cent of the seats are reserved for representatives of the military, an arrangement unchanged from the 2010 election, in accordance with the former military regime’s constitution adopted in a flawed referendum in May 2008. Proposals to amend this constitution were recently voted down in the parliament in which the government party—aligned with the military—currently holds a large majority.

The current Myanmar president, U Thein Sein, a retired general who contested the 2010 as leader of the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has not yet confirmed his intentions in regard to the election. Since Thein Sein is no longer formally head of the USDP, having had to resign on taking the presidency, it has been generally assumed he would not seek a second term as president.

Thein Sein adopted a reformist agenda as president, and promoted reconciliation and peace negotiations with all ethnic groups, although the proposed nationwide ceasefire agreement he fostered has still not been formally agreed to by all parties. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured), did not participate in the 2010 election, although a small faction of the NLD, styling itself the National Democratic Force, did participate, but won only a small number of seats.

Reversing its earlier position, the NLD contested by-elections held in April 2012, winning 43 of the 45 seats being contested. In these by-elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament for the first time, and subsequently accepted appointment as head of the Parliamentary Committee on Rule of Law and Tranquility, a position she still holds.

In recent days, the NLD has finally confirmed that it will participate in the forthcoming elections, for which it had already been complying with the party and candidate registration processes. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that she will be a candidate in the elections. However, she is not permitted under the 2008 constitution to stand as a candidate for the presidency, because her two sons hold British citizenship. (The president is chosen after the elections by an electoral college of the two houses of parliament and the military representatives of the Commander in Chief of the Army.)

Campaign of repression

The NLD had won a clear majority of the seats in the previous elections, held in 1990 under the former military regime, which refused to transfer power to the NLD. The ensuing military coup led to a campaign of repression against the NLD, and more than one million Burmese supporters of the NLD fled the country seeking asylum in western countries including Australia.

Other parties contesting the November 2015 election include a number representing different ethnic groups, who had won a small number of seats in the two previous elections, but only the two major parties are expected to contest all seats. Most ethnic parties—some of which are closely aligned with the NLD, while others are independent—will contest seats only where they have supporters.

Many people still remember how the 1990 elections was ‘stolen’ by the military, whose regime punished the NLD and its members for many years afterwards.

While there are no opinion polls in Myanmar on voting intentions, it is widely speculated that the NLD could form the government after the elections, either on its own or in a coalition. As in many other countries, now and in previous times, national politics in Myanmar are in some ways currently characterised by parties and individuals adopting set piece, ideological positions, and focusing on their party political objectives, without necessarily responding thoughtfully to widespread popular concerns.

This can certainly be said of the more overtly ‘political’ actions in Myanmar, such as those leading to local-level communal violence, or those perpetuating regional insurgency situations, where attempts to assert an independent position with or without grassroots support, can have wide-ranging impacts, political as well as socioeconomic. But it is also marked by major parties failing to respond to the common concern about land disputes, and the appalling inability of the legal and administrative systems to improve the situation.

Potentials and pitfalls

Myanmar people care very much about this 2015 election. Now that they have seen how, in November 2010, an election process can be corrupted by ballot stuffing and other abuses, they see both the potentials and the pitfalls of elections with multiparty participation but still not automatically either free or fair. They are used to this, but it still angers them, though they now also hope for something better.

Of course, many people still remember how the 1990 elections was ‘stolen’ by the military, whose regime punished the NLD and its members for many years afterwards. Some Myanmar people now realise the NLD does not always meet their expectations politically, and some now they either stand aside or plan their own political response (which may or may not accord with the NLD approach).

Not only has Myanmar been the beneficiary of international best practice election expertise before the 2015 elections, but the quasi-independent Union Election Commission seems to have been making more intensive preparations for these elections, and in the process engaging in its most extensive consultations ever with the electorate. Party registration and voter registration has been carried out more thoroughly than in previous elections, including the 2010 elections. Election management staff, party officials, and independent civil society representatives have been better trained in their roles. Much greater domestic and international observation of the voting process will ensure better transparency. All of these factors will contribute to an improved election process.

In the end, the success of the 2015 elections will be judged by the legitimacy they engender, which depends on the general acceptability of the outcomes. Politically, the elections would enjoy greater legitimacy if they were not held under the unchanged 2008 constitution, which was not the product of a genuine democratic process.

The 2008 constitution would be improved if a compromise could be reached on some of the constitutional amendments that have been discussed in the past two years. Inrecent weeks, military representatives in the parliament have voted against constitutional amendments that would have reduced the majority vote required
for constitutional change, and to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to be a candidate for the presidency, both of which were supported by the NLD, raising expectations of change. However, serious debate on constitutional amendments has not occurred as fully as it should have, partly because of military reluctance, and in the end insufficient time was allowed for agreement to be achieved within the present parliament.

In all likelihood, the election outcomes will be confused, and it may be some time before new policies are determined, even if the election process itself is peaceful and fair. Prolonged uncertainty after the elections will not be in anyone’s interests, but may be unavoidable to some extent.

Hopefully, Myanmar’s overall reform trajectory towards democracy will continue after 2015, whoever holds the reins of power. Many domestic and international parties should find it in their interests to press strongly for the continuation of previous policy directions and completion of the tasks that in many cases have only begun. International groups with which Myanmar has been most closely engaged in recent years —such as ASEAN, UN-specialised agencies, international financial institutions, international NGOs—are likely to press for further reform.

Myanmar’s post-2015 leaders are likely to welcome reasonable offers of continuing backing for important nation-building tasks and much-needed assistance for the Myanmar people at large. It behoves all Myanmar’s friends and neighbours to stand ready to help with Myanmar’s post-2015 challenges, which will remain considerable.

Most important of all is achieving effective rule of law: until significant progress is achieved in embedding rule of law into all aspects of society, sound socioeconomic policies will be hard to accomplish, and it will be impossible to protect individual rights and freedoms. These are the very goals that Myanmar now needs as a state, and that its people now aspire to more than ever.

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses NLD supporters at Hlaingthahaya township in Yangon on November 17, 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

Trevor Wilson is a visiting fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.

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