Myanmar’s Road to Democracy: the 2015 Elections

Originally published Feb 2016 in Interlib: Journal of the Liberal International British Group

In November 2014, I visited Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy in Myanmar in order to explore how UK Lib Dems might assist NLD in their forthcoming elections. At the time it was evident that they would do very well as the groundswell of public sentiment was supportive of her, but it was thrilling to see a year later that NLD had secured an absolute majority in winning 80% of contested seats. This was the first general election Aung San fought since her 1990 victory which the Junta promptly

annulled, imprisoning her and numerous members of her party. This time, since the 8th November victory both sides have been locked in private negotiations. Earlier this week, on 1st February Myanmar opened its new parliament, swearing in the new speaker Win Myint, an NLD MP close to Aung, and the deputy speaker T Khun Myat, an army-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) member. However, the government will not be formed until the end of March when the new president takes over from Thein Sein. Candidates for the presidency have yet to be announced.

This election is the high-water mark of the very gradual process of liberalisation that the Junta has pursued since it started the process with a referendum on a new constitution, elections in 2010, the release of political prisoners (including figures from the 1988 student demonstrations, monks who participated in the 2007 protests and ethnic minority activists). It also decriminalised gatherings of more than 5 people, legalised labour unions, allowed private ownership of the press, signed ceasefires with several armed ethnic groups, and released Aung San release from house arrest. They subsequently allowed her to enter parlia- ment as an MP in a by-election in 2012, setting in place a process which continues to bring about a transformation of Myanmar’s politics.

The western response to the reforms has been cautiously positive. In April 2012 the EU lifted its remaining trade, economic and individual sanctions - except those on arms sales. While the US took similar action in September 2012. But Burma’s reforms have not been without flaws, or backtracking; sectarianism is still present, and the enormous popularity of Aung San may, in the long term, prove problematic, particularly due to as the lack of an evident successor.

EU Observers for the 2015 election were generally positive about the vote itself commenting on the “generally well-run polling process” and respect for the secrecy of the ballot and “nearly entirely peaceful” election campaign, and the subsequent reaction of the Junta has been promisingly conciliatory. This was against a backdrop of a worsening pre-election environment in 2014 when the then UN Special Rapporteur for Burma reported “worrying signs of possible backtracking” including “intimidation, harassment, attacks, arrests and prosecution of journalists for reporting on issues deemed too sensitive or critical of those in power” and April 2015 saw multiple newspapers displaying black front pages in protest against the imprisonment and harassment of journalists.

But will the democratic aspirations of the Burmese people be met through the incremental moves to date? Significant constitutional hurdles remain. Twenty-five per cent of parliamentary seats are reserved for army nominees, and it retains a veto over constitutional change, and as well as control of the key portfolios of interior, defence and border affairs. Moreover, the ban on the President having a foreign spouse or children was designed expressly to deny Aung San the top job. There are, nevertheless signs for optimism. Last June a vote in Myanmar's parliament failed to remove the army's veto. But given the large number of votes in the secret ballot in favour of removing the veto suggests that numerous USDP MPs voted for the change, indicating a loosening of the Army’s grip on the party. Similarly, comments by army chief General Min Aung Hlaing that “I think the current government cannot fulfil people’s desires. Now that people have selected a person who they think can fulfil their needs, the next thing is for the elected person to fulfil their desires”. He was coy about whether he personally expected to see Aung San as president merely stating that “the parliament must discuss any amendment to the constitution. I am not directly responsible for that”. But these remarks themselves are an advance. After all, who would have guessed 8 years ago that Burma would look like this?

But while the elections have delivered some gains, there is still unfinished business. Voting was cancelled in parts of Shan and Kachin areas due to on-going fighting, large swathes of the Muslim population of Myanmar were disenfranchised and parties, including the NLD, declined to field Muslim candidates. Promisingly the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army who hadn’t signed previous ceasefire agreements are now open to negotiation with the NLD government. And Aung San has stated that a peace process will be one of the central tasks of the new government. Disappointingly, she has retained a low profile on the ongoing Rohingya issue in Rakhine state. This predominantly Muslim group have been subject to consistent violence, forcible displacement and internment by Buddhist extremists and government forces. When I pressed her on her silence on the Rohingya at our meeting, she retreated to very general statements about the need for peace, and politics being ‘the art of the possible’. She told the BBC that Buddhist fear was borne of “a perception that global Muslim power is very great” denying that the events themselves constituted ethnic cleansing, commenting “I think there are many, many Buddhists who have also left the country for various reasons”. This quiescence may be borne of pragmatic considerations about not antagonising the Junta, or the mainly Buddhist electorate, but given the election result her judgment appears to have been vindicated. The mix of ethnic, religious and identity conflict in Myanmar makes democratic change even more challenging in her book. This may not enthuse her liberal critics, but the Burmese people seem content to see graduated change after a 25 years of authoritarianism.

A longer term concern for NLD is the role of Aung San herself. Her age (she is 70), the absence of any obvious successors and the lack of internal democracy within the NLD all point to future weaknesses. The sacking of Thein Lwin from the NLD’s auxiliary Central Committee due to his support for student protests which she opposed, and non-selection of prominent activists from the’88-generation of political protestors caused controversy among some in Burma. Since the death of Win Tin, a close aide of her, there has been less to counterbalance Aung’s magnetic personality.

Aung San’s recent statements that the elected president of Myanmar “will have no authority, and will act in accordance with the decisions of the party ... because in any democratic country, it’s the leader of the winning party that becomes the leader of the government” and that she will be “above the president” all point to the lack of internal strategy about how to deal with the Presidency issue. The more the NLD becomes a vehicle for Aung San’s personal charisma the less resilient it may be in the face of her decline or demise. Myanmar, one of the poorest nations in Asia, has a potentially bright future ahead, but it deserves a pluralistic democracy to go with it. The question is how long it will take before that form of democracy becomes the norm.

Kishwer Falkner and Natasha Rachman