by Annette Aharonian
With the upcoming general elections in Myanmar (Burma) this fall, the country will be carefully observed by the international community to see whether its military-backed government, recently regressing on its reforms, might be able to fully transition to a functioning democracy.
The argument from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) is that despite positive strides toward democracy, like the relaxation of press censorship or the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, the primacy of the military has stalled further amelioration of the government. For this reason, it is imperative that Suu Kyi and her party fully capitalize on this positive wave of changes and secure electoral victory. The elections on November 8, 2015 provide the best opportunity to do this.
From 1962 to 2011, a powerful military junta led Burma. It was considered a pariah state due to its high record of human rights abuses, forced labor, and civilian relocation. As a result, the European Union (EU), United States, and Canada imposed economic sanctions. Still, the current economy is stagnating as key industries have long been controlled by the military, and corruption is rife. Although the first general election in 2010 was an attempt to move from military rule to a civilian democracy, Suu Kyi’s party boycotted the new regime by accusing it of electoral fraud.
Myanmar’s current president is Thein Sein, a former general put into power by the military. Under an amnesty, the new government freed thousands of prisoners, only a few of whom were imprisoned for political reasons. Consequently, 200 political prisoners were freed in 2011. Popular comedian and dissident, Zarganar, was among the first to be freed; some monks and a journalist were also released. That same year, as a result of its visible progress, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed that Myanmar would chair the group meeting in 2014. In a similar fashion, 2012 was a pivotal year for the country—the NLD won 43 out of 45 seats in landmark parliamentary by-elections, the United States eased sanctions (the EU agreed to suspend most of them), and President Obama was the first ever president to visit Myanmar. Unfortunately, the United States extended its sanctions for another year in May 2014 because it said despite recent reform, human rights abuses, armed influence on politics, and problems with the economy persist.
Myanmar has also seen several deadly outbreaks of violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Conflicts between the Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya emerged in 2013, which raised questions on Burma’s commitment to equality before the law. This is all in addition to the tension caused by the Karen, Shan, Rakhine, and many other ethnic minorities. Suu Kyi warns that this instability could delay the upcoming elections and the military might want to take advantage of the disorder to hold on to power.
For Suu Kyi to be in a position to become president, she will have to do something about the soldiers who still hold most of the political power. The military has “virtual veto over constitutional amendments,” which gives it the power to reject outright any laws and policies it finds unfavorable. The new constitution in 2008 made it possible for the generals to secure positions in three key ministerial posts—interior, defense, and border affairs, in addition to holding 25 percent of the seats in the parliament.
The task at hand for Suu Kyi is a difficult one. Until the new constitution gets amended, Suu Kyi has no chance of winning the election, since certain clauses in the constitution bar candidates with a foreign spouse or children from running for president. It is probable that even if the party wins in a landslide, it will have to substitute a candidate for president—potentially someone from the old regime. Furthermore, not only does she have to find the power to persuade the powerful military establishment to exercise less power, she also has to come to terms with the fact that it’s not possible solely through legal changes; the regime was supposed to be reformed, not discarded.
In conclusion, political stability and the ability to conduct fair elections ahead of the poll are crucial. Most importantly, amending the 2008 constitution is the foundation for change, an impossible feat unless the NLD is able to win the elections. Suu Kyi has not given up hope of becoming president and the upcoming elections will be a true test of Myanmar’s potential for segueing to democracy.
Annette Aharonian is a Staff Writer for Charged Affairs.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.