A New Hope for Myanmar, but how will it play out?
On November 8th, for the first time since the Burmese military took over in the 1960s, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar experienced an allegedly free democratic election. Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, led her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to a victory, confirmed as a supermajority on 13th November. This will allow the party to form a government and choose the next President. Tension still persists in Myanmar, which is largely controlled by the military, and there remains uncertainty as to where exactly this electoral victory will lead. However, even the notorious propaganda newspaper of the military, the Global New Light of Myanmar, hailed the election as the ‘dawn of a new era’.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, is hailed as the man who won independence for Myanmar from British colonial rule. Ironically, though, he also founded the new Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, which, after his assassination, went on to seize political control of the country in the 1960s. The military has dominated since then, and so once again a member of the Aung San family initiated a struggle for freedom. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent fifteen of the last twenty-five years under house arrest and has received worldwide acclaim for her peaceful struggle for democracy. Her party, the NLD, won a general election by a huge margin previously in 1990, but this turned out to be a sham: the military dismissed the election result and continued to rule.
As a result, tension is high. It is uncertain how much power the NLD will be able to claim and there is danger that history might repeat itself with another military crackdown. In 2008, the military introduced a new constitution that granted itself automatic access to 25% of seats in parliament, a compulsory share of executive authority, and the ability to shut down any government that it deems unfit for the country. This constitution also bans anyone married to a foreigner from political power, meaning that Miss Suu Kyi herself cannot become President, although she claims she will call the shots from behind the scenes. Furthermore, the NLD is powerless until the new parliamentary session begins in February. Until then, there will be a lame-duck session during which some fear that the military will bring in even more extensive self-protection measures. Clearly, how much real change this election will bring to Myanmar’s politics is uncertain.
The military has been surprisingly positive about the election, which President Barack Obama hailed as ‘free and fair’, saying that they ‘accept the result without reservation’. Perhaps some credit should be given to controversial incumbent President U Thein Sein who, despite some questionable social policies, has worked hard to bring the military into a more passive role. On the other hand, many fear that the military, with its own constitution in place, is simply so comfortable in its security that it feels capable of manipulating whoever happens to be in power.
Either way, this election will surely mark the start of some progress. The NLD party remarkably won more than 80% of available seats, and so the military will not easily be able to confront it in the open. Its popularity was so high that, in one district, the poet and former political prisoner U Tin Thit defeated U Wai Lwin, a top general and former defense minister. Tin Thit said afterwards that ‘the ballot is stronger than the bullet’. Another NLD candidate was voted in by an overwhelming majority despite dying two days before the election! The NLD is now a force to be reckoned with, and we can only hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will gradually be able to take on the military and begin to diminish its current total control of politics.
We must also hope that the NLD will address the shocking human rights abuses in Myanmar. The predominantly Buddhist country has a 4% Muslim minority, know as the Rohingya people, who have been declared by Amnesty International ‘the most persecuted refugees in the world’. In a report on Myanmar, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights group recently said that impunity for rights violations by security forces persists, particularly in ethnic areas; women continue to face cases of sexual violence, and systematic discrimination against Rohingya Muslims threatens their very existence. Aung San Suu Kyi has been worryingly silent on this issue. Overall, much remains to be seen, but this certainly marks the beginning of a potential exciting new direction for Myanmar and, at the very least, a step in the right direction. This is a comforting thought in a region where several countries continue to be utterly dominated by authoritarian rule.