Myanmar Elections: Domestic Apathy And International Concerns

By Rahul Mishra

After several decades Myanmar is all set to witness multiparty democratic elections on November 7, being held as a follow-up to the referendum on the new constitution announced by the military Junta in February and subsequently held on May 10 and May 26, 2008.1 The last elections were held in 1990 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy swept the polls. The Junta not only ignored the results but also promptly put her under house arrest. Even today, Aung San Suu kyi might turn out to be an existential threat to the military Junta, if she is released and that has led the Junta to keep her under house arrest during the elections. According to media reports, Aung San Suu Kyi is to be released a week after the elections, when she could still have a massive impact on the democratic movement.

Given the Junta’s ruthlessness towards pro-democracy groups in Myanmar, and the massive violation of human rights it has committed in the past, it is intriguing why the Junta would announce elections in the first place?

There may be two probable reasons behind the move. First is the sustained pressure of the international community, particularly of the US. The US under Barak Obama has been approaching the Junta through all channels; bilateral, regional and international to respect democratic values, human rights, release Aung San Suu Kyi and thousands of other political prisoners. This consistent diplomatic pressure seems to have yielded at least some results. Also, the international diplomatic and economic isolation and perceived fear of external intervention in future seems to have played a role in the Junta’s decision.

However, as is evident from media reports on Myanmar, the election process is not free, fair and inclusive by any standards and the Junta seems to have almost ensured its grip on power. The Junta has been so sure about the outcome, that in the run-up to the elections it has been busy changing Myanmar’s flag, national anthem and the official name. Myanmar will henceforth be officially called the Republic of Union of Myanmar.

Clearly, the election has been put forward by the Junta as a means to gain legitimacy while ensuring that it rules the country by proxy. The Junta is doing all it can to ensure ‘smooth elections’ as the authorities have announced that there will be no polling in hundreds of villages that fall in the ethnic regions. The Junta is keeping the ethnic minorities out of the election process, knowing well that the atrocities committed on them might prove costly to it. It has also banned foreign journalists and international observers due to fear of exposure. The reason, however, given by the Junta is that they are ‘not required’ in a country that has abundant experience in elections!

Out of the 37 parties contesting the elections, the two biggest parties; Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National Union Party (NUP) are likely to play a key role as they have placed 1158 and 994 candidates respectively, in 1158 constituencies. Both have the backing of the Junta.

Among opposition parties, the Democratic Party (Myanmar) proposed only 49 candidates, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party is contesting 65 seats and the Union Democratic Party only three seats. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) is not fighting the elections as it was dissolved in September this year. However, the renegade members of NLD have formed a new party; the National Democratic Force (NDF), the future of which is bleak as the post election scenario is concerned; it is fighting in only 166 constituencies. According to the reports, prohibitive costs and time pressure to register members and to field candidates have restricted parties’ ability to contest the elections.

The responses to the election in Myanmar have largely been negative as European Union and many countries including the UK, Australia, Japan and the Philippines among others have condemned the Junta and called the elections a charade. The US has called the elections unfair and the results are likely to be rejected by Washington for the same reason.

ASEAN has, however, treaded a cautious middle path. There are also signs of fissures within ASEAN as Cambodia and Vietnam are opposed to the idea of criticising Myanmar on grounds that it contravenes ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention.

The UN has echoed the popular opinion of the world community on the Myanmar elections. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s newly formed “Group of Friends” on Myanmar met on September 27.2 The group pleaded that the Junta should release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, which it believed was essential for making the elections credible and fair.

Responses from Russian Federation, and (particularly from) Peoples’ Republic of China has been on expected lines, as they have been supporting the Junta at various international fora. Apparently, China has benefited most from the military rule in Myanmar; it has massively invested in the country. The Chinese firms have made huge profits as the western firms have been unwilling to invest in Myanmar because of political, diplomatic and safety reasons. China has huge stakes in Myanmar and is seemingly anxious about the outcome, that’s probably the reason why Senior General Than Shwe reassured Beijing that power transfer would not affect Myanmar’s relations with China.

India had supported the cause of democracy in Myanmar in the past, but of late, due to strategic concerns including troublesome situations in its Northeast and the Chinese fear, it now remains neutral on internal affairs of Myanmar. This is evident from the fact that during Senior General Than Shwe’s July 2010 India visit, India skilfully avoided making any public comments on the state of affairs in Myanmar and the prospects of democracy in that country. India has realised that engagement rather than estrangement is the apt strategy to end Myanmar’s isolation and bring it to mainstream.

The outcome of the elections is likely to be in Junta’s favour, but its long-term implications on Myanmar are hard to predict. One thing, however, is certain, and that is – both Myanmar and the international and regional stakeholders are anxious about the elections in Myanmar, which will be crucial in determining its future. The prospect of the Junta’s men coming to power is very high, and has also been further boosted by NDF’s failure to field enough candidates.

Nonetheless, the only ray of hope is that the outcome of elections might, in future, bring new elites and power-centre to the fore, and that possibly will lead to different set of equations in the corridors of power in Myanmar.

1. There is hardly any doubt that the referendum was a farce. The Junta had tinkered with the process of referendum and declared that 92.48 percent voters backed the constitution while the turnout was 98.1 percent. Another reason is that it was held at a time when Myanmar was affected by the hurricane; Nargis, in which 134,000 went dead or missing in the Irrawaddy delta.
2. The group is composed of Australia, UK, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the US, Vietnam and the European Union

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/MyanmarElectionsDomesticApathyandInternationalConcerns_rmishra_041110

IDSA

IDSA

The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. IDSA has been consistently ranked over the last few years as one of the top think tanks in Asia.

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