Today Myanmar (previously Burma) is holding its first contested vote since 1990. Since achieving independence from Britain in 1948, the country had a very difficult start. Military has ruled the country for more than half a century since 1962. Although an election was held in 1990 in which the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party of Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, considered the father of the nation (who was murdered by his rivals six months before independence) came out as the winner, the military refused to cede power. Suu Kyi spent most of the next 23 years under house arrest, becoming an iconic figure at home and abroad. To put pressure on the hated military regime, she was even granted a Nobel Prize for peace.
Over the last four years, Myanmar’s military has loosened its grip, allowing a ‘reformist’ quasi-civil-military government to come to power under a former general, Thein Sein. Sein has received accolades for liberating political prisoners and reintroducing some press freedoms. In return, the United States and other countries have suspended sanctions against Myanmar, and President Barack Obama visited in 2012.
Some 30 million voters are expected to cast their ballots today and pick among the 6,065 candidates to fill the two houses of the national parliament and regional assemblies. In the run up to the election campaign voter lists were published, which were flawed. Dead people have been listed, and many of those alive have not been included outside the already vote-robbed Rohingya Muslims.
The two-month long campaign period saw not only the stripping of the right to vote of an estimated two million Muslims who were born in this Buddhist majority country but also deadly armed fighting in rebel-held areas in northern border states; minority candidates have been harassed and an opposition candidate was also attacked. In the meantime civil servants, police, election workers and accredited journalists were allowed to vote in advance until Saturday.
Most voters would like to see a change from the military dominated government, which may make Suu Kyi’s NLD to win the election. Already allegations of voting irregularities have been made.
On Friday night, the president Thein Sein delivered a televised address urging eligible citizens to vote, while vowing that “the government and the army will respect the results” of the election. The statement followed allegations by Suu Kyi, who on Thursday told a packed news conference, of incidents of voter fraud. A week ago, a gang used machetes to attack a NLD member of Parliament, Naing Ngan Lynn, in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon).
On Saturday, Human Rights Watch accused the head of the country’s election commission, U Tin Aye, of bias in favor of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Not all the seats in the Hluttaw (parliament) are up for grabs. As part of what the generals call “disciplined democracy”, the military-drafted constitution of 2008 guarantees that unelected military representatives will take up a quarter of the seats in the Hluttaw and have a veto over constitutional change. So, even if Suu Kyi’s NLD were to win a majority in this election, I won’t be surprised if she is not allowed to form a government in the center.
In 1990 the NLD won 392 of the 492 available seats, taking 52.5% of the national vote. In the 2012 election, the NLD claimed 43 of those 45 seats offered, accruing about 66% of the available votes. As noted in a BBC report, the geographic spread of seats contested in the 2012 by-elections suited the NLD because they were mainly in ethnic Bamar areas. When the genocidal activities against the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities shortly followed in mid-2012, Suu Kyi refused to get drawn into the issue. When the civilized world, esp. the human rights groups, expected her to condemn such atrocities by her fellow Buddhists she and her NLD simply kept silent. She appeared politically opportunistic, morally bankrupt, and more interested in getting elected than standing out for what was moral, noble, right and just. Only the election results will tell us if her immoral means had justified the ends to retain the support within the racist Buddhist populace at the 2012 levels.
Unlike 2012’s election, this year’s vote has two distinct battlegrounds: in central and southern areas where there is an ethnic Bamar majority, and in the regions along the country’s borders, where smaller ethnic groups have localized dominance. According to the BBC, in the seven central and southern regions where the Bamar dominate, the NLD are set for a large win. Up for grabs are 291 seats, or 44% of the entire Hluttaw (parliament), and it’s possible that the current ruling party the USDP will only win a handful. But that won’t give the NLD an overall majority. The NLD on Sunday must win 67 seats nationwide – either by itself or in coalition – to rule without having to constantly cut deals with the Parliament’s military bloc.
So the key battleground for the campaign is going to be in the minority ethnic states where 207 seats (31%) should, stability permitting, be contested. Parties based along ethnic lines are likely to win most of the seats but even small gains made by the NLD here could pave the way for an overall majority.
In the last three years, we have also noticed the highly toxic influence of the terrorist monk Wirathu and his criminal group – Ma Ba Tha towards organizing genocidal activities against the Muslim minorities. They have been able to polarize the fractured country further along the fault lines and are seen as Thein Sein’s hound dogs. They are credited for the passage of extremely discriminatory religious laws. For the last 18 months they have been running a nationalist campaign arguing that the country’s Buddhist identity is under threat from Islam, and that the NLD is the party of the Muslims. And this propaganda, in spite of Suu Kyi’s silence with the entire Buddhist-directed genocidal activities against the Muslims of Myanmar! While these terrorist monks have drawn large crowds, Sunday’s election will be the first test of how deeply their message has resonated with other Buddhists.
Even if the NLD wins a majority, the constitution will not allow Suu Kyi to become the president. The 2008 constitution states that Myanmar cannot elect a president with family who are foreign citizens. That requirement, clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, effectively bans her from the presidency, since her late husband was British, as are her two sons. It is also worth noting that in Myanmar, the president is elected indirectly. The 2008 constitution sets out a complex process whereby the Hluttaw (parliament) chooses a president. Though the general election is today it’s likely to be March 2016 before this takes place.
As explained in a BBC report, firstly the Hluttaw will divide into three groups: the elected representatives of the Lower House, the elected representatives of the Upper House, and the unelected army representatives. Each group will put forward a candidate and then the three of them would face a vote in a joint session that would include all the elected and unelected representatives of both Houses. The winner will become president and the two losers vice-presidents.
What it means in practice is if the NLD want to be able to choose the next president it needs its candidate to get the most votes in this joint session.
If Suu Kyi’s party wins, and she can’t get elected as the president, she made clear that she intends to hold the reins of power, regardless of who holds the title of president. In a news conference Thursday at her family’s lakeside estate in Yangon, she said that she would be “above the president.” Many see hints of dictatorship in her remark.
In recent months, Suu Kyi’s stubborn style has raised eyebrows among Myanmar’s intelligentsia, some of whom fear the country could be trading one autocrat for another. Even so, she remains hugely popular among rural Burmese, who see her as their only hope for escaping poverty and corruption. They have shown up by the tens of thousands as she has campaigned across Myanmar’s vast hinterlands. A decisive NLD win would give the opposition the right to pick the next president, alongside the military. An NLD majority would also allow her to maneuver politically, paving the way for constitutional amendments, and eventually an appointment to the presidency.
Sunday’s election has been declared by the United Nations as a “watershed moment” in the country’s democratic transition, even as it urged the government of President Thein Sein “to ensure that respect for human rights is front and center” in the run-up to the polls.
According to government figures, more than 10,000 foreign and local observers are on hand to monitor the election, including a team from the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
“We have been told we will have access to all polling places,” said Jonathan Stonestreet, who is heading up the Carter Center mission in Myanmar. “If we show up and we don’t have access, then that will be a concern.”
While much desired, the November election has disenfranchised millions of Muslims and other minorities in war torn states. And that would always tarnish the results of this election for surely a democracy cannot afford to disenfranchise its born citizens. Even formerly elected Muslim MPs were barred from running in this election.
Religious minorities, especially the Muslim population, have been consistently subjected to state sponsored discrimination and violent abuse, while simultaneously denied representation in the political sphere or in civil society in Myanmar. In the last year, the government has consistently flouted the right to freedom of expression except in cases in which they directly benefit, such as in regards to the hate speech of Ma Ba Tha, certain politicians and other social forces using inflammatory language to incite genocidal violence against the Rohingya. The government has not only failed to protect the rights of the Rohingya and the wider Muslim community, it has in many cases actively contributed to their continued mistreatment.
If elected, will Suu Kyi’s NLD right the wrong and integrate Muslim and other minorities?
We have to just tune in to see what direction Myanmar chooses – a path of integration or fracture?