By Obja Borah Hazarika*
Myanmar will soon be going to polls at the regional/state assemblies, the national parliament, and the presidential levels. The regional/state assemblies and national parliament voting is scheduled for November 8, and their result will influence the election of the president, which may take place in February 2016.
In the National Parliament, the Upper House has 224 seats and the Lower House has 440. Twenty-five percent of the parliament’s seats are reserved for the military, which implies that a total of 498 seats are in the fray. Seventy-three political parties are in the competition. The principal players are the current ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which currently is the main opposition party.
The result of the parliamentary elections will impact the presidential elections. Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from contesting for president even though the NLD is expected to win a majority in the parliament. Another frontrunner for the post of the president, Speaker Shwe Mann, was recently removed from the USDP party. With his removal, the incumbent Thein Sein has strengthened his grip on the party and stands favourably as a presidential candidate. Suu Kyi, meanwhile, has announced an alliance with Shwe Mann. The USDP party has been facing internal turmoil even before Mann’s ouster. Aung Min, the president’s chief peace negotiator with ethnic rebel groups, and Soe Thein, a former minister for industry, who were part of the USDP will now both stand as independent candidates after they quit the party when they were refused “safe seats” in the imminent polls.
Other possible presidential prospects have been identified as Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, or Khin Maung Myint, speaker of the Upper House. NLD candidates like Tin Oo and Win Htein have been mentioned as other possible presidential prospects.
On the eve of Myanmar’s elections there are several issues which complicate the socio-political landscape of the country. For instance, corruption and fraud have been identified as major issues which could prevent the election from being free and fair. Although the election chief of Myanmar has given verbal assurances that elections will be free and fair doubts remain within and beyond Myanmar about the level of transparency that will be maintained in the polling process. In the 2010 elections in which the ruling USDP party won a huge majority, the Western countries and the UN largely agreed that those elections were mostly fraudulent.
Apart from fears of corruption and fraud preventing a democratic election process, Myanmar is also suffering from chronic floods which have affected nearly 1.3 million people and several villagers. One ethnic minority party has called on the government to even delay the voting due to the heavy damage caused by the floods which has made life difficult for the people in various regions, which will prevent them from taking part in the democratic exercise of electing their new leaders.
Another issue which has the potential to impact the elections relates to the ceasefire which the Thein Sein government is keen on signing with the ethnic rebel groups. Clinching the deal with the rebel groups would be a political win for Thein Sein. However, the political mileage which Thein Sein intends to gather from securing such a ceasefire may not be possible as most ethnic armed groups have so far refused to sign it, saying the government should amend the constitution to grant more autonomy to ethnic minorities. Some of the groups are even excluded from the talks as they are not officially recognized as ethnic groups, and secondly, fighting in the Kokang region along the country’s border with China has continued, which has led to the continuation of martial law in Kokang.
More significantly, there is a serious issue of communal tensions simmering in Myanmar. Nationalism along Buddhist lines has been shored up by hardliners from the Buddhist community. In the non-Bamar/Burman constituencies, voters may prefer ethnic over national considerations. The hardliners of the Buddhist community contend that Muslims and their customs are a threat to the Buddhists. Due to the rhetoric of the Buddhist hardliners, such perceived concerns of a Muslim threat to Buddhism have become the key concerns for some voters instead of other issues such as the transition to democracy, the role of the military, political and economic reforms, economic growth, education or ethnic reconciliation.
In the recent years there have been clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in several parts of Myanmar with heavy casualties on both sides. The government recently passed a few controversial laws through parliament which human rights groups say discriminate against women and religious minorities (mainly Muslims) and go against international treaties like the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and Convention on the rights of the Child. Earlier, in 2015 the parliament revoked identification documents of Rohingya (Muslims), which effectively stripped them of their voting rights. Even Suu Kyi’s party is said to have appeased the Buddhist hardliners by not fielding any Muslim candidates.
In another event which is proof of the ongoing disenfranchisement of the Muslims, a sitting Rohingya MP Shwe Maung was barred from running in the November polls by election officials who disqualified him on the grounds that his parents were not citizens of Myanmar. In the latest of such developments, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) has rejected the applications of 17 of 18 candidates who had filed to run for parliamentary seats as members of the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP); most of the candidates were Muslims.
Thus, tensions of various kinds exist in Myanmar today which will have a bearing on the upcoming elections. These elections will be a true test of the democratic political transition which the country’s leaders have been claiming since 2010. Communal tensions, ethnic clashes, corruption, floods, among others, present a hydra-headed challenge to the leaders of Myanmar. Vested interests should be prevented from hijacking the elections. Efforts must be geared towards ensuring free and fair elections which can act as yet another laudable step in the democratic transition which the country is attempting, which in turn would go a long way in tackling the challenges which plague the country.
*Obja Borah Hazarika is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University, Assam, and can be contacted at [email protected]