Myanmar Elections: Democracy Still A Distant Dream – Analysis


By Obja Borah Hazarika*

The elections of November 8, 2015 were the first of its kind in 25 years in Myanmar. There were 30 million eligible voters out of which 80% turned out to vote. By November 15, 2015, the Union Solidarity and Development Party had won 41 of the 478 seats that have been declared so far. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won 387 seats, about 80% of the contested seats, with a few results yet to be announced.

The last country wide elections had taken place in 1990 when the NLD won 392 of the 492 parliamentary seats; but the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) disregarded the ballot and held Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for over 15 years and military rule continued until 2011. All signals from the military and the USDP this time around point to the fact that the ballot will be respected. However, despite such verbal assurances, the NLD has severe challenges before it.

Since the transition of power in 2011, Myanmar has been trying to transition into a democracy after more than half a century of military rule. There have been undoubted changes ushered in by the Thein Sein-led government in releasing some political prisoners, allowing some freedom of press among others However, the elections of November 8, 2015 has been thus far the most seemingly momentous of all changes allowed by the government of Thein Sein. Although the elections were a huge step forward for Myanmar, the riders which come with it, tarnishes much of the progress which it seems to have achieved.

Moreover the NLD, for which the electorate of nearly 30 million in Myanmar has largely voted, has its task cut out for it. The people of Myanmar undoubtedly, expect the handover of power to be smooth and governance to be effective, humane and people-oriented. The people also expect that the NLD would be able to end the human rights abuse and other highhandedness which became only too common in Myanmar during the past half century or so. The NLD having won the mandate now is faced with the hard task of fulfilling such expectations, and many a government in the past the world over has fallen due to the unmanageable burden of expectations. The NLD it is hoped will be able to deliver and meet the expectations of the people, and in case it fails the military would have the opportunity to grasp power.

Another major problem which mars the socio-ethnic-political-religious landscape of the country is with regard the Buddhist-Muslim clashes which have intermittently been erupting in various parts of the country. Suu Kyi’s silence on the human rights of the Rohingya Muslims has drawn flak from international media and human rights agencies. However, the Buddhist extremists see Suu Kyi as supporting the Muslims. Such tensions continue to simmer in the background of the elections as the Rohingyas were denied the vote in the elections as they do not have citizenship. Such communal tensions will also have to be dealt with by the new NLD government. The problem of armed ethnic groups also continues to simmer in large parts of Myanmar as major groups like the Wa and Kachin did not sign the ceasefire agreement, which was signed by most other ethnic groups in Myanmar recently. The NLD faces the tough challenge of bringing on board the ethnic armed groups which are still holding out on the ceasefire agreement.

The other challenges facing the NLD despite the overwhelming mandate it has received from its people are formidable. First, the constitution which was etched by the junta to ensure that the power of the military continues to be sacrosanct in many pressing matters in Myanmar, bars Suu Kyi from becoming president. Suu Kyi has already addressed this concern by stating very clearly that she will be above the president as leader of the winning party. The next president will only be chosen by next March, until which time political wrangling, uneasiness, bargaining, negotiating between the NLD and the military will mark the political landscape of Myanmar. The military leaders and members of the USDP have so far been supportive, and accepted of the mandate of the people. The new parliament will begin in January. The newly-elected lawmakers, along with the military bloc of 25%, will nominate three candidates for president and vote on them. The one with the most votes will win.

More worryingly, the constitution also ensures that the military or Tatmadaw’s nominees will have undisputed control of 25% of seats of the 664-seat parliament. This clause is extremely significant as the NLD will require at least one of the members of the military’s 25% nominees to vote along with it in order to effect changes in the constitution as it needs at least 75% of the votes to effect such a change. This implies that members or nominees of the military sitting in the parliament would have to break ranks in order to aid the change in constitution which seems quite unlikely, making the overwhelming majority received by the NLD near redundant.

Furthermore, the military will continue to have control of key portfolios like defense, home and border affairs. It will also be in control of its own budget. Both these powers of the military greatly curb the freedom to run affairs of Myanmar both internal and external by the NLD, and in effect limit the democratic essence of the elections of November 8 to a great extent. In addition, the military’s control over state institutions and security forces also needs to be severely reduced for the country to embark further on the path of democracy. The enormous economic holdings and the considerable social constituency of the military also needs to be reined in.

The most significant authority that the military retains with regard to the affairs of Myanmar apart from the above-mentioned powers is that the commander in chief of the military retains the right to take control of the government in emergencies, which effectively nullifies the control of the NLD whenever the military deems it fit to intrude into the affairs of the parliament and the country. The emergencies relating to national security and national unity under which the military can retake power from the civilian government have not been specified, giving the military enormous leeway in maintaining control over the civilian government.

Furthermore, the military will also continue to have control over the police, justice system and security services, thereby greatly reducing the role of the civilian government. In addition, the National Defense and Security Council of Myanmar, which is an 11-member body, six of whom are from the military, thereby a domineering group, sits above the parliament and government and continues to be the most powerful body in Myanmar, with the wherewithal to overrule any new law which the NLD may make.

Such conditions point to the fact that the changes which have been initiated in Myanmar, including the elections of November 8, have been very incremental, slow and wanting in several aspects. The overwhelming powers of the military, despite the elections, points to the limited sense in which the transition from military rule is taking place in the country. Democracy remains a distant dream, far into the future, and is still to come to Myanmar.

*Obja Borah Hazarika is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dibrugarh University, Assam. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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