Why We Shouldn’t Expect Too Much From Burma’s Election

Burma’s opposition may score gains in the upcoming elections — but the military will still be in charge.

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On November 8, the people of Burma (also known as Myanmar) will head to the polls for a general election. Rather than provoking cynicism and eye-rolling, as such an exercise would have done in the past, this election demands to be taken seriously as a genuine test of popular will.

Indeed, it is just one example of how far the Southeast Asian nation of about 50 million people has come in the four short years since the quasi-military government led by a new president, Thein Sein, started its vaunted reform program. Burma released most political prisoners (though there have been new arrests), lifted strict censorship and travel bans, and more. In 2012, the country held free and fair by-elections which saw opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi elected to parliament.

The forthcoming election might well be the most competitive of its kind for over fifty years, certainly since the military took over in a coup in 1962, just fourteen years after Burma won independence from the British. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, might well win the most seats, having boycotted the last (rigged) general election in 2010. Many hope that Burma, once the most prosperous country in the region, might regain some of its former eminence, and even become a reliable Western ally, detached from its previous paymaster, China.

Yet it is far too early to declare victory. However well-conducted these elections are, they won’t mark the sort of transformational moment many expect. For they will be conducted entirely on terms set by the quasi-military government, ensuring that however much the votes stack up against it, it will still retain a lock on power.

Most obviously, under the constitution introduced by former dictator Than Shwe in 2008, a quarter of the members of the lower house of parliament (166 of them) are appointed directly by the head of the armed forces, rather than being elected. As the votes of more than three-quarters of legislators are needed to change the constitution, the military-designed constitution will likely remain in place for some time, no matter how well the NLD and other smaller opposition parties perform.

Among other things, this constitution guarantees the army a paramount role within the state, allowing it to wage war against internal enemies, especially the ethnic minority militias, with virtual impunity. Furthermore, and more controversially, the constitution specifically prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from standing for president, since it bars anyone from that office whose spouse or children are foreign citizens. Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, was a British academic, while her two sons were born in Britain and hold UK passports.

The NLD gathered millions of signatures in support of changing these clauses, but all attempts to amend the constitution over the last two years have failed — and this has probably been the most significant setback for Burma’s reforms. Indeed, having awakened so many hopes when it began in 2011, the entire reform process now appears stalled. In sum, the deeply unpopular military, faced with likely electoral humiliation at the hands of the NLD and the dozens of other ethnic-minority opposition parties at this election, has stubbornly clung on to all the constitutional safeguards that will protect its power. As a result, even though the NLD and other opposition parties should win the most seats on November 8, their subsequent power to change the country for the better will be severely constrained.

Some have argued that the anti-democratic nature of the constitution is what has given the military the confidence to concede some power and pass reforms. That may be true. In reality, though, the constitution has come to look like more a comfort blanket for the large cohort of officers who have become fearful of any further liberalization. Due to the West’s hasty lifting of almost all economic sanctions quickly after the reforms started in 2011, these officers have already got most of what they wanted from the West: renewed economic engagement with the IMF, the World Bank, a big boost in aid money, and a flood of foreign capital. These men clearly don’t feel under any great pressure to take reforms any further, despite the Obama administration’s increasingly desperate attempts to prod them into doing so.

Moreover, just as Burma’s rulers have prejudged the outcome of these elections, so they have also handpicked the electorate. This offers more disturbing pointers to Burma’s future. Whereas, for instance, during the last election in 2010 the 800,000 or so Muslim Rohingya in western Rakhine state were mostly allowed to vote, this time they have lost even that basic right. Notoriously, they have never been granted Burmese citizenship, so they have no redress against their disenfranchisement.

The Rohingya, of course, were stateless five years ago. What has changed, however, is that whereas in 2010 the military’s ruling party, the widely loathed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), needed the Rohingya to vote for them against the local Rakhine nationalist party in Rakhine state, this time round their disenfranchisement serves another purpose — to exploit anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, also for political gain.

For the USDP has resorted to stoking the fires of sectarian distrust as virtually its sole electoral strategy to avoid a stunning political defeat. The party has raised the fear of the Muslimization of the country in order to pose as the only genuine defenders of the Burman Buddhist majority. Protecting the precarious interests of the majority, apparently, means not only banning the Rohingya from voting, but also passing extremely discriminatory anti-Muslim laws.

These laws were largely produced by a murky pressure group called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, or “Ma Ba Tha” in Burmese. The Ma Ba Tha has been inspired and supported by many among the sangha, Burma’s revered community of monks, and the government, in turn, has eagerly embraced their “race and religion” agenda. With well over 100 ethnic groups, Burma is divided enough as it is without the military exacerbating the problem — but division will probably be one of the uglier consequences of this election. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has been intimidated into silence by the feverish anti-Muslim atmosphere that prevails in Burma. This champion of human rights has notoriously failed to offer any direct support to the Rohingya. Indeed, she cannot even bring herself to mention them by name.

So although these elections are a step forward, a significant improvement on the manifestly rigged affair in 2010, they should be seen for what they really are: a flawed, partial exercise in democracy that won’t lead to the profound changes that people would almost certainly vote for if only they were given the opportunity. The polls should be supported. But the international community — and especially those countries, such as Britain and America, that have invested heavily, politically and financially, in the reform program — should be pressing for the constitutional and institutional changes that will, eventually, make the real difference. It is clear from the experience of the last two years that, elections or not, the military is not going to give up power lightly in Burma, and will probably have to be bullied into doing so. In this context, these elections are just one more battle in a very long war.

In the photo, Burmese soldiers march in formation during the 67th Myanmar Independence Day parade in Naypyidaw on January 4, 2015.

Photo credit: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

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