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In a Flawed Election, Burma’s People Will Have Their Say At Last

Burma's military may remain in charge. But Sunday's election is a chance for the country's people to make their voices heard.

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My family and friends in Burma are burning to vote. The national election this Sunday, Nov 8, will be the first chance for many of them to participate in a competitive (though deeply flawed) democratic election.

There’s a longing for change surging throughout Burma — and world-famous opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has succeeded in capturing this longing. This is true even in Arakan State, where sectarian conflict between Muslims and Buddhists has torn entire communities apart. Buddhist nationalist groups have criticized the Lady, as she is often called here, for being “too supportive of Muslims,” leading some observers to conclude that she would find little support from these communities. But all the same, thousands of Arakanese showed up at her rallies to offer the Lady a rapturous welcome.

Not even the threat of violence has deterred Burma’s voters. Several sword-wielding assailants attacked and severely injured an opposition candidate last week, raising the possibility of further bloodshed. But ordinary Burmese have defied such fears, turning out in huge numbers to show their loyalty to Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

I share their sense of hope. My training in political science demands that I construct scenarios and models as an “objective” researcher — but as a former activist who has been deeply involved in Burma’s democracy movement since 1988, I admit that I can’t help but view this election with a great deal of emotion. Thousands of people, including many of my close colleagues, have died in street protests, served long prison sentences, and endured exile in their struggle for human dignity, just to make this possibility of change real. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

But I’m also worried that the elections won’t lead to the sort happy ending we all want — a decisive step towards effective governance and genuine reform. Burma’s political system is based on a constitution that was custom-tailored by the military specifically to enable it to retain wide-ranging powers, even as a degree of liberalization was introduced. For example, the constitution reserves 25 percent of the seats in parliament for military appointees, and the next president will be elected by parliament rather than by voters. So even if the opposition NLD wins a majority of seats — as some forecasters predict they might — the party would still face enormous structural obstacles on the path to forming a government and choosing a president.

More worryingly still, there has never been any negotiation between the opposition and the military on how to handle this convoluted situation. In the absence of a common understanding about how a potential power-sharing deal would work — and how the losers’ security would be maintained — the military has few incentives to entertain a smooth power transfer in the event of an opposition victory. Even a huge election victory for the NDL, in short, will not necessarily bring change — instead, it could result in a new administration that will be unable to govern without the military’s support. Or, if the military deems that the country is in danger, it could take over the state in a “legal coup,” as the constitution allows.

For now, at least, the military-allied government has taken steps to try to regain the people’s trust. Over the past five years, the administration of President Thein Sein — himself a former general and leading junta member — has made some important moves to open up the country, including a certain degree of press freedom, the release of some political prisoners, and efforts to conduct negotiations with ethnic armed groups. But most people see this “new regime with old faces” as unacceptable. They see the past five years as an extension of the previous five decades of military rule, and the human rights violations, poverty, and civil war that came with it.

The government did manage to pull off a ceasefire accord with eight of the twenty rebel groups last month, but this doesn’t seem to be translating into votes for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The government has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on development projects aimed at persuading people in the countryside that it is the best protector of their interests. Yet the majority of voters still complain about poverty, illegal land grabs, rising inflation, and rampant corruption. So the elections are shaping up to be a test of whether the people are prepared to go on accepting a program of top-down reform parceled out by members of the same old political establishment.

The situation has been greatly complicated by the rise of a new brand of religious extremism that is challenging the fundamentally secular character of Burmese politics. In flagrant violation of the constitution and election laws, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, has warned voters to withhold their support from any party or candidate that refuses to accept a recent package of “race and religion laws” that have been widely criticized as discriminatory against religious minorities and women. Hoping to capitalize on the diffuse fears and resentments of Burma’s overwhelmingly Buddhist electorate, the USDP-dominated parliament passed the laws despite protests from the opposition.

Extremist elements in the Ma Ba Tha in some regions have gone even farther by selecting and endorsing particular candidates. The elections will also show whether the people are willing to allow the men in religious robes to expand their power in the name of “protecting” Buddhism from its imagined enemies.

Opinion polls in Burma are few and far between. Yet from what I’ve been hearing, people are increasingly determined to cast votes of protest and resistance against two pillars of the establishment: the military and the religious nationalists. In this sense, the election can be seen as a contest between the civilian population and the men in uniform (whether the clothes in question are the olive drab of the military or the maroon robes of the militant monks).

For that reason, the votes that my friends and relatives will cast on Sunday matter. These elections will enable the people of Burma to send a clear message to the men in uniform: “Yes, you can continue to rule the country (at least for a while) because you’ve rigged the process to keep yourselves in power. But you will no longer be able to claim that you rule in our names.” And that is a kind of power in its own right.

In the photo, supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi listen as she speaks during a campaign rally for the National League for Democracy in Yangon on November 1, 2015.

Photo credit: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

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