The Recent Elections In Myanmar From dictatorship to democracy
Power will be handed over to the newly elected National League for Democracy party headed by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi on March 31, 2016. Meanwhile Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi met the Chief of Army Staff Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on December 02, 2015. The General briefed the Press after the meeting that the results of the meeting were good and the Army had agreed to the new Parliament convening on January 31, 2016
With the last votes from Myanmar’s’ farthest corners finally counted, the country’s electoral upheaval has been officially confirmed. The National League for Democracy, led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had won 77 per cent of the seats, while the ruling army’s political party, the Union Solidarity and Development party had just managed a humiliating 10 per cent of the seats. Myanmar had been ruled by a brutal military dictatorship till just five years ago and the National League for Democracy was banned, with many of its leaders in prison, or under house arrest. This is an exhilarating turn around. The National League for Democracy’s landslide victory gives it a majority in both houses of Parliament, and puts it in position to pick the next President.
Myanmar’s swift, albeit incomplete transition from dictatorship to democracy is particularly good because of failures in other countries. For instance, during the same period, the Arab Spring has wilted. Of the several countries that saw popular revolutions in 2011, only Tunisia remains relatively stable. Elections have been held successfully there. Libya and Syria are now war zones. Also, Myanmar’s neighbours have floundered on the way. In 2011 a democratic government was elected in Thailand that lasted only three years, when it was overthrown in a military coup. Malaysia and Cambodia held elections in 2013, both of which were flawed and largely rejected by the opposition. Meanwhile, in China and Vietnam, dissidents continue to be locked up.
The new Parliament
As per the format, the new Parliament will be convened in Myanmar on January 31, 2016. Power will be handed over to the newly elected National League for Democracy party headed by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi on March 31, 2016. Meanwhile Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi met the Chief of Army Staff Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on December 02, 2015. The General briefed the Press after the meeting that the results of the meeting were good and the Army had agreed to the new Parliament convening on January 31, 2016, and to hand over power to the new party on March 31, 2016.
Meanwhile, the leader of the National League for Democracy, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi met the President of Myanmar U Thein Sein. The meeting reportedly had good results as reported by the Information Minister, Ye Htutt. He announced that the current government guarantees transfer of power peacefully.
The most interesting development was the meeting between Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and a former Myanmar Army General who had detained Miss Suu Kyi in an indefinite house arrest a decade earlier. This time the meeting was cordial and the tough old Myanmar General wished the best for Miss Aung San Suu Kyi in leading the next democratic government. His positive action was an interesting turn around to say the least.
The final result of the general election was the extraordinary sweep by the National League for Democracy winning nearly 80 per cent of the seats, while the Union Solidarity and Development party won just 10 per cent of the seats.
The most curious incident was the meeting between the Burmese Army General who had detained Miss Aung San Suu Kyi in her house for several years after her party won the last elections. This meeting also was very good and the former Army General congratulated Miss Suu Kyi and complimented her and wished her well. This, on the face of it augers well for democracy in Mayanmar under the National League for Democracy party. As a kind of contradiction to this is the controversial race and religion law, advocated by the radical Buddhist nationalist religious group Ma Ba Tha, which was passed by the USDP Parliament under the USDP. Now that the NLD has won with a thumping majority in the recent election, they would have to examine revoking this last piece of communal legislation.
The formation of the new Parliament will be on January 31, nearly two months after the result of the election. Also, the new party would be handed over power on 31 March 2016, after a gap of two more months. There is a similar rather lengthy gap between the results of the election and the formation of the new government in the United States also. The radical problems that face Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party.
The major problem that Miss Suu Kyi and the NLD faces is about the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). This is a very major and very serious issue concerning the very roots of Myanmar’s national status. After Myanmar was given independence by the British in 1947, the ethnically different groups living on its eastern borders working down from north to south-the Wa, the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, and several smaller groups like the Kokang, the Padaung, the Palaung have not yet been fully integrated into the national mainstream. This is because the majority of these groups have not embraced Buddhism as their religion. The Wa, and some smaller groups have animist religions. It is only part of the Shan and part of the Karen who have embraced Buddhism. A good section of Kachins have become Christian. The majority Buddhist Myanmarese are not happy with this situation. Each of these principalities have independent armies armed with weapons purchased from Communist China. Each of these groups have maintained their own independent armies with weapons side by side with the Myanmarese army detachments. There have been running fights between these armies and the Myanmar army from time to time, but the side by side co-existence continues till date. Each of these semi independent entities have their own economies, trading with their big neighbour to the east-China.
It was to sort out this uneasy side by side existence, that the Myanmar Government tried to negotiate a deal between these recalcitrant semi independent entities by getting them to sign a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) during the fag end of the previous government. Some eight groups did sign agreements, but the three main groups did not agree to sign any agreement with the Myanmar Government. These were the Wa, the Shan and the Kachin. The first task facing the Suu Kyi government would be to get these groups to sign the NCA. This is easier said than done. After all, these semi independent states in Myanmar’s eastern frontier have had a semi independent economy for all these years.
The second major problem would be to put the radical Buddhist extreme right groups in Myanmar in place. This refers to the problem mentioned above of the radical Buddhist right group-the Ma Ba Tha and its extreme right laws that they passed in the last Parliament. The premier issue in this context is the second class status that Islam has been given in Myanmar by the last government. This is the issue concerning the Rohingyas. They are Bengali Muslims living on the western borders of Myanmar with undivided India. The British East India Company who was ruling India and Burma in the nineteenth century allowed the Bengali Muslims living in undivided India bordering Burma to migrate and settle in western Burma in what is now called the Arakhan. Later this eastern border of India became East Pakistan and then independent Bangladesh. Their descendents are now called Rohingyas. The Buddhist majority government have now derecognised these descendents of East Bengal whose forefathers had migrated to Burma during British rule. This is absolutely illegal by any standards. In fact this is a cruel misinterpretation of citizenship laws.
The Rohingyas were treated so shabbily by the Buddhist dominated government of Myanmar, that they were forced to barter with smugglers to get them to be transported to majority Muslim countries like Indonesia, Malaysia across the Andaman Sea. During the latter half of 2014 and the first half of 2015. Several hundred Rohingyas perished in the Andaman Sea while being smuggled by pirates from Myanmar to Malaysia and Indonesia.
These are major problems and Miss Suu Kyi should have her hands full in tackling them. During the run up to the elections, the USDP, the political party representing the Myanmar army denied voting rights to large sections of the Rohingyas. As noted earlier, the Rohingyas are descendents of Bengali Muslims, who had migrated from erstwhile East Bengal of undivided British India to British Burma prior to 1947, when both Burma and India were ruled by the British. It is illegal to refuse citizenship to the progeny of people who had migrated from British India to British Burma. The USDP dominated government of Myanmar who dis-enfranchised the descendents have committed an unlawful act. The first action of the Aung San Suu Kyi led NDF government should be to grant citizenship to all genuine descendents of Bengali Muslims who had migrated from erstwhile British India to Burma before 1947 when Burma became an independent country. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi incidentally did not open her mouth on this issue during the run up to the last elections that her party has won hands down. She has to immediately correct this mistake by granting citizenship to all genuine descendents of Bengali Muslims, whose forefathers had migrated from erstwhile British India to British Burma. Will she have the courage to do this? The USD party sponsored by the Myanmar army will naturally oppose this move.
Going by the silence that Miss Aung San Suu Kyi kept on the issue of the Rohingyas, I do not think that she will have the courage to grant citizenship to the descendents of the Bengali Muslims of the erstwhile British India who migrated to Burma before independence was granted to India and Burma. If she is a genuine states-person she will have to take this bold step.
Her other great challenge will be to get the recalcitrant Wa State, the Shans and the Karens to give up their partially independent status by demobilising their their own armies, well equipped with arms and carrying on economic activities independently with China and other Southeast Asian countries. It is only when she can do this will it be possible to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
By E N Rammohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF.)