Elections in November will see the military remain the dominant political force, even if it is a further step in Myanmar’s transformation from military dictatorship towards democracy. Key issues to watch will be how well ethnic parties fare and how a new government will handle the Rohingya refugee crisis.
With a population of over 50 million, Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s second largest country. At the same time, as a consequence of five decades of brutal military rule starting in 1968 and the resulting economic sanctions enacted by the international community, it is also the poorest state in the region.
The November elections are the first since a nominally civilian government was formed in 2011. Symbolically at least, it represents a fundamental move towards democracy after a half century of direct military rule.
Time for change?
As it stands, it may be better to describe the progress Myanmar has made in recent years as one of liberalisation rather than democratisation. After five decades of strict censorship, a public space is opening up in which, according to Reporters Without Borders, freedom of the press is improving – though lately, there have been signs of backsliding.
Its constitution, drafted in 2008 by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, still reserves 25 per cent of seats in both Houses of Parliament for the military. Any changes to the constitution require a majority of more than 75 per cent, handing the military an effective veto. It also reserves the key Ministries of Defence, Interior and Home Affairs for the Tatmadaw.
Moreover, article 59F of the constitution still bars famous opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding the office of President, on the grounds of her having children with a British passport.
In the upcoming elections, 75 per cent of seats of the Hluttaw are up for grabs. The National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, is set to win a majority in the central and southern regions with a predominantly ethnic Bamar makeup. Its first-past-the-post system means it is likely to win all of the Parliamentary seats these states represent, amounting to 44 per cent of the total.
It will then only need to win a few seats in the border states, where ethnic minority parties are set to do well, to achieve an overall majority in Parliament. However, it is uncertain whether this can be achieved as national polling data are lacking.
Moreover, a hardline Buddhist nationalist campaign by the Ma Ba Tha has depicted the NLD as a Muslim party in a time of increasing tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. The impact of the campaign on the NLD’s popularity remains to be seen, but is one reason why Aung San Suu Kyi has appeared cautious in speaking out on the plight of the Muslim Rohingya people.
Implications and key indicators to watch
With 75 per cent of Parliamentary seats to be filled through (relatively) free elections for the first time in over 50 years, an NLD-dominated Hluttaw can be expected to become more vocal. Ethnic parties and the NLD are expected to make major gains, at the cost of the ruling USDP.
Whatever the outcome, the military will retain its predominant political influence as secured under the current constitution. It has indicated further political reforms will have to wait until a ceasefire is signed with all insurgent groups, a condition that may take another 5 to 10 years to be fulfilled. Indeed, the latest round of negotiations with ethnic groups faltered.
A crucial factor will be how well the parties of the ethnic minority groups fare. Under Myanmar’s convoluted political system, the elected members of the Upper House, the elected members of the Lower House, and the unelected military members of both Houses each put forward a candidate for the Presidency. The three groups then need to vote jointly on who will become the President, the other two candidates becoming Vice-Presidents.
An expected strong showing by ethnic parties could make their support crucial for any party trying to win the Presidency. In return, these groups may see their demands for devolution of power to the border regions being heeded. As the ethnic parties are closer to the ruling USDP than the NLD, a strong showing would also make life harder for Aung San Suu Kyi.
Another key indicator to watch will be how the new government deals with the Rohingya refugee crisis, and wider incitement of anti-Muslim feelings by the increasingly influential Buddhist nationalists of the Ma Ba Tha. The current government’s repressive policies towards the Rohingya have already led many thousands to flee to neighbouring countries, followed by reprimands from the international community.
Pandering to the Ma Ba Tha, the current government recently enacted one bill of its “race and religion protection” package: a population control law that will allow the government to enact repressive birth control measures in any area it wants to. Some fear that the government will seek to pass the remaining three similarly oppressive laws before the general elections are held.
An NLD win may mean that treatment of the Rohingya will improve slightly; at the moment, Rohingya are not recognised as citizens by the government. But the NLD’s spokesman has recently called on the government to grant citizenship to Rohingya who have been residing in the country for one or two generations. The party is however still struggling with the issue, as it is politically dangerous to support any measures that can be branded “pro-Muslim”.
Without international assistance, Myanmar will face a rough road ahead as it seeks to modernize its society and economy. However, increased scrutiny of its treatment of the Rohingya means that if a new government doesn’t alter its repressive policies, this assistance may not be forthcoming.
Niels van Wanrooij is a public sector consultant with experience in international policy at the Dutch Parliament and in advocacy with an NGO. He holds an MSc. in International Political Economy from LSE along with a MSc. in International Relations and BSc. in Political Science from the Radboud University in the Netherlands.