Recent changes shaping Myanmar’s transition process have highlighted the tenuousness of the Process in that country. Even as the upcoming 2015 election is set to be one of the most important indicators of this democratic transition, events transpiring in the country are worrisome. The gains made over the past four years – since the reform process began in 2011 – may be affected by several recent developments that have raised anxieties vis-à-vis the trajectory the transition will follow.
What are the indicators of changes shaping Myanmar? What is their significance in the context of the 2015 elections?
Since the 2010 elections and the announcement of the reform process in 2011, Myanmar has seen some credible changes that have altered the perceptions of both regional countries and the international community. The 2012 by-election – where the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 seats of 45 seats – was seen as a watershed moment in the Process and was heralded as a marker of the shift shaping Myanmar. However, the past few months have seen challenges to the reform process. They highlight the complex issues that need to be resolved to ensure the free-ness and fairness of the 2015 elections. They include constitutional reforms; greater freedom and space for the media; management of ethnic conflicts and communal violence; and viable political space for all minorities within Myanmar.
The Constitution Conundrum
First on the list is the debate for the amendment of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution – that has ensued for the past few years. This Constitution strongly endorses a role for the military through the implementation of the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) – that clearly visualises a role for the armed forces in two capacities:
a. in the administration of the country via reservations in the parliament, and
b. in the protection and preservation of the state
This allows for one fourth of the parliamentary seats to be reserved for the armed forces – and is seen as crucial to the stability of the state. Additionally, there exists a provision under Article 436 that currently demands over 75 per cent votes in the parliament to make amends to the Constitution – an impossible task given that 25 per cent of seats reserved for the military allows for the right to veto any move to reframe the charter. In July 2014, Aung San Suu Kyi led a signature campaign towards amending this caveat; it still shows no signs of progress.
The second debate relates directly to Suu Kyi’s role with regards to Article 59 (f) that debars any person from the presidency on account of being related to foreigners. This directly impinges on Suu Kyi’s chances to lead her party to victory in the 2015 elections. Given how the NLD does not have a second rung of leadership to carry on the party mantle in the absence of Suu Kyi’s influential and charismatic guidance, this directly undermines the party’s effectiveness in the upcoming elections.
The Tense State-Media Relationship
Furthermore, there exists the challenge of managing relations with the media. Last month there were reports that five journalists had been arrested and charged with violation of the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act for allegedly leaking sensitive information in the press. In another incident, journalists were booked under violation of the 1950 Emergency Act for allegedly giving unverified statements in the media. One visible indicator of change since the announcement of the reform process was the lifting of restrictions that had been imposed on the press. The aforementioned incidents have once again highlighted the tenuousness of State-media relations.
In the aftermath of these two incidents, President Thein Sein’s resolve to meet with the Press Council was a sound move; and the media was asked to play the role of a stronger stakeholder in the reform process, and to show greater responsibility in its approach towards reporting of incidents that were sensitive.
Ethnic Conflict and Reconciliation Efforts
A key challenge facing the country is the nature of shape the peace process with ethnic minorities will take. Today, after nearly 60 years of armed conflict between the state and its ethnic nationalities, there is a move towards a National Ceasefire Agreement that is being coordinated by the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team. While individual ethnic groups have already signed ceasefire agreements, most of them are very fragile and have been unable to move towards any political resolution. More importantly, political negotiations that will follow the ceasefire will be the crux of any resolution. Bringing major changes to both sides’ perceptions will be a greater challenge. Compounding the ethnic challenge is the levels of religious violence that have been evident in recent times. Although, lately, there has been some discussion on moving towards some form of a federal structure, the discourse is still vague and undefined.
The Thein Sein government has made credible headway on the roadmap to a democratic transition, in the past four years. The challenge to any transitional phase is more evident when it comes to issues of institutional change and consolidation. This will be a critical phase Naypyidaw will have to address in the coming days.