Looking East

Myanmar Polls: Test for Suu Kyi and Democracy

17 Jul, 2015    ·   4900

Wasbir Hussain reflects on domestic developments ahead of the November parliamentary elections

Wasbir Hussain
Wasbir Hussain
Visiting Fellow

It is time for fresh national elections in Myanmar. The much-hyped polls to the 664-member Parliament - finally fixed for 8 November 2015 - will be a test for both democracy in the former pariah state ruled by a military dictatorship as well as for the icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi. This is expected to be a landmark general election because the exercise is being held under the military-backed quasi-civilian government which is engaged in restoring a semblance of democracy in the nation of 51 million people since it assumed office in 2011.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), by all accounts, is expected to bag a large bloc of seats, but whether the military-influenced ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of President Thein Sein is going to wholeheartedly accept the people’s verdict is left to be seen. It is this lurking doubt over the military’s intent that has prompted many, including some key American Senators, to go on record to say the US should not provide trade benefits to Myanmar until after the November elections that will indicate the state of political reform.

The USDP or the military itself will be under the scanner this time because the international community has not forgotten how the unpopular military junta refused to accept the verdict in the first multi-party elections in 1990 where Suu Kyi’s NLD won a convincing victory. Western governments pushing for true democracy in Myanmar are more than happy that the NLD, that had boycotted the 2010 national elections, is in the fray this time, but are keeping their fingers crossed over possible election-time or post-poll political combustions. Suu Kyi confirmed on 11 July after a party meeting that the NLD would contest the upcoming polls to “continue the unfinished democratic reform process of the country.” The NLD had kept away from the 2010 elections because of rules barring Suu Kyi from contesting. But even today, Myanmar’s military-drafted Constitution has provisions that bar Suu Kyi from running for presidency because it has a provision that prohibits any person from becoming president if their family members are foreigners. Suu Kyi's late husband was British, and her two sons hold British passports.

Myanmar has been claiming it has made good strides on the road to democracy, but actions of parliamentarians or the military speak otherwise. In recent weeks, MPs voted down a motion to amend the clause barring Suu Kyi to run for presidency on the ground that some of her immediate family members are foreign nationals. The parliamentarians also voted in favour of the army's veto over constitutional change, dealing a blow to hopes for fuller democracy. The verdict of the MPs has not come as a surprise because the army holds 25 per cent of the seats in the Myanmar Parliament and as per current provisions, changes to the Constitution require more than 75 per cent of the votes.

Technicalities aside, Suu Kyi’s bargaining powers would increase considerably if the NLD manages to win the elections. Suu Kyi has herself said her party knew she was going to be “debarred” from the presidency and that they have plans in hand to handle the situation in the event of an NLD win. The party has, of course, not yet announced an alternative presidential candidate. If the numbers are on the side of the NLD in Parliament, the powerful military, too, may not be able to block efforts outright to amend the Constitution to remove the clause barring candidates with foreign spouses or children who are foreign nationals from becoming president. In fact, Suu Kyi has made no secret of the NLD’s intent to amend the Constitution if it wins the polls. "If the NLD wins in the election, we will amend the constitution," she told journalists on 11 July. The military and the ruling USDP know they cannot repeat a 1990 this time around as such a move would once again attract a global squeeze on funds to put it mildly, and, of course, trigger a fresh bout of public unrest.

Everything, including Suu Kyi’s future, as also the future of democracy itself in Myanmar, depends on the NLD’s performance at the polls. Suu Kyi and her party are not without hurdles in the run-up to the elections. In fact, during the past year, democracy icon Suu Kyi has maintained near silence on several issues concerning the masses. For instance, she and her party had backed the controversial Education Bill last year that prohibits student politics by not letting the formation of students unions in educational institutions. She had also remained largely silent on the issue of Rohingya Muslims that concerned most in South Asia. This has been a big irony that has either upset or surprised the common masses. But, Suu Kyi had obviously adopted such a stand because she was seeking the support of the Government in revising Myanmar’s Constitution, a move blocked by the MPs recently.

The NLD would like to win as many seats as possible but there are doubts if it could perform as well as it did in 1990 in Myanmar’s ethnic regions where fighting between the rebels and Government forces have intensified, of late. If the Myanmar military has launched the largest war effort, including air strikes in the Shan state’s ethnic Kokang region, there has been fierce fighting between the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Government troops in the northern Kachin state. Suu Kyi has said her party’s key agenda would be to bring about Constitutional amendment, pursuing the rule of law, and bringing about a national ceasefire with ethnic insurgents. Aside from this broad promise, the NLD has not spoken out its mind on how it plans to deal with ethnic aspirations in the nation. Whether Suu Kyi will spend time herself campaigning in these disturbed regions is unclear so far but there are reports she would keep away from the Rakhine State, where vast numbers of Rohingya have been disenfranchised with the cancellation of their identification documents.

A Buddhist monk movement with a sharp nationalistic fervour has threatened to reduce the NLD’s influence among the Buddhists. Besides, a plethora of political parties drawn from ethnic groups have sprung up in the troubled regions, challenging the dominance of the NLD. These will be factors which Suu Kyi and her party cannot ignore, making their fight with the USDP or the military itself all the more difficult. President Thein Sein has promised a ‘free and fair’ election in the presence of international observers. But, with reports of large-scale irregularities in the voters’ list that have been published, things may not be smooth sailing. Suu Kyi, obviously, is aware of the odds, and at the same time knows this is possibly her final chance to wrest control in Myanmar. Whether that can speed up the march towards total democracy in a nation dominated for decades by the military is left to be seen. The polls also presents New Delhi with an opportunity to try and test its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy by way of convincing the key players in Myanmar on the strength and benefits of a form of governance based on democratic ideals.