Myanmar Elections’ Crucible: Will there be a transformational Change?

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While the forthcoming elections are being seen as a further step in the ongoing transitions in Myanmar there is also a degree of skepticism that whether these elections would change the fundamental nature and character of the Constitution that guarantees the military a dominant role in ruling the country.

Gen. Min Aung Hliang, Commander in Chief has been stressing that the military would accept the verdict of people and abide by the rules laid under the framework of 2008 Constitution. But then the same Constitution mandates a quarter of the seats would be held by the serving military officers who are under the command of C-IN-C. Ministers in charge of Defence, Interior and Border Affairs are all serving military officers.  Would this kind of set up be changed in a major way   if a new political dispensation led by Suu Kyi comes to power?

President Thien Sein has consolidated his power within the   ruling party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which could be termed as Army’s party by removing the perceived challenger to   Shwe Mann, Chairman of the USDP from his party position. He was viewed by Thien Sein as    getting too close for comfort to Aung San Suu Kyi that would have impacted his chances. He also attempted to remove Shwe Mann from his position of Speaker of the Lower House but was unable to do so because of support to him by the Legislature.  

Nevertheless, despite a huge number of political parties (over 90) taking part in the elections the major contenders remain Thein Sein led USDP and Suu Kyi led NLD. Suu Kyi is attracting overwhelming response wherever he goes to attend election rallies. Burmese people believe that their aspirations would be better met by Suu Kyi after a long struggle with the military regimes.

Both USDP and NLD are using social and mass media as also some musical ditties based on popular songs for promotion of their political parties and candidates. Something like which is so common in the election campaigns in India. Not only this the USDP is being accused of hiring crowds for their rallies and even going to the extent of paying cash to the attendees. The USDP in particular is attempting to compete with the NLD in the size of huge crowds that NLD and its leaders are drawing. 

However, there are reports of infighting within the NLD. Though it is difficult to comment on the intensity of such internal divisions yet, such schisms are part and parcel of any political party. As Suu Kyi cannot become President because of the Constitutional prohibition someone else from the Party would have to be nominated if NLD were to win the election. However, she has said that she will be the leader of that government whether or not she is the President. But then creation of two power centers will create its own dynamics that may militate against the smooth functioning of the government. For instance in India, there were always questions raised after Manmohan Singh was made the Prime Minister when Congress won twice in succession in 2004 and 2009 elections and Sonia Gandhi as Chair man of the Party was seen as the driving entity behind the throne with some negative outcomes.

Also Suu Kyi could also be criticized for not building either a successor to her in the Party or second rung of leadership in the Party who could provide charismatic leadership to the party in her absence. There are some predictions that if something were happen to her then party could ‘disintegrate’ leading to continuation of military dominated rule.

Meanwhile Thein Sein, in a step that is expected to bolster his chances at the hustings, was able to conclude a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with eight of the rebel groups last month; many other such groups have stayed away from signing the agreement. India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Prime Minister Modi’s special envoy for northeast R N Ravi were present to witness the deal besides the UN, European Union, China, Japan and Thailand reps. Rebel leaders were keen to have a number of foreign representatives witness the agreement to give it more credibility and validity.

On the other hand absence of a large number of groups especially the larger and significant ones like the Kachin Independent Organisation (KIO)   and    the United Wa State Army is likely to dilute and severely limit the benefits expected by the USDP from the agreement.  While there was a need to have around 21 groups to be invited for negotiations for NCA to find a lasting solution to the vexed issue of ethnic reconciliation only 16 or so were invited and merely eight signed the agreement. Evidently the ethnic voters in rebel controlled areas that make up a considerable percentage of population might not be able to exercise their vote in the elections. As of now it is difficult to predict how far the conclusion of much promised NCA will influence the voters in favour of USDP.

Further, Rhoingyas would go unrepresented as mostly they are not treated as citizens of Myanmar but they are considered as Bangladeshi migrants. There are also issues of electoral rolls not having being maintained properly or not having being updated. Possibilities of other irregularities during the election process as also likelihood of violence cannot be ruled out.

 The current election is an important milestone on the path of democratic transition of Myanmar. An NLD win is more likely to usher in an era where the transition to democracy gains momentum whereas a USDP win is likely to consolidate the present quasi democratic power structure. With the Suu Kyi led NLD at the helm of affairs the desired democratic reforms that dilute the stranglehold of military may see realization though it would be a difficult process to overcome the resistance of the entrenched military to any change of status quo. With military control of levers of power any transformational change in the nature of democracy is unlikely in the near future. However, incremental progress is a possibility;   it may take a decade or more for Myanmar to establish itself as an acceptable kind of   democracy.  From a pragmatic Indian perspective peace and stability in the neighbouring countries is an imperative and a successful conclusion of elections in Myanmar would further pave way for strengthening bilateral relations.

Published at VIF, New Delhi

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Author: Brig (rtd) Vinod Anand