Parliamentary elections in Myanmar will take place on November 8. Considerable anticipation and expectation has been generated in international media about the implications of these elections for Myanmar’s march to democracy. Questions are being raised whether the elections will be free and fair, credible, inclusive and transparent. Will they make a difference in governance of the country? What impact will they have on lives of ordinary citizens? And equally importantly, what will they portend for relations with India?
To understand the significance of the current electoral exercise, it is essential to remember a few basic facts. Elections are taking place under the Constitution promulgated in 2008 by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), a party supported by the military which seized power in 1988. The Constitution was hailed by the military when it was promulgated in 2008 as heralding a return to democracy. This hope has been belied. The opposition sees the Constitution as a tool for continuing military control.
The legislative branch consists of the Union Assembly (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) which is a bicameral legislature consisting of the 440-seat House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw) or the Lower House. Out of these, 110 seats or 25% are reserved for the military (Tatmadaw). The other chamber consists of the 224-seat House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw) or the Upper House. Here also 25% or 56 seats are reserved for the military. Elections will also take place to the seven state and seven regional houses of the assembly.
The major parties contesting the elections include the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which is closely associated with the military and has been in power since the last elections in 2010. The 2010 polls were widely perceived by observers within and outside the country as fraudulent and to have been manipulated and rigged by the army in favour of USDP.
The second principal outfit is the foremost opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the iconic democratic proponent Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK). There are over thirty smaller so-called ethnic political parties as well as historically student-focused parties. Their role in any post-election government is likely to be significant as their support could help either of the major parties in electing the President and forming the government. These parties also have the potential to severely cut into ASSK’s NLD voter-base.
Role of military
The role of military continues to be vital and crucial in the election. The outright direct rule of military junta may have largely vanished by 2011, but the role of the military-appointed members of the Parliament will continue to be crucial for a long time to come.
The military will continue to control at least 25% of the seats in national and regional legislatures. There will be no possibility of effecting any change in the constitution as support of at least 75% of the houses is required for accomplishing any amendment to the constitution. Any attempt to make the constitution more democratic and representative of the wishes of the people and reduce the power of the military is most likely to be infructuous as it would most likely be vetoed by the army.
ASSK and NLD continue to command wide spread support amongst the masses. After ASSK was freed in 2010, NLD decided to take part in the by-elections in 2012 in which it swept the elections winning 43 out of the 44 seats it contested. NLD won more than 90% of votes polled in the by-elections for the Lower House. It is however unlikely that NLD will be able to repeat the same performance this time around in the national elections. There are several reasons for this. Last time most elections for Lower House were for seats in Central Myanmar. This time the regions will be electing their representatives and they are likely to vote on ethnic considerations for regional parties rather than for NLD. Several segments of population particularly the Rohingyas and Muslim minority have been disenfranchised. USDP and army have put in place several laws in recent months which seek to tilt the balance against NLD. The dramatic rise of the radical Buddhist Nationalist Party in a country which is 90% Buddhist has the potential to significantly diminish ASSK’s appeal amongst the masses.
It also needs to be remembered that Myanmar is conducting parliamentary elections. Myanmar however has a Presidential form of government. The parliament elects the President but once the Parliament has chosen a President, the President and government are independent of and not accountable to parliament on almost all their policies and actions. It is not possible for the people of Myanmar to directly elect the government they want. Also after the election, regardless of who wins, the military has the authority to appoint the Home Minister, control the police, the security services and the justice system. Military is not under any control of the government or the Parliament. The military dominated National Defense and Security Council is more powerful than the parliament and the government. The military continues to exercise direct and indirect control over large segments of Myanmar’s economy.
It is significant that the military delegates, most of who consider themselves historical guardians of the State, do not vote en bloc, and have the liberty to support the government-backed USDP, the opposition NLD, or even (unlikely) one of the fifteen or so ethnic parties. Nonetheless, the military vote on matters of such key significance as changes to the 2010 Constitution shows that in general the army bloc resists full democratic change. For example, on June 25, 2015, the military vote prevented a proposal that would have reduced Section 436’s current requirement of 75% parliamentary support for making constitutional changes to 70%.
Even if NLD were to romp home with a convincing win, ASSK will not be able to become the President as she is barred from doing so. Her sons are British citizens and according to Article 59f of the Constitution, no candidate whose spouse or children ‘’owe allegiance to a foreign country’’ will be able to occupy the top position. ASSK is hence effectively barred from holding this important position. She could of course opt for the position of Speaker of the Lower House of the Parliament which is also a significant position though not comparable to the President. There is also some speculation that ASSK might decide to disown her two sons so that she could have a shot at the coveted top job.
A Turning Point?
The current elections are unlikely to be the major turning point in a transition to democracy that many hope for or have built them up to be. Rather, they will be a first step in a planned transition from direct military rule and pariah status to a hybrid military and civilian government which is accepted by the international community and sections of Myanmarese society.
Even if the NLD does win the election and forms a government, the Constitution ensures it will be severely hamstrung, and unable to deliver fundamental democratic reforms which reduce the control of the military over every level of Burmese politics and the economy
Implications for India
The ongoing developments in Myanmar are crucial for India. Both countries share a common land border of 1640 kms. and a long maritime boundary in the bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. States of Mizoram, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland adjoin Myanmar. Cordial relations with Myanmar are critical for India’s security and safety. Myanmar has been helpful in dealing with extremist and insurgent elements in North-East India. Myanmar provides India connectivity with ASEAN. It can play a huge role in promoting economic prosperity and security of our North-Eastern region. Success of our “Act East Policy” depends critically on our strong partnership with Myanmar. With its vast reserves of oil, gas and other hydrocarbons, Myanmar can play a significant role in ensuring India’s energy security. Although the last 5 years can be termed as the golden period in our relations, we have not delivered on the huge promise that beckoned us when Myanmar opened up in 2010.
Myanmar is undergoing dramatic changes in political, economic and social arenas. It is imperative for India to closely follow the ongoing developments and take full advantage of emerging opportunities and potential. Stronger engagement between India and Myanmar will be a significant contributor to regional peace, security and prosperity.
(Ashok Sajjanhar is a former ambassador of India and a commentator on foreign policy issues. This article has been written exclusively for India Writes Network)
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