Burmese politics and election victory
On April 1, 2012, Burma had its second elections in less than two years. Numerically, the by-elections result was substantially insignificant than the general election conducted on Nov. 7, 2010. The by-elections were held in 45 constituencies, vacated by members of parliament who assumed different ministerial positions in the government.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) secured an overwhelming victory, winning 43 out of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested, which is over 95 percent of the total 45 available seats. Although in a lesser number of constituencies, the NLD performed better than in the 1990 general election in which it won over 80 percent of the seats. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) secured only one seat in a constituency where the NLD candidate was disqualified.
There have been high hopes and optimism about the progress of democratization. The by-elections were significant for several reasons. Firstly, the NLD, which boycotted the 2010 general election, participated in the electoral process. Secondly, the elections themselves were an important benchmark for Western nations to review their sanctions policy. Thirdly, the Burmese government wanted to improve its legitimacy and credibility.
If one looks at the poll results, it is undoubtedly an absolute victory for the NLD party. Does that mean a political defeat for the USDP and the military? What does the USDP-led government gain from the elections? The more interesting question is understanding in which direction Burmese politics is headed.
In recent years, the Burmese government’s political objective has been to convince the international community to believe in its seven-step roadmap toward democracy. The government’s goal was to achieve its objective without sacrificing the dominant role of the military in politics.
While Western sanctions played an important role in pressurizing the Burmese government toward democratic reform, the authoritarian regime came under immense pressure from the wave of the Arab spring, especially in Egypt and Libya in 2011, where mass uprisings successfully forced the demise of two powerful dictatorial regimes.
The top leadership in the Burmese military hierarchy was also gravely concerned about the possibility of instituting an international commission of inquiry into suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity, which was recommended by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, in 2010, and supported by the United States and 15 other nations.
The government’s desire to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was another important reason why the military leadership forced itself to improve human rights and make other democratic reforms. All these political developments happened after the 2008 constitution was ratified in a referendum, which entrenched the military as the ultimate powerhouse.
It is important to understand that the by-elections result is also the success of the military’s carefully orchestrated political strategy. The NLD participation in the by-elections means that the party has officially abandoned its long-time fundamental demand for the recognition of the 1990 general election result. By participating in the elections, the NLD has also boosted the military’s attempts to legitimize its power. Some may call this as a political compromise.
With just over 6 percent of parliamentary seats, the NLD falls far short of making a significant impact on the balance of power in parliament. However, the NLD can utilize its presence as a foundation to prepare for the next general election. Currently, both the parliament and the government are indirectly controlled by the military through the country’s constitution, which automatically reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military without any election.
Moreover, for any constitutional amendment, the approval of more than 75 percent of parliamentary votes is required. One major challenge to democratic values is the provision that empowers the military to assume power at times of a national emergency. It is unclear as to whether the military would abuse its constitutionally guaranteed power to suppress the voice of the opposition.
With the NLD’s overwhelming electoral victory, Western nations would feel obligated to review their sanctions policy. In light of the ongoing developments, Western governments will gradually ease and eventually lift sanctions, provided the current pattern of reforms continues. Foreign policy change has begun with the United States, one of Burma's long-time fiercest critics, announcement of easing some restrictions on investments and the nomination of Derek J. Mitchell, Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, as its new ambassador.
A major political debate will evolve in the parliament on several key issues, including the principles of the 2008 constitution. The NLD and other like-minded parties will be vocal about the necessity to amend some basic principles. However, many in the USDP and the military leadership will be hesitant to compromise on the subject, at least in the near future.
The pace of the democratization process still largely remains in the hands of the military. Currently, one biggest lingering concern for former generals is their own security. There is a chance of political reconciliation in the coming years if the military is convinced that a civilian government would not initiate punitive actions to avenge the past actions of successive military regimes.
More importantly, the success of the ongoing democratic reforms would greatly depend on the progress of the government’s peace initiatives with the country’s ethnic minorities. Ceasefire agreements with armed groups by itself are inconclusive. Some sort of political autonomy is essential to establish mutual trust between the central government and ethnic minority groups. The provisions of such a political arrangement must be guaranteed in the constitution, by identifying state and union subjects.
While restoring ties with the Burmese government, the international community must understand the root of Burma’s decades-old conflict. It is neither the confrontation between the military and the NLD, nor a power struggle between retired General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi. It is because of a lack of mutual trust and denial of equality of rights to all citizens.
Both Prime Minister Thein Sein, the government and the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi must continue to take steps to address the root cause of the country’s myriad problems. Simultaneously, the ethnic minorities must demonstrate sincerity and seriousness to the process, while not surrendering their core demand for autonomy and equality of rights.
Democratization without reconciliation with ethnic minorities will not bring lasting peace and stability to Burma.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma/Myanmar and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and non-academic analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published in five continents ― Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.