External Affairs

Another Election, Another Country

Burma goes to the polls on November 8 in what will a chance for Aung San Suu Kyi to demonstrate the true extent of her support. Whatever the outcome, however, the military will still control the commanding heights of the polity

Yangon street scene. Credit: Hideki Yoshida/Flickr CC NC-ND 2.0

Yangon street scene. Credit: Hideki Yoshida/Flickr CC NC-ND 2.0

Yangon: The vast roads of Nya Pyi Taw, the new capital of an ancient land, are largely empty and traffic free. The bustling streets of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar (earlier Burma), on the other hand resonate with the rush of cars, the occasional traffic jam, men and women walk purposefully to work; the university, once the site of student strife and pitched battles with the army in 1988, is open and full of students; the sidewalks have a range of stores and street food stalls as well as swanky restaurants, popular bars and designer stores. The hotels appear to be full and even night life is active and people everywhere are in a mix of attire from the traditional sarong/loungi (lungi) and shirt/blouse to sharp jackets and trousers.

The traffic jams which feature powerful new SUVs and smartly coloured Toyota taxis – apart from a range of old buses, pickup trucks, cycles, scooters and motorcycles – are an indication of how this city and Myanmar have changed since liberalisation and the iron rule of the military junta which controlled the country for 50 years eased both economic and political life. Earlier, one could travel from Yangon international airport to the city in 15-20 minutes. It received few flights in the decades of sanctions and the international isolation of the junta, barring those from neighbouring South East Asian countries and Beijing – and, yes, the occasional Indian Airlines flight from Kolkata, which remains the only direct flight from India to Myanmar as it did over 10 years back. Today, the spanking new airport is like the streets of the country’s commercial capital – bustling with activity – with courteous immigration officers and large commercial airliners disgorging groups of passengers.

The ride into town can take anything from an hour to 90 minutes, because of the new bridge that’s coming up. Traffic slows, comes to a complete crawl and then stops. All this time, I’m looking for signs of the crucial general elections that are approaching but see no street banners, no posters, no street corner meetings, hear no loudspeakers and megaphones announcing candidates, party manifestos. There doesn’t seem to be any sign that polls are around the corner as all the signs and ingredients of a major election familiar and beloved to South Asians appear to be missing — the masala and fever that a battle for the hustings brings.

An election with huge stakes

A woman votes in the Myanmar by-elections of 2012. Credit: prachatai/Flickr CC BY NC-ND 2.0

A woman votes in the Myanmar by-elections of 2012. Credit: prachatai/Flickr CC BY NC-ND 2.0

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an election, or that it’s not being well and truly joined by two major parties battling for the heart – and future – of Myanmar. In the heartland of the country, campaigns and rallies are taking place as November 8, polling day, approaches. The main parties are the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which represents the political muscle of the once all-powerful military, and which swept the 2010 elections, and the National League for Democracy led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi. The 2010 polls were widely regarded as unfair and the NLD had boycotted them, especially since its iconic leader was herself then under house arrest. Yet that didn’t prevent a bunch of ethnic parties contesting and winning seats to the two houses of Parliament as well as state assemblies. And although they did not have the kind of funds and powers that lawmakers have in other parts of the world, especially in South and South East Asia, it did give them a taste of limited power.

The NLD is in the fray this time and is regarded as the front runner. Aung Sang Suu Kyi is leading the charge herself, freed from years of house detention. She demonstrated her tremendous public appeal and vote catching power in no uncertain terms in the 2012 by-elections when the NLD swept aside all other candidates in 43 of 44 seats it contested (45 seats were up for grabs), crushing the ruling USDP. Significantly, the other seat won by a non-NLD candidate was by a candidate of the Shan ethnic group.Scholars, diplomats and Myanmar watchers predict that the NLD will emerge as the biggest single party but may find itself in a situation where it would need allies from the many ethnic parties – who are also expected to do well – in order to get an absolute and unshakeable majority. But that is where the key challenge lies: the ethnic parties between them technically control 30% of the seats in parliament; but more importantly, the military has 25% of the seats in parliament reserved in perpetuity under the constitution. This means that if a party were not to rely on the military, it would need to win no less than 68% of the seats up for grabs in order to have 51% of the seats in parliament – a tough proposition even with Suu Kyi’s charisma. There are a total of 1,142 constitutencies up for direct election in state and federal elections.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s options

File photo of Aung San Suu Kyi campaigning. Credit: Htoo Tay Zar/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

File photo of Aung San Suu Kyi campaigning. Credit: Htoo Tay Zar/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Aung Sang Suu Kyi can’t become president or any top elected post under the existing constitution. She is barred because her children are foreign nationals and she was married to the late British scholar Michael Airis. It’s widely believed that she has her own candidate for the presidential vote. On her part, she insists she will “lead” her government, if there is one, come what may. “If the NLD wins the elections and we form a government, I am going to be the leader of that government whether or not I am the president. Why not?”, she told Karan Thapar of India Today TV in an interview last month.

Of course, the reformer who brought in the sweeping democratic changes, President Thein Sein, has indicated that he won’t be averse to a second term – even though he is not running himself.

Either way, the most powerful figure in Myanmar’s politically diverse landscape will be out of formal political power but she could technically become the speaker of parliament, which is among the influential positions in terms of protocol if not patronage. For the record, however, she has said she is not interested in the post. Thus, much still remains unclear until all the votes are in. Indeed, the former speaker, Thura Shwe Mann, a leader of the USDP, was reportedly working well with Aung Sang Suu Kyi, leading to his dismissal from the post and the army’s assertion of its unassailable position. “Our country needs many people who are happy to collaborate with any political party and people for the sake of the country,” said Shwe Mann.

In addition, key security ministries (defence, home affairs and border affairs) are selected by the head of the army, not the president, and there can be no change to the constitution without military approval.

No votes will be cast in parts of Shan State, or in four townships controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and one controlled by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

The total of 92 political parties competing doesn’t touch the more than 200 who battled it out in 1990, but it’s more than double that of 2010. Among this year’s total, 46 parties were established after the 2012 by-election, while 11 parties were established between the 2010 and 2012 polls.

But these are yearlings next to the five oldest parties, which date back to the 1990 vote, making them a quarter-century old. These are: the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD); the Mon National Party (MNP); the National League for Democracy (NLD); the Democratic Party (Myanmar) (DPM); and the National Unity Party (NUP). Other than the NUP, however, all were declared illegal under the military junta and were re-established and re-registered only during President Thein Sein’s term.

Whoever wins the elections will face another important challenge: how to expand the ceasefire agreement (CFA) with eight groups out of 15 which was signed in the presence of international witnesses including Chinese and EU representatives while India was represented by its National Security Adviser. Seven major groups including the Wa and the Kachins – bitter fighting has been going on in Kachin despite the election campaign elsewhere in the country – have opted not to join the ceasefire. This group also includes the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (K) of SS Khaplang, which indicated as early as September that it was not ready to sign the CFA. The NLD has put up its candidates in many of the CFA areas as well as in non-CFA locations; its approach to the ethnic groups is still clearly in a process of evolution.

Given the fact that a caretaker government will be in power till about March next year, when the new elected government takes office, the ceasefire process remains a major issue needing consensus and resolution.

Sanjoy Hazarika is a commentator on north-east Indian issues and Director of the Centre for NE studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia