Politics of exclusion must end
As we approach the November general election, it is essential that we learn from the tragic mistakes in our history if the present peace and reform process is to succeed. During the hasty countdown to independence in 1948, a non-inclusive Panglong conference took place and, subsequently, not all parties contested elections to a constituent assembly that drew up the country's new constitution. Our newly formed state thus became independent without solving vital political and ethnic issues. Within a year unrest and conflict had broken out across the country.
A similar lack of inclusion took place under the "Burmese Way to Socialism" of General Ne Win. Following failed peace talks during 1963-64, a new constitution was imposed in 1974 which, once again, did not provide a satisfactory answer to the underlying questions of political representation and ethnic autonomy. Instead, one-party rule under the national armed forces (Tatmadaw) witnessed unending conflict and economic collapse to "Least Development Country" status at the United Nations.
The same exclusionary policies were continued by the successor State Law and Order Restoration Council that assumed power in 1988. Despite the spread of ceasefires in some areas, a military-appointed national convention drew up a new constitution that did not include all peoples and parties. Conflict continued, and it took until 2008 for a new draft to emerge. This, however, was only approved by a controversial referendum in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis that killed more than 130,000 people. Today it is known by the indelible title of the "Nargis Constitution".
Subsequently, the flaws in the new political system were played out in two general elections: in 2010, which was won by the Tatmadaw-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party; and in 2015, by the National League for Democracy. Both parties gained victories by a landslide, leaving people feeling deeply marginalised. Today, after over seven decades of ethnic exclusion, the inequalities in politics and society stand in plain sight in every region of the country.
As the 2020 polls are near, there are many warning signs of a repetition of history -- this time exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. On Oct 16, the Union Election Commission announced that voting will be cancelled in 581 village tracts, surpassing the figures for cancellations in both the 2010 and 2015 elections. To ensure NLD victory, the selection of territories appears carefully targeted, partially or wholly affecting 56 townships that are the strongholds of nationality movements in the Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan states as well as the Bago region.
The worst-hit territory will be Rakhine where voting will be cancelled in nine townships. Certainly, the territory has been the scene of conflict and substantial civilian displacement since the NLD took office. Neither the government nor UEC, however, have called for ceasefires, despite Covid-19 and the scheduling of elections. Meanwhile, the Tatmadaw has stepped up military operations. In Rakhine voting will only go ahead in constituencies where the NLD is expected to win.
For the people of Myanmar, the current course of events is profoundly depressing. Many see the pre-election manoeuvrings as elitist strategies that display a combination of wilful deceit, a lack of respect for different peoples and cultures, and a coordinated policy of seeking advantage by the NLD on one side and the Tatmadaw on the other which, between them, dominate political and economic life. It is as if nothing has been learned from the failings in our history. As communities across the country recognise, armed struggle has not brought equalities and justice -- but neither have the different systems of government that have been centrally imposed by parties among the Bamar-majority population since independence.
Sadly, as things presently stand, it would seem that we are caught between the devil and the deep sea, with very few good options in sight. A dangerous paradox has emerged. Ethnic minority peoples were co-founders of the union in 1948. We constitute over a third of the population. But it is impossible for us to measure reform through such indicators as elections and participation in government when we have been systematically excluded from taking part.
There have, however, always been alternative paths that can be pursued. A first step is to recognise the deep-rooted nature of the challenges facing the country. Political rights must be enjoyed by all peoples and territories equally. Parallel to this, a fundamental change in political mindsets is needed. If the people of Myanmar are ever to enjoy peace and stability, we must bridge our differences and work together in a common endeavour to bring political reform and justice to our country.
Presently, divisions are deepening in the political landscape at a time when many people had hoped for change. It is thus urgent that representatives of all groups in politics and society -- the government, Tatmadaw, political parties, ethnic armed organisations and civil society groups -- renew their efforts to establish a political system that will unify our country while at the same time provide space for our diversity.
But for this to happen, the politics of exclusion must first be brought to an end. Until these steps are taken, the cycles of conflict and state failure will only continue.
Lahpai Seng Raw is a 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation and Airavati. She was also a delegate at the 21st Century Panglong conferences in 2016, 2017 and 2018.