Democracy still a dream for Myanmar

Democracy still a dream for Myanmar

There is a perverse irony in watching Myanmar go to the polls today from Thailand. The country which has endured more than half a century of oppression under military rule is inching further towards democracy, while the country which has long been perceived as a liberal part of the modern world is being ruled by diktat. It is tempting, if over-simplistic, to view this as the moment Myanmar overtook Thailand among the ranks of democratic nations.

But make no mistake, what is happening in Myanmar today is a long way from democratic. The only way democracy will take root is if the army gets out of politics and all citizens are given a say regardless of ethnicity: two major factors that, unfortunately, are not going to happen any time soon.

The army has 25% of the seats in parliament automatically, the constitutional authority to put forward one of three presidential nominees and therefore a guaranteed vice-president, and the army chief has warned of the dangers of democracy. At least 75% of parliament is required to vote for any constitutional changes, which means the army can veto any proposed alterations to its own influence.

The abuses against ethnic minorities are legion: many are denied citizenship, the electoral roll has inconsistencies and polling stations in conflict zones were closed a week ago. These are only a handful of the problems with the vote: Human Rights Watch called the poll “fundamentally flawed” and pointed to the election commission’s lack of independence, the dominance of state media, mass disenfranchisement and discrimination.

All this is to say nothing of the constitutional provisions designed specifically to keep Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi out of the office of president: the clauses preventing anyone with a foreign spouse or children from holding the top job. This, of course, has not stopped Mrs Suu Kyi’s ambitions, and nor should they since she was denied power 25 years ago. She has long said she would rule from the parliamentary floor if her party, the National League for Democracy, won a majority. On Thursday she made her boldest pronouncement yet on that score: “I will run the government,” she told the world, saying she had made plans. When asked directly what her position would be, she said “above the president”.

Whether that becomes a reality depends largely on an election stacked against her. Because of the army’s stranglehold, the NLD will need to win at least two-thirds of the seats on offer today to gain a majority in parliament. There is a complicated road ahead before the next president and cabinet is selected and a new government takes office in March.

But, first things first. The election must proceed as advertised. The eyes of the world will be on Myanmar today, and for that the government, army and election commission have an incentive to ensure the poll proceeds smoothly. There has been violence and there have been threats during the campaign, along with ugly rhetoric from extremist monks, but for the most part the NLD has been able to hold large rallies free from interference. The government will be hoping images of orderly queues and overflowing ballot boxes will be beamed around the world.

Compared to the 1990 ballot the army ignored and the 2010 poll the NLD boycotted, this is Myanmar’s best shot at having a contested election. But that in itself is a damning indictment on the junta that ruled from 1962 and the quasi-civilian regime that has been in place since 2010 under former general turned president Thein Sein.

The regime in Myanmar has only moved, and moved slowly, towards democracy because it had no choice. The junta as it was before 2010 realised it was no longer sustainable, and its reliance on China as a benefactor had become too great. In releasing political prisoners, embarking on reform and generally opening up to the world, the regime found partners that were keen to counter China’s influence in the region: namely the United States and Japan. History is likely to record that the US was too quick to lift sanctions and too eager to do business with a regime that remained a dictatorship in disguise.

Those thinking the regime will quietly slip away in the face of overwhelming voter sentiment will be disappointed: even if Mrs Suu Kyi achieves all her aims at the ballot box today it will be a long time before military control is dismantled in Myanmar. It is to be hoped we will one day look back at the election as a key step towards democracy, but it must be remembered the army has a long history of sidestepping the will of the people and maintaining its power.

When and only when the army is out of parliament and under civilian control, when the vast criminal enterprises of its cronies are dismantled and when citizens of any ethnicity can peacefully exercise their right to vote can it be said democracy has come to Myanmar. That day is not today.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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