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Democracy in Myanmar
Still the generals’ election
Myanmar’s poll will be less rigged than previous ones, but military rule is far from over
Oct 31st 2015 | From the print edition
ON NOVEMBER 8th Myanmar will hold a general election (see article). It will not be completely free and fair, but it will be competitive—the first in 25 years not to be boycotted by the main opposition party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1991. For a country that has suffered six decades of military rule, albeit in recent years a mufti and slightly less thuggish form of it, this will be a remarkable step.
In 1990 Miss Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory at the ballot box. It should have formed the government, but the generals ignored the result and kept her under house arrest (where she already was) for most of the ensuing two decades. Five years ago they concocted a sham election, which the NLD boycotted. Now the signs are more promising: Miss Suu Kyi is free and the opposition will certainly win again. The army will probably keep its word and accept the result.
This is happening because of two important changes. First, in 2011, a new reforming government led by a former general, Thein Sein, came to power. It set about loosening the shackles that the men in uniform had wrapped around Myanmar, freeing most political prisoners and lifting censorship. Second, Miss Suu Kyi responded by changing tactics and taking part in elections again. In 2012 she became a legislator after remarkably fair by-elections. The West rejoiced, and lifted almost all of the sanctions it had imposed on the old military regime.
But military rule is not yet over. The election is taking place on the army’s terms. It will probably not stuff ballot boxes or falsify the results, but only because it does not have to. Under the constitution, foisted on Myanmar by a rigged referendum in 2008, one-quarter of MPs are directly appointed by the head of the armed forces. The votes of more than three-quarters of MPs are needed to change the constitution, which empowers the army to operate virtually as a state within a state—its tentacles reach into almost every aspect of life, from business to writing school textbooks. No matter how many millions of Burmese vote against the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which rules the country and is backed by the army, the army will remain the real power in Myanmar.
What is more, no matter how many votes Miss Suu Kyi’s party receives, she cannot be president. The generals made sure of that when they wrote in their self-serving constitution that no one with a foreign husband or offspring may hold that office. (The late husband of Miss Suu Kyi was British, as are her children.) Legislators elect the president; were it not for the constitution, Miss Suu Kyi would be a shoo-in for the job if the NLD were to win by a landslide. Thus the election will neither help to bring about the constitutional change that most voters want—and which the country badly needs—nor will it give Myanmar the president that its people would choose.
Myanmar in graphics: An unfinished peace
Western naivety has not helped. Rich democracies were too quick to assume that Myanmar was safely on the road to pluralism, and lost bargaining power over the generals when they lifted most of their sanctions in 2012. With the end of Myanmar’s isolation, foreign investment poured in, spurring economic growth. At the same time, however, political reform stalled. The army resisted further liberalisation because it had already got most of what it wanted from the West. The NLD collected millions of signatures in an effort to persuade the government to end the effective military veto on constitutional change. The generals said no.
No time to relax
Myanmar’s citizens deserve better. The new legislature will assume its duties in March. The West should call for it to change the constitution so as to banish the army from politics. This should also help to secure a lasting peace between the central government and minority ethnic groups which have long chafed at repressive rule by the army.
It will not be easy. But a strong showing by the NLD will signal that voters want political change as well as the economic sort. Perhaps the army will bow to the will of the people it supposedly protects, and return to barracks.
But the West would be unwise to wait indefinitely, or to keep granting favours to the army for fear that sulky generals will turn instead to China for support. The army may resent being lectured about democracy and human rights, but it would rather deal with the West than be in thrall to Myanmar’s giant neighbour to the North. If the army refuses to bow out, America and the European Union should reimpose targeted sanctions. That would give the generals cause to reconsider.
From the print edition: Leaders
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