Myanmar: a great step forward, but don’t crack open the champagne bottles just yet
While we were eating at a restaurant in Yangon, the biggest city of Myanmar, the owner of restaurant approached us. It was during the Water Festival, Tingyan, to celebrate the new year. The restaurant owner said in joyful voice: “The people are happy more than ever, because of the political changes in the country. It’s going to be great new year, we are looking forward to the future.” Is this optimism justified?
There is rightfully reason for this optimism. First Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010. Then the electoral regulations were changed on request of her party, the NLD, so that former political prisoners could join the election. This was something which was previously forbidden. There is no need to mention the consequences of such a regulation for the opposition in severely suppressed country. Two years after she was released for house arrest Ang San Suu Kyi led her party, in the first fair elections in a long in long time, to an astonishing victory. Nevertheless, don’t crack open the champagne bottles just yet.
There are many steps to be taken. The first critical moment will be in 2015 when the parliament and presidential elections take place. This would be the real exam for Myanmar to show the world they can hold free elections. The first elections in 20 years, held in 2010, were called ‘deeply flawed’ by the UN. The last by-elections, in which the NLD crumbled the others, only divided few seats of the total parliament. Now, the NLD has 6.4 percent of the seats in parliament. The upcoming national elections will be the real test, since the real power will be determined then. I am convinced that with fair elections the NLD will win and Aung San Suu Kyi will become the next president.
Even if Aung San Suu Kyi becomes president and the NLD wins all of the seats in the 2015 elections, there are many more hoops to jump. For instance, a constitutionally protected law ensures that the military will always hold 25% of the seats in parliament. Also, in order to change the constitution you need 75% of the parliament on your side. Funny how the numbers add up there. I’m guessing I needn’t explain more how difficult it will be for the military to lose its power and to create real change.
Furthermore, a democracy needs freedom of speech. The media is subject to strict censorship, although there seems to be a slight movement allowing publications on Aung San Suu Kyi. There are still about 2000 political prisoners. According to reports from Human Right Watch they are isolated from their family and friends, tortured, and deprived form food resources and basic healthcare.
Then there are the 135 different ethnic minorities. Many of them are living in areas in Myanmar that are forbidden to visit for foreigners. What is exactly happening there is unclear, but it is probably not a pretty scene. There are even reports of ethnic cleansing taking place. Many of those suppressed ethnic groups took up arms to fight the junta.
Some ethnic groups recently signed fragile cease-fires. Talks with others groups are on their way. Nevertheless, now Myanmar is democratizing tensions can rise. For example, Snyder described in his book From voting to violence, that the democratization can lead to nationalism and ethnic tension. He basically stressed that when ethnic differences are so strong and incompatible with each other, the biggest ethnic group will dictate the others in a democracy. This can lead to great tensions. He further adds that in pre-democracy times the elites do not have to fight for electoral support. Nationalism can become a formidable means of rallying popular support. In this scenario the media is not free, as in Myanmar, and not strong enough to enable non-nationalist voices.
Aung San Suu Kyi already announced to finish the Panglong Agreements of her father. General Aung San, after leading the country into independence from the British, acknowledged the needs of minorities groups. In 1947 he announced that those ethnic groups would be granted more autonomy if they still desire this after ten years. Few months after announcing this agreement Aung San was assassinated and his promise never fulfilled. The result was an eruption of ethnic tensions and violence.
Almost 70 years later it is time to fulfil the promise. This is easier said than done. There are other political parties to deal with, but most importantly there are the constitution and the army. The army fought many of those ethnic groups for decennia. And even if Aung San Suu Kyi can pull it off, it is the question if the minorities are happy with their amount of autonomy. If violence breaks out again, the military will play a decisive role again in Myanmar. A peaceful transition is essential, if Myanmar wants to change into a free and open democracy.
There is a long way to go, which is logical. The western democracies were not established overnight, neither were many former communist countries after the fall of the Berlin wall. I am confident that Myanmar will not fall in the trap of former Yugoslavia for example. Still, we need to be patient. Myanmar just started the fragile process of democratization and has to take careful steps. Keeping this in mind, Myanmar can be standing at the dawn of something beautiful.