Elections in Myanmar: First Steps on a Long Road

On March 15 of this year, 54 years of direct or indirect military rule in Myanmar came to an end. Htin Kyaw of the NLD (National League for Democracy) earned 360 out of 652 votes in the country’s parliament, and will become Myanmar’s first real civilian leader on April 1 (the parliament itself was chosen in November through the nation’s first free elections in decades). Official and non-official observers around the world have hailed the incoming presidency; the White House stated the formation of a democratically elected, civilian-led government and the peaceful transfer of power “mark an extraordinary moment” in Myanmar’s history. These accolades are well deserved. But if Myanmar is to become a true liberal democracy and not just a country that votes, it must still address myriad complicated challenges – many of which block ethnic and religious minorities from full, protected participation in society.

The White House did note that additional democratic reforms must be implemented in Myanmar. But it’s a bit of an understatement. For starters, the country didn’t exactly get the candidate it wanted: Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime NLD leader, is barred from becoming president by a constitutional provision, seen by many as the work of military rulers that was drafted with Suu Kyi in mind. In practice, she will likely be calling the shots: Htin Kyaw has been a loyal friend and close adviser of Suu Kyi, and is expected to function primarily as a proxy ruler (we can debate whether that is democracy separately).

However, the fact that Suu Kyi can’t formally become Myanmar’s leader almost seems trivial compared to its other democratic shortcomings. On the same day of the country’s presidential election, the UN (United Nations) special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghan Lee, discussed the country’s problems at the UN office in Geneva, noting that “hundreds of laws remain on the book that do not comply with Myanmar’s human rights obligations and some of these laws are very outdated – old laws – while others have been recently enacted.” Lee specifically addressed a number of issues, including the abysmal treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country.

Some of the very un-democratic aspects of Myanmar’s political process will make further progress difficult. First, the military hasn’t released its grip on the country; from the outset, they’ve stated that they seek to form a “disciplined democracy.” It’s just as ominous as it sounds. The constitution crafted by the military reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for unelected military representatives; not-so-coincidentally, constitutional amendments require approval from over 75 percent of the parliament. Furthermore, the military has retained control of three critical government ministries - defense, home affairs, and border control - and stacked the powerful, 11-member National Defense and Security Council with its own appointees. In her report, Ms. Lee noted that “all of these ministries [controlled by the military] hold key to the progress in the area of human rights.”

"No society can be truly democratic, free, and peaceful if it does not respect – and even celebrate – political, racial, and religious diversity..."

Secondly, Myanmar must deal with that confounding ‘tyranny of the majority’ that all democracies struggle with. As I noted in Shared Justice in November, four recent “Race and Religion” laws enacted in Myanmar were really pushed into being by Ma Ba Tha, a radical Buddhist movement. And radical Buddhists have been responsible for much of the recent violence against the Rohingya. At best, the military or its puppet government turned a blind eye to the actions of Ma Ba Tha and similar groups; at worse, it aided and abetted them. And while we certainly shouldn’t assume that Ma Ba Tha speaks for the 89 percent of Myanmar that is Buddhist, the country’s general public is in absolutely no hurry to help Muslim minorities.

Finally, there’s the question of the NLD itself – how will it handle the transition from opposition to government? Suu Kyi has stated a top priority is to forge peace with various ethnic factions that have battled the central government for years. The NLD’s vice presidential choice (who will actually be the ‘second’ vice president behind a military-backed candidate) is Henry Van Tio, himself a Christian and a member of the ethnic Chin minority. But when it comes to the Rohingya, Suu Kyi and the NLD have been largely silent; recently, a party member and spokesman actually stated that Rohingyas are not their priority. The NLD may simply have no motivation to aid the Rohingya; as noted above, most of the populace isn’t rushing to help them, and it’s safe to assume many of the country’s citizens tacitly condone the acts of Ma Ba Tha and other radicals. If we want to be optimistic, it’s possible that Suu Kyi and elements of the NLD want to help Rohingyas, but can’t or won’t risk paying a political price. Helping Muslims won’t gain them any friends at home, but it would surely make plenty of enemies.

Thus, while we should applaud the steps Myanmar has taken toward democracy, it is far too early to call recent elections a win. The international community – including the UN, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and all concerned organizations and individuals - must keep pressure on the country to continue the process of democratization, especially when it comes to basic human rights. Ms. Lee has laid out urgent recommendations for the new government that need to be followed; so have others, such as Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Myanmar’s Catholic leader who has bravely spoken out in support of all the country’s minorities.

The U.S. administration – both the current one and whatever replaces it – will be vital in this effort. But it may face its own unique challenges right here in Washington. Roughly a year ago, Myanmar’s (pre-election) governmenthired the Podesta Group, a lobbying firm, to “provide strategic counsel to the principal [Myanmar] on strengthening the principal's ties to the United States government and institutions” and to “assist in communicating priority issues in the United States-Myanmar bilateral relationship to relevant U.S. audiences.” The initial contract was only for 12 months, and isn’t necessarily nefarious. But, ‘U.S. audiences’ must remember there are a lot of voices to be heard in Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, and some are at risk of being silenced forever. We would all do well to heed Cardinal Bo’s words: “No society can be truly democratic, free, and peaceful if it does not respect – and even celebrate – political, racial, and religious diversity, as well as protect the basic human rights of every single person…We are a rainbow nation, a nation of many different ethnicities, cultures, languages, and religions. That is the beauty of Myanmar.”

-Michael Searway is a Congressional and Transatlantic Relations Fellow with the Institute for Global Engagement.