Despite embarking on its first democratic elections after years of military rule, Myanmar still faces an uncertain political future. While pro-democracy leader and Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party is headed for a sweeping election victory, questions remain as to whether the country’s military junta will consent to forfeiting power.
The current scenario mirrors that of Myanmar’s 1990 general election, when the NLD also secured a landslide victory only to have the result rejected by the military leadership. According to Simon Tisdall, assistant editor at the Guardian, Suu Kyi was subsequently placed under house arrest, and thousands of her party’s supporters arrested and tortured.
“What has changed since then is Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known, has probably become more politically sophisticated, certainly with the use of social media,” he stated.
Myanmar’s leadership has been seen as trying to present a more open, democratic and transparent face to the world, whilst maintain control of the country. This reorientation position has in part been fuelled by the United States’ (U.S.) attempts to improve relations between the two, which in turn has promised better investments into the Southeast Asian state’s economy.
Tisdall said that while allowing the elections, the military government had created a constitution that would ensure most of the main levers of power remained under its control. This would mean that even if Suu Kyi’s party took a majority victory, 25% of parliamentary seats would be allocated to the military regardless.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has a problem because she will have a parliamentary majority, she will clearly be the leader of the country, but in practice many of the levers of power will be beyond her reach,” he explained.
“Under the constitution they can at any time take control away from the government of the NLD if they deem it to be a matter of national necessity. They can also take over control of economic management if they wish.”
The constitution also features a recently approved bill that prevents Suu Kyi from assuming the position of president because she opted to marry a foreigner. The Special Marriage Law seeks to curb Buddhist women from marrying foreign males through harsh restrictions like the forfeiting of child custody and matrimonial property, as well as a range of criminal charges.
Suu Kyi has also come in for her fair share of criticism, particularly on the decision to exclude Muslim candidates from her party, seen as a move to ensure the support of the country’s Buddhist majority.
“She has been very quiet on the whole issue of the discrimination that is entrenched in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority, who weren’t even allowed to vote. About 500 000 people were disenfranchised because it was said they couldn’t prove their citizenship of the country, even though they’ve been living there for generations,” Tisdall highlighted.
Despite these issues, Tisdall said the election need be viewed as a triumphant democratic achievement for a country long beset by oppression.
Aung San Suu Kyi has swiftly moved to call for a meeting with the country’s military leadership to address the issue of national reconciliation. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)