Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Myanmar: Post-dictatorship challenges

For the first time in half a century, a nonmilitary figure can become president in Myanmar, reports Haytham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

The 8 November landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has ushered in a new era in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 378 seats (19 more than the magic figure of 329) in the country’s national parliament (247 seats in the lower house and 131 in the upper house), officials from the Union Election Commission said.

The ruling, military-backed, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) managed to secure just 40 seats in the legislature. Nonetheless, the military is assigned one quarter of the seats (166) by the constitution, and also controls key ministries.

More than 6,000 candidates from 90 parties contested the elections. Voter turnout was estimated at 80 per cent of eligible voters (some 30 million, according to the Supreme Election Commission in Myanmar).

Although the NLD won, Aung San Suu Kyi must cooperate with former rivals in running the country. Myanmar has a population of more than 50 million and is rich in resources. Investors from China have a strong presence in the country, particularly in the lumber and oil industries and infrastructure projects.

The military has the right of veto on constitutional amendments, thus preventing the adoption of more democratic measures. In June, the government held a referendum to allow the continuation of this military veto. This means it is impossible to make any amendments, irrespective of which political forces are calling for them.

Twenty-five years ago, the country’s military rulers held public elections. Aung San Suu Kyi, now 70, then returned from her stay in Britain after caring for her ailing mother.

At the time, the opposition asked her to lead them in elections, which she clearly won, but the military junta rejected the results and Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for most of the following two decades, until 2010.

In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which described “The Lady” — as she is known in Myanmar — as “a prime example of the power of the weak.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, was a champion of the independence movement, and was assassinated five months before the withdrawal of British colonialists in 1974. She went to Britain to pursue her studies at Oxford University in 1964, where she met her future husband Michael Aris, an academic.

Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory, she did not become president since the constitution, written by the military junta, prevents anyone married to a foreigner becoming head of state. International press reports believe this clause was specifically written to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from leading the country. She will, however, become parliament speaker.

Two problems faced Aung San Suu Kyi during the election, both of which are the natural outcome of a long dictatorship. First, the vast ethnic diversity of the country, since ethnic minorities have 207 seats (31 per cent of MPs), making them an obstacle that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party cannot ignore. The share of the dominant Bamar sect is no more than 44 per cent of parliamentary seats.

Aung San Suu Kyi toured the country, meeting with the leaders of ethnic minorities to work towards mutual understandings. The greater battle, however, is with the religious rightwing and the extremist MaBaTha (Buddhist Patriotic Association of Myanmar), which claims that Myanmar’s Buddhist identity is under threat from Islamic encroachment and that the NLD is a Muslim party.

The campaign reflects the religious ethnic conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims — described by the UN as the most persecuted ethnic group in the world.

Although MaBaTha monks did not nominate anyone to stand in the elections, they flexed their political muscle on the eve of balloting by demanding the issuance of four laws. These laws would prevent polygamy, place strict rules on family planning and prevent non-Buddhists from marrying Buddhist women.

Although the legislation does not mention Muslims by name, MaBaTha leaves no doubt about its intentions. A BBC correspondent reported that MaBaTha monks put pressure on conservative voters to cast their ballots for candidates who will promote and defend these laws.

According to Russia Today (RT) and the BBC, thousands of Muslims went to polling stations but were prevented from casting their ballots because the government does not consider them citizens of Myanmar. In March, the government cancelled temporary identity documents given to hundreds of thousands of Muslims, preventing them from voting.

Monk Ashin Wirathu, a MaBaTha leader, is a leading agitator against Muslims and spent several years in prison for his activism until he was pardoned in 2011. “We cannot trust Muslims,” said Wirathu. “They do not use politics for public good but want to deviously seize power.”

The NLD will also have to address the dilemma of winners and losers of economic liberalisation after decades of the public sector system and trade protectionism.

Local companies, especially those that are state-owned, will face fierce competition from foreign investors. Meanwhile, domestic industry, which has been subsidised by the state for half a century, could collapse after the introduction of foreign goods onto the market.

Chinese investors, who control investment in Myanmar, will be most affected by the changes, especially since opportunities for Asian investors — including Indians, Japanese and Koreans — have increased.

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