ASEAN and the international community will be following the general election in Myanmar on November 8 with great interest, as it will mark the first national election in the country with the participation of all the major parties.
Besides concerns over land disputes and future development, there is the bigger problem of the continued dominance of the military, which insists on having 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, giving them a deciding say on any constitutional reforms. There will nevertheless be new political alignments after the election as the country continues on a path of “revived democracy”.
Recently the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand hosted a discussion on Myanmar’s political outlook as the general election looms, with two key speakers, Dr Khin Zaw Win and Aung Saw, who have long been actively and vocally involved in the Myanmar political scene.
Dr Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner and current director of the Tampadipa Institute, served 10 years of a 15-year sentence from July 1994 for criticizing the government. He was considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and UNESCO issued a rare public appeal.
“For the past couple of years we’ve seen much more openness in print, online and in social media in Myanmar, which is a very good step,” Khin Saw Win said. “But I don’t think the road to democracy will be simple and easy, because there are a lot of factors we have to consider.
“November 2015 will be the first national election in Myanmar in which all major parties will be participating. It will be the second general election held under the controversial 2008 constitution. It comes after the first term of the semi-elected, partly civilian government, which has ushered in reforms. The first election in 2010 and these reforms have led to the revival of a democratic system of government, which Myanmar had from 1948 to 1962, and a more open political atmosphere, although the degree to which this has happened is hotly debated.”
According to the activist, the 2010 elections have brought more openness to Myanmar, and international influences and investment have been more welcome. This has benefited Buddhist extremists, the media, Yangon real estate and tourism, including the hotel and hospitality sector. However, the Muslim and ethnic minority groups, the poor and the underprivileged are still marginalized, and beyond the 2015 election it is still unlikely they will get the benefit or leverage they deserve.
Since the signing of Burma’s constitution in 1948, some ethnic minorities have been denied rights, access to lands they traditionally controlled, and participation in the government. The minority groups have also suffered at the hands of warlords and regional ethnic alliances. Religion has also played a role in some of the conflicts, with Muslims, Hindus and Christians also living in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
For decades journalists were forced to observe Myanmar’s developments from afar or through secondary sources, as few were allowed in the country. Political activists and movement leaders, the main active voices to the outside world, were often imprisoned. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of an election in Myanmar seemed impossible.
The new elections on November 8 will be the real test as to whether a representational government can be established. There have been serious problems in the three years since a crucial by-election in 2012. A ban on Aung San Suu Kyi being president is also written in the military draft, even if her NLDAung Zaw, founder and editor of Irrawaddy magazine, an alternative news source to government mouthpieces under military rule, believes the upcoming election will bring in some changes, while real reform is still far away. wins by a landslide.
“I think reform is a total illusion. I know they have promised to aid this reform and have placed Aung San Suu Kyi in [parliament], but it is not going to happen. After they released thousands of political prisoners, now the prison is filled up again with political prisoners and up to 150 student activists. Another worrying thing is the rise of the 969 religious movement. I keep telling friends that it is manipulated and engineered, and there is a dark arrangement behind it.
“The election day is not so important, but the post-election time is and it will be more intense and political negotiations will take place. Because if the opposition party wins by a landslide, the other side will have to compromise. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president, and there will be a lot of juggling around to indirectly choose the president and vice-president.”