Myanmar’s shaky path towards democracy
After more than a century of British colonial rule and a half-century under military dictatorship, Myanmar held its first nationwide, multiparty elections in November 2015 four years after the establishment of a civilian government. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory, winning over 80% of the popular vote.
Myanmar’s parliament, the Hluttaw, is a bicameral legislature with 664 seats. While 25% of seats are reserved for unelected military representatives, the NLD crossed the threshold of 329 seats needed for a majority in both houses by a large margin, winning 390 seats. The military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), the successor party to the Union Solidarity and Development Association, an organization formed by Myanmar’s ruling military junta, fared poorly, winning just 41 seats.
However, Myanmar’s path towards becoming a parliamentary democracy remains shaky. A clause of the military-dictated constitution, written specifically to contain Aung San Suu Kyi, disqualifies anyone with “legitimate children…[who] owes allegiance to a foreign power” from presidency. Suu Kyi’s two sons are British. Instead, her aide Htin Kyaw was made president while she continues to wield considerable political influence behind the scenes.
Although the military has pledged a peaceful transfer of power, the fact still remains that 25% of seats are reserved for unelected army representatives. The presidential nomination process in Myanmar divides the Hluttaw into three categories: the elected members of the upper house; the elected members of the lower house; and the unelected army representatives. Each group nominates a presidential candidate, and following a vote the winner becomes president while the other two become vice-presidents.
This means that a military-backed presidential candidate will still have a strong presence in Myanmar’s politics, since the office of the vice president is considered the second-highest ranking post in Myanmar. In mid-March 2016, the military nominated Myint Swe, the current minister of the Yangon region, to be vice president. Swe is known for being a hardliner in the military and was formerly criticized for ordering a civilian militia to violently repress student protesters in Yangon in 2015.
The military has long dominated Myanmar’s political scene. Although initially established as a parliamentary democracy following its liberation from British colonial rule in 1948, a 1962 military coup led by General Ne Win established a ruling council of army representatives in place of the civilian government.
Following food shortages and growing corruption within the government, students led a revolt against the military dictatorship in 1988. Suu Kyi, who had returned to Myanmar to visit her ailing mother and who was known for being the daughter of independence hero General Aung San, quickly rose within the ranks of the revolt to become the leader of the opposition. In a brutal military coup, 3,000 were killed and an even more repressive military junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council, took control of the situation in September.
Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989, and although in the last free elections of 1990 the NLD won 52.5% of the national vote, the military junta ignored the result. Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest intermittently until 2010. For her advocacy of nonviolence in order to achieve peaceful democratic reform and free elections, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in 1991.
In 1989, the new military regime changed the country’s name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, a name change which remains controversial to this day. While U.S. policy up until 2011 had been to refer to the country as Burma so as not to legitimize its military government, President Obama stirred controversy when he referred to it as Myanmar during a visit in 2012.
In the late 2000s, the State Peace and Development Council of Myanmar faced increasing external and internal pressures for reform. Following massive fuel price increases due to the government’s removal of fuel subsidies, protests grew across the country in what became known as the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The movement was joined by monks, who lent moral authority to the protests in a country which has a strongly Buddhist majority. When in 2008 Cyclone Nargis left 140,000 dead, NGOs and Western governments called for international humanitarian intervention.
Following the pressure for reform, in May 2008 a referendum was held on a new constitution and multiparty elections were held. However, in a result largely regarded as fraudulent, the military-backed USDP won by a wide margin of votes in the 2010 elections. Suu Kyi and the NLD boycotted the elections, for which her party was disbanded. In 2011, a civilian government was introduced. However, the president, two vice presidents, and speakers of the lower and upper houses of the Hluttaw were all former military officers, leading to concern about the military’s reach into Myanmar’s politics.
While the peaceful transition of power to a civilian government is a reason to rejoice, Myanmar still faces an uncertain future. Suu Kyi, unable to amend the constitution because the army representatives in the Hluttaw have veto power, will pull the strings behind the scenes of the new president.
Furthermore, the question of the country’s ethnic minority, the Rohingya Muslims, remains. The 140,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are not given citizenship or voting rights, and have often been faced with violence from Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. For example, in 2012 riots left 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims displaced when a Buddhist woman was raped in Northern Myanmar. Suu Kyi has been criticized by the international community for not speaking out about the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Although Myanmar has democratically elected its first president, much lies ahead in terms of attaining democratic rule of law: the question of the military’s reach into politics, whether power will continue to be peacefully alternated, and the 140,000 disenfranchised Rohingya Muslims.