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Burma: between elections and democracy

The by-election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in Burma (Myanmar) raises the question of whether the country is at last on an irreversible path towards democracy. A detailed analysis of the context suggests seven reasons for caution, says Joakim Kreutz.

Joakim Kreutz
5 April 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi has completed the move from house-arrest to a seat in the Hluttaw (the Burma / Myanmar parliament). The Nobel laureate’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won forty-three of the forty-four seats it contested in the by-elections of 1 April 2012. A range of authorities - from Burma’s president, Thein Sein, and the regional bloc Asean to the United States and European governments - have welcomed the process and described it as successful; Washington followed on 5 April by announcing a limited easing of economic sanctions and the return of its ambassador.

Does this outcome mean that the Burmese military regime, which as recently as 2010 was being targeted as a possible perpetrator of war crimes, has now been succeeded by moderate, democratic forces? If the answer is “yes”, then both American and European Union sanctions should certainly be abolished as a way of ending the economic isolation of the country and opening its natural resources (and untouched beaches) to appropriate development.

The claims of western governments notwithstanding, there are many reasons to remain cautious about current events in Burma and to view the by-elections in a realistic light: as a stuttering step in the right direction, but far from full democracy. Moreover, to embrace the reform process too enthusiastically or to grant it too much significance may result only in eventual frustration. 

The election analysed

There are seven reasons for this caution.

First, it is important to remember that these by-elections were held for just forty-five unfilled seats out of the total of 664 in the Hluttaw. The incumbents consist of candidates voted for in the 2010 elections - in which the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi did not participate. Thus, although the latest results may encourage debate in the parliament, it does not constitute any change in power.

Second, it should be recalled that not all seats in parliament are decided by an electoral procedure; as many as 25% (110 of 440 in the lower house, and 56 of 224 in the upper house) are appointed by the military. This right is protected in Burma’s 2008 constitution, and it can only be amended through the vote of those very military appointees. Even more important, however, is that the military controls local administrative structures - and that matters a lot in areas beyond the media limelight that shines on urban Yangon. For example, four out of the ten members of rural township committees are appointed by the army. The chair of these committees is civilian, but the army representatives control finance, security, and development affairs, thus effectively ensuring a decisive role.

Third, three scheduled by-elections were cancelled in Kachin state on 23 March because of security concerns. War broke out in Kachin in June 2011 after the government broke the terms of a 1994 ceasefire agreement with local insurgents. During ten months of fighting, the Burmese military has been accused of human-rights abuses and employing chemical weapons. Since October 2011 there have been much-publicised talks with the Kachin and other insurgents, but these have so far not touched on political issues.

Fourth, the international observers attending Burma’s by-elections - whose presence is often cited as significant - were both few in number (several dozen people in total) and were invited to arrive only three days before election-day and therefore had no opportunity properly to oversee the process. To put this into perspective, there were 635 polling stations in Yangon county alone, and the forty-five by-elections covered six counties. A report from the Asian Network for Free Elections, which observed the elections unofficially, states that a number of “irregularities” occurred and that the credibility of the process now depends on how the election commission addresses these incidents.

Fifth, the results of the elections are far from surprising. The NLD fielded candidates largely against the ruling United Solidarity & Development Party (USDP), which was formed by the junta in the mid-1990s. The USDP has made efforts during the last year to increase its support-base, but in the eyes of most citizens it is and will remain the party of the much-despised military regime. This means that people will vote against it if given the chance. In consequence, the election results will have served to remind the regime that it is likely to lose power in the next general elections (scheduled for 2015), almost regardless of its policies between now and then. This may well affect its attitude to continued political reform.

Sixth, it is worth considering that most of the seats contested in the by-elections were in the central, urban areas of the country, and not in the hills where ethnic-minority rights are a popular concern. The only constituency the NLD lost was in Shan state, to a representative of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) which has the achievement of rights for the Shan minority as a prime objective. This result echoes the SNDF’s success in the 1990 elections and (in some seats) in 2010, and shows that the NLD can be defeated by candidates who articulate local concerns. This might yet set the tone for the 2015 election campaign.

Seventh, however, the very fact that an NLD candidate ran in an “ethnic” region is a sign that democracy can also be opened up in the hills. Burma’s election law states that no polling is needed if a candidate is unopposed. This was used in some regions during the 2010 general elections by the USDP and local parties, which agreed not to run candidates in “each other’s” constituencies and thereby settle the outcomes without the involvement of the electorate. If the NLD (or some other party) decides to field a candidate in every constituency in 2015, the next elections might truly capture popular opinion. Even then, however, the result will still only be a partially democratically elected parliament.

The Burmese by-elections confirm how unpopular the ruling military is among the people. But the road to democracy remains a long one.

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