Monday, February 7, 2011

Window dressing in Myanmar?

The Daily Star

Many in Bangladesh would be surprised to know that Myanmar had an election last November and its first Parliament in twenty years was opened last Monday in the new capital, Naypyidaw.

Is this because we are reluctant to know about Myanmar or there is something more than meets the eye?
Forty-five years ago, the military had seized power in a coup there. Ever since, the regime has suffered from the fear that the world is conspiring to depose the junta by force. The USA, by imposing sanctions on Myanmar, also added to this fear of possible interference by unfriendly foreign forces in their internal affairs. The regime, therefore, made the people look inward.

The military regimes during this time also had to deal with a number of armed insurgencies by ethnic minorities within the country. Successive juntas, therefore, found it convenient to indulge in their pathological obsession with secrecy. They shut out their people from the world, and the world was also kept dark about their land and the people.

Other than slight opening to Thailand and China, all neighbours including Bangladesh were kept ignorant of what was happening inside Myanmar. Hence, there has been scant interest on our part about that country.
Take the case of shifting their capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw. The authorities quietly took this important decision and selected a site near the main road and rail line that links Yangon and Mandalay, deep in the jungles. They built a city there from scratch and let the people know about it in 2005 when, at the cost of $5 billion, the construction was complete. The cash starved country got the money from selling its timber, gems and natural gas.

Many do not know that the bright lights we see in Bangkok city is powered by this gas, which had been extracted from the Andaman Sea in Myanmar and piped and sold to Thailand. The cities in Myanmar however remain dark and desolate for want of electricity.

Like in many nations in the Arab world, the people of Myanmar have also not tasted democracy for decades. Twenty years back, however, the people were allowed to vote in an election. They voted overwhelmingly for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the founder of modern Myanmar, Aung Sung. But the army prevented her from taking power. Since that time she has been intermittently kept in jail or under house arrest.
It is only recently that the military government framed a new constitution with the purpose of introducing a political system that could perpetuate their grip on power. The constitution reserves 25% of all the seats in a bicameral legislature for the armed forces. It also stipulates that any future change in the constitution would require the votes of 75% of all the members from the two chambers.
The army retains the power to amend the constitution by using its casting vote. The constitution also lays down that three of the key cabinet posts -- interior, defense and border affairs -- will have to be held by serving generals.
It is in this backdrop that the military government finally allowed elections to be held last November. About 29 million people who were eligible to vote were then asked to choose representatives to sit in the two houses of parliament and to 14 regional assemblies.
More than 3,000 candidates contested for 1,160 seats in all these assemblies. The post of president of the country and those of two vice presidents were left to these representatives to choose from among themselves.
The elections were participated by 37 political parties, except the party headed by Ms. Aung Sung Suu Kyi. She was barred from contesting as she was convicted under the regime's law, for her past activism. Ms. Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD), therefore, boycotted the polls. A splinter group from that party however joined the polls. The results of the elections showed that the pro junta political party called the NUP secured 80% of the seats in all the bodies.
Questions have been raised whether the elections were free and fair. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon commented that the polls were insufficiently inclusive and transparent. Since foreign observers were not allowed into the country, an independent assessment of the election was also not available.
The playing field was, however, tilted in favour of the pro-junta party much ahead of the elections. It knew about the schedule of the elections and could field candidates in all the constituencies. The other parties were notified much later and they had too little time in their hand before the elections to nominate candidates. Also they could not raise funds in the short time in hand for their election expenses.
Because of the provision of advance voting for government officials and members of the armed forces, candidates from other parties who had received the largest number of votes in a constituency subsequently found themselves defeated as officials and armed forces personnel had voted in advance for the pro-junta candidates.
Three things have however happened due to the elections in Myanmar. The junta had:
* Made the people turn out in large numbers to cast their votes. For the first time in many years the people were given a whiff of democracy;
* Made these elections the start of a process of moving towards a future democratic order;
* By barring Ms. Suu Kyi from participating in the elections, they failed to get international legitimacy for the political process initiated by them.
The election has, however, sprouted new opposition parties working within the political framework allowed by the junta, and are reportedly keen to bring some changes in the existing political system. These leaders are likely to stay in the political space so created and use it for the next elections in five years time.
So what about Ms. Suu Kyi? Now that she has been sidelined by the junta will she just fade away into obscurity?
When she was under house arrest she was the world's most famous political detainee. Now that she has been released, the world is eagerly waiting to see what she is likely to do.
There is no doubt that this 64 year old lady with impeccable English and a fresh flower in her hair, remains the most feared by the generals. She is the only one who can bestow any degree of international legitimacy to any political process in Myanmar. She is also the only one till today who can galvanise a new generation of youth in that country. These are two assets which she still commands and the junta remains cagey because of them.
So, as the generals dress their windows and spruce up their political act, Ms. Suu Kyi with her simplicity and charm continues to mesmerise her people and the people of the world. She is, therefore, likely to yet write the final chapter of the story of Myanmar's political emancipation.
Ashfaqur Rahman is a former Ambassador and Chairman of the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies. E-mail:

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