A Burmese worker hangs up freshly silkscreened National League for Democracy party (NLD) tshirt ahead of the parliamentary elections March 26, 2012 in Yangon, Myanmar. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
The April 1 elections in Myanmar — the first since the new government embarked on a path of reform — will be an important step in the country’s still nascent transition from military rule. The fact that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will be competing for one of the 48 seats up for grabs makes them all the more significant.
After spending most of the past 20 years either in prison or under house arrest, Suu Kyi has taken a calculated risk that by joining a political process dominated by those who confined her, it will allow her to pursue democratic, economic and social reforms more effectively from the inside than from outside. This decision has led some to criticize her. But the vast majority appears to be supporting the move, including the prominent 88 Generation Students Group and other political activists who, upon their release from prison in January 2012, pledged to support her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in its quest for parliamentary seats in the by-elections.
During her tour across the country, which was recently cut short due to illness, she has campaigned on a platform of jobs creation, healthcare and education. She has indicated that her and her party’s priorities will be rule of law (repealing repressive laws, establishing an independent judicial system, and instituting full freedom of the media), national peace and reconciliation, and constitutional amendments. In pursuit of this very ambitious agenda, we should expect to see her use the full force of her influence, her credibility, and her moral authority as she tries to forge a role in steering government decision making.
The NLD will contest 47 out of 48 seats. And, assuming the elections are carried out in a reasonably transparent and fair way, the NLD is expected to do relatively well. Even so, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will maintain its grip on the majority of the 650 seats in the Union Parliament, so we won’t be seeing any real shift in the balance of power. Nevertheless, with a total of 17 political parties running candidates, including six newly registered parties, the elections represent an important step forward in the return of opposition politics to Myanmar after nearly half a century of military rule.
There have been reports of voter fraud and irregularities in the lead up to the elections, such as the disruption of NLD campaign activities, unfair advantages given to the USDP, the inclusion of dead people on the voters lists, and slanderous attacks against Suu Kyi. In a bid to ensure an above board process, the government has invited observers from 10 countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Australia, China, the European Union, Russia and the United States. Additionally, Burmese civil society groups have organized a network to monitor polling stations.
The changes underway in Myanmar go beyond developments related to the re-emergence of Suu Kyi. Over the past year, the promotion of democratic processes by the new leadership and relaxation of the country’s draconian press controls have encouraged open discussion of political concerns and ideas, public debate about national interests and policy, and rapid expansion of community activity that was previously prohibited.
During the past few weeks alone, a series of additional major reforms have been set in motion. Myanmar signed an agreement with the International Labor Organization to end forced labor by 2015. The parliament is readying to pass new foreign investment laws that would offer overseas investors a five-year tax break and the ability to set up in the country without a local partner, while guaranteeing against nationalization. Beginning in April, the government will initiate a managed float of the Kyat, ending a fixed-rate currency system that has fueled a black market.
A momentum for change is clearly underway, but will it last? The challenges facing Myanmar are so vast, it will be impossible to address all of them immediately. As one of Thein Sein’s advisors said to me during a recent visit to Myanmar, “You name it, we need to reform it.” To be sure, this will be a long-term process with many setbacks along the way.
One of the most serious challenges is the continuation of conflict with ethnic groups. Although progress has been seen in many ethnic minority areas, where the government has reached a series of ceasefire deals, Myanmar’s Kachin state remains a growing concern. A recent Human Right Watch report called attention to ongoing abuses and a worsening humanitarian situation for the Kachin population, including continued violence, forced displacements, and the blockage of aid.
In his state of the union style speech delivered on March 1 to mark the one-year anniversary of his government, Thein Sein surprised many when he acknowledged the mistakes of Myanmar’s past governments and voiced support for “equally” involving the country’s ethnic minorities in the political process. These words must now be backed up by a genuine process of reconciliation. Without it, the reforms underway could easily be halted or even reversed.
The elections represent a critical test for Thein Sein and his government, who took power after a 2010 general election that was boycotted by the NLD and widely criticized as fraudulent. This time around, the world will be watching to see if the shift toward democracy in Myanmar is real. For the United States, the outcome will a key factor in determining the future direction of bilateral relations as many lawmakers in Washington view the government of Myanmar’s ability to pull off free and fair elections as a necessary prerequisite for dismantling years of economic sanctions.
A new Asia Society report by Suzanne DiMaggio and Priscilla Clapp, Advancing Myanmar’s Transition: A Way Forward for U.S. Policy, assesses the nature of the changes that are under way in Myanmar, outlines the challenges the country faces, and recommends measures that the United States can undertake at this critical moment to advance the reform process in Myanmar. Click here to read the report.