Bumpy road for democracy

Alamgir Khan
Thursday, November 26th, 2015

‘Dawn of a New Era’ ran the headline of the Global New Light of Myanmar, the government mouthpiece, after the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD). This was the result of an ‘irreversible course’ identified by Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz in one of his Project Syndicate articles, Burma’s Turn, in 2012. The process of change began after the flawed election of 2010. He wrote, ‘The Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was … released from house arrest …. On the economic front, unprecedented transparency has been introduced into the budgetary process. Expenditures on health care and education have been doubled, albeit from a low base. Licensing restrictions in a number of key areas have been loosened. The government has even committed itself to moving towards unifying its complicated exchange-rate system. .. if changes are managed well, the country will have embarked on an irreversible course.’


It was expected that the November 8 elections would give victory to Suu Kyi’s party, but not many expected this of such a level. The NLD has won more than it needed to form a government with super majority. It has won 390 seats, whereas the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) won only 41 seats. The government led by the army in civilian clothes has got a beating which would oust it at once from power anywhere in the world. But Burma is different. The semi-military government has 25% parliamentary seats reserved for it. In 1990 it annulled the election results that also gave victory to the NLD, put Suu Kyi under house arrest and put her supporters into jail. They created a provision in the constitution that no one with foreign relatives could become president of the country with their obvious purpose of banning Suu Kyi from presidency because she is a widower of a British citizen and has two sons who are British.


The most harmful attempt the military took to retain its autocratic power was to stoke a Buddhist nationalism and create unmanageable racial and religious tensions in Burma. The army-led government gave support to Burma’s fundamentalist monks to spread hatred against Muslims in the country. Ma Ba Tha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion), the organization of monks who campaign for Buddhist nationalism, has been successful in establishing four anti-Muslim laws: ban against having multiple wives, religious conversion, interfaith marriage and large families.


They celebrated their victory in enacting these laws at a big program at the Yangon stadium a month before this election. The celebration was also meant to influence the election results in favour of the ruling party. Ma Ba Tha and the fundamentalist 969 movement were behind the religious clashes that caused deaths of hundreds of Muslims in the past. U Wirathu, the fanatic leader of Buddhist nationalism, vows to protect the anti-Muslim laws and supports the ban against Suu Kyi in having presidency. He expressed his doubt of NLD’s ability to govern the country.


Suu Kyi and her party have overcome all the obstacles set against their path to victory. The ruling party created Buddhist-Muslim clashes as a trap for her. Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defence minister and national security adviser, wrote in a Project Syndicate article (July 28, 2015), ‘By stoking Buddhist violence against the Rohingya, the regime aims to damage Suu Kyi and the NLD’s chances of victory in two ways. If she speaks out for the Rohingya, her appeal among Buddhists, the vast majority of Myanmar’s citizens, may be dented enough to preserve the army’s grip on power. If she does not defend the Rohingya, her aura of moral leadership may be dimmed among her own supporters, both at home and abroad.’


The ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) was really able to dent Suu Kyi’s aura of moral leadership at home and abroad by forcing her to remain silent about the miserable plight of the Rohingya Muslims. The Myanmar government revoked Rohingya Muslim’s citizenship and forced them to flee from the country and Suu Kyi failed to speak for them for fear of the wrath of fundamentalists. Yet, the military leaders have failed to scare the great Burmese people from voting for their beloved leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.


But many problems still lie ahead. Newly elected members cannot sit in parliament until February and the new President cannot take charge until the end of March. The army chief nominates heads of three important ministries — defence, home and border affairs. Suu Kyi has to choose some one as president from her party and run the new government from her moral position of ‘above the president’. In power, she has to deal with the ethnic minority issues in a democratic manner and must restore citizenship to Rohingya Muslims and ensure human rights for all irrespective of their ethnicities and religious beliefs. The path ahead is still far from smooth for Suu Kyi.

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