Five years after they voted in their first free and fair elections for quarter of a century, the people of Myanmar will go to the polls this November.
A country with a troubled and violent history, Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948. In its formative years, the country suffered widespread internal conflict and military coups in 1962 and 1988 put Myanmar on a dictatorial path from which it has never departed. Today violence and conflict still blight Myanmar, which in recent years has seen the widely condemned ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya people.
After almost 50 years under a military dictatorship, Myanmar began its transition towards a democratic government in November 2010. In the same year, the military junta also freed pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.
In the years after her release, she was welcomed by Western leaders with open arms in the hopes it would lead to a democratic Myanmar. But ever since she celebrated victory for her National League for Democracy party (NLD) in 2015’s landmark elections, these hopes appear to have been dashed.
In fact, Myanmar’s transition to democracy was outlined in 2003, when General Khin Nyunt announced the Roadmap to Discipline Flourishing Democracy. In line with this plan, the 2008 constitution paved the way for the first multi-party election since 1990.
In reality the election was corrupt, excluded Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party and assured the victory of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – largely comprised of former and current members of the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar.
In 2011, the NLD re-entered the democratic arena expressing willingness to get actively involved in Myanmar’s political life. In the 2012 by-elections after a landmark vote that saw 45 seats contested, the NLD won 44 seats, although the USDP maintained the majority.
Given that Myanmar seemed to be heading towards a democratic regime, Western leaders were supportive and in 2012, Barack Obama became the first American president ever to visit Myanmar. During his speech at the University of Yangon, Obama reiterated the importance of continued efforts for democratic reforms.
Reminding Myanmar of the ongoing ethnic divisions throughout the country, the President underlined the hostile relationship of the ethnic Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya, making a subtle reference to the Tatmadaw violence towards the Muslim minority. He also raised questions about the legal status of the Rohingya, rendered stateless by Myanmar’s government, framing these issues in a hopeful light.
Democratic vote for the people
In November 2015, the first free and fair election in 25 years marked a critical change in Myanamar’s political landscape when the military-backed USDP lost its majority and the NLD secured a “supermajority” in the parliament.
In contrast with the 1990 election when the military regime refused to recognise the victory of the NLD, 2015 signalled the beginning of new hope for the country’s transition to democracy. Helmed by its new leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar established clear steps towards becoming a truly democratic country through her release of scores of political prisoners.
This raised hopes that she would also stand up for the rights of the Rohingya people who at the time were facing a troubling new chapter of their decades-long persecution. Following Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to prominence, calls to help the Rohingya people gained momentum and in August 2016 she announced the creation of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the UN.
Myanmar’s new political landscape promised a new focus on democracy and human rights across this ethnically diverse country. It was envisaged that the relationship between the government and its 135 minorities would improve and the situation of the Rohingya would be properly addressed.
But in what the UN described as the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, a million Rohingya Muslims fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in August 2017. The following year the UN called the military offensive in Rakhine against the Rohingya a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Since then this mass exclusion of people based on race and religion has been a serious problem, both in terms of human impact and in terms of democratic processes and accountability.
As the continued ethnic and religious persecution of the Rohingya accelerated violently, the international community lost confidence in Aung San Suu Kyi when she appeared unable or unwilling to take strong stands on their shocking treatment.
Democracy without rights
This year Myanmar is heading for another election. So far, thanks to the Tatmadaw’s overarching command structure – with three military figures in the key cabinet posts of home affairs, defence and border affairs – the Rohingya crisis has been downplayed as an issue of insurgency.
And although the constitution officially stipulates a separation of powers between the main organs of the state, the Tatmadaw claims full autonomy with the ability to regain political control at any given moment using the power of the National Defence and Security Council.
It appears Aung San Suu Kyi has been drawn into the “democratic” system without being able to deliver the political goods: the safety of person and property, non-discrimination, and protection of vulnerable or disadvantaged or minority citizens.
Once an icon of diplomacy and human rights, Aung San Suu Kyi’s image has been tarnished as a defender of the military, only reinforced by her recent appearance before the International Court of Justice in the trial of the Gambia vs Myanmar, where she defended the genocide against the Rohingya, classifying it as a “mere internal armed conflict”.
This defence of genocide at the world’s highest court demonstrates Aung San Suu Kyi’s willingness to cooperate and support the military in return for mutual support in reigning over Myanmar.
With elections approaching in November 2020, Myanmar’s government-sanctioned “democracy without rights” may bring free elections, but as long as ethinic cleansing continues against Rohingya Muslims, anyone claiming these elections will smooth the path for Myanmar’s road to democracy is deluded.
Contributing author: Roberta Dumitriu, (Mlitt/MSc) International Relations, University of Dundee.