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Democracy in Myanmar

By Dr Ahmad Rashid Malik
November 29, 2015

The fate of Rohingya Muslims is central to making Myanmar a true pluralistic democracy.

With all of its drawbacks, democracy is still the final resolution in a state. Asian democracy is colourful. Asia is a home of largest democracy with the oldest democracy working in Japan. The world’s largest Indian secular democracy has fast becoming a religious dictatorship under Shiv Sena.

There are many countries in Asia which have not been democratised. Somewhere there is a political dictatorship with one party rule.

Somewhere there are monarchs ruling. Somewhere there is a semi-military and civilian participation. Somewhere democracy faces instability and thrown out many times but also comes back as last resort. Somewhere not democracy but military dictatorship emerges as symbol of national integration.

Myanmar is now on the road to democracy. The South East Asian country, just neighbouring South Asia, was ruled so long by military junta. General elections were not held in the last 25 years. The military junta was accused by human rights organizations for human rights violations. Aung Sun Suu Kyi, human rights activist and pro-democracy leader, was long detained.

Historic general elections were held on 8 November and 33 million of voters cast their votes. Previous elections were held in 1990, showing similar results. The main context was with the ruling military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National League for Democracy (NLD. The extremist Buddhist group, known as “Ma Ba Tha,” campaigned for the USDP Voters overwhelmingly voted for the NLD.

Polling was relatively fair and free if not absolutely. Had there been total transparency, the USDP would have wiped out. The USDP field many civilian officials and military officers. At least 170 of them contested the polls. The constitution retains quarter of seats for the military. This was perhaps the first time in democratic history that a large number of military officers stood as political candidates in elections. The minority Rohingya Muslim community was not allowed to field candidates.

The NLD won over 80 seats in union and regional legislatures, inflicting massive defeat to the USDP. The results have shown that how voters rejects establishment candidates. If not full, at least quasi-civilian political system has been emerging in Myanmar after long military dictatorship. Suu Kyi could not assume the charge of the Government under the law by having a foreign (British) spouse and children.

The new regime, however, will face daunting challenges. The conservative Buddhist-dominated Myanmar is a real hell for Rohingya Muslims. They were disenfranchised in the elections. They are over 500,000 and they form 5 percent strength in country’s population. This is beyond the basic principles of democratic voting.

On the top is the question of Muslim minority, the Rohingya, persecuted so long by the military junta and Buddhist monks but also that Suu Kyi never so openly stood for their cause. There is a systematic ethnic cleansing going on against them for long. Many of them left their homes for Bangladesh, India, and other South East Asian countries, known as “stateless” people.

The fate of Rohingya Muslims is central to make Myanmar a true pluralistic democracy. The Rohingya Muslims need a non-discriminately and human treatment and equal rights in a Buddhist-dominated democracy. They are deprived of fundamental human rights.

The new NLD government should take initiative to introduce reforms for the Rohingya Muslims and accept them as equal citizens. The fruits of democracy should be passed on to the Rohingya Muslims too. The so-called Western human right organizations have not pleaded the cause of the Rohingya Muslims. It is also a matter of shame for their voices for human rights abuses.

The sustainability of democracy in Myanmar still raises many questions unanswered. Moreover, the military retains considerable power as the Myanmar’s constitution written by the junta in 2008 institutionalizes the military’s control of government and ensures that no other party can check its prerogatives. Myanmar is a quasi-military-civil democracy or in other words the country’s democracy is controls by the military. In case of emergency, the military could control the situation.

There are many other provision in the constitution that makes the military a power organ than the civilians. Other countries in South East Asia, such as in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam military holds greater power. This will be a great testing time for Myanmar democracy.

Besides Myanmar radical Myanmar’s Buddhist society, the fate of Indian Muslims is increasingly becoming serious under the extreme Hindutva practice. The world is silently watching the “Talibanization of India” and Myanmar but strictly against of the Talibanization of Afghanistan. Are Indian and Myanmar’s general elections are heading toward a true pluralistic society?

Myanmar’s peaceful transition to democracy is admirable but it is a long windy way to go to become a genuine democracy. In short, Rohingya Muslims have a glimmer hope under the NLD democracy. Suu Kyi has been criticized for not speaking out against abuses faced by the Rohingya Muslim minority. The Rohingya situation is one of the most contentious issues that will be faced by the new government.

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