Help Myanmar build democracy
|Aung Shine Oo/The Associated Press -- Myanmarís pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, centre, shakes hands with foreign parliamentary representatives during a workshop to train newly elected Myanmar lawmakers on Monday in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.|
February 20, 2016
For decades, the isolationist nation-state of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was ruled with an iron fist by an authoritarian regime that crushed reform movements and imprisoned dissidents.
However, in recent years, the country has slowly begun to emerge from the darkness. The much-anticipated transition to democratic rule will enter a new phase in March, when a newly elected government finally takes control of many of the levers of power.
Myanmar held flawed but nominally democratic elections in November 2015. “The 8 November elections were a major waypoint in Myanmar’s transition from authoritarian rule,” states a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG).
A pro-democracy political party defeated the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and also easily bested other parties that represented various ethnic groups. “Holding a peaceful, orderly vote in a context of little experience of electoral democracy, deep political fissures and ongoing armed conflict in several areas was a major achievement for all political actors, the election commission and the country as a whole,” stated the ICG report, entitled The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications.
Scoring a massive electoral victory, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate and former prisoner of conscience Aung San Suu Kyi, won nearly 80 per cent of the seats in both legislative chambers. As a result, the NLD controls the presidency. Although the country’s 2008 constitution disqualifies Suu Kyi from becoming president due to the foreign citizenship of her children, she is the de facto leader of country.
Under the constitution, 25 per cent of the seats in parliament are reserved for nominated (unelected) representatives controlled by the military, giving it a veto over constitutional change. According to media reports, the military and Suu Kyi are in negotiations to amend or bypass the controversial constitutional provision, possibly paving the way for her to assume the presidency in March.
Decades ago, the international community imposed international sanctions on Myanmar in response to the regime’s brutal repression of activists and ordinary citizens. Canada imposed sanctions in 1988.
Five years ago, Myanmar began to adopt reforms. To encourage progress, the Obama administration lifted some American sanctions. However, Suu Kyi later complained that the Americans had moved too far and too fast in rewarding the military junta.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch reported that the pace of democratic reform in Myanmar “has slowed down and reversed in some places.” While gains have been made with respect to freedom of expression, growing numbers of political prisoners have been locked up.
Human Rights Watch also reports that “discrimination and threats against the Muslim minority” and the rise of “ultra-nationalism” have intensified in Myanmar. “The Rohingya Muslim minority continues to face statelessness and systematic persecution,” asserts the human rights watchdog. Similarly, Amnesty International alleges that government authorities “have failed to address advocacy of hatred and incitement to discrimination and violence against Muslims.”
Last year, the central government passed so-called “race and religion laws” that target Rohingya Muslims and pander to the country’s Buddhist ultra-nationalist movement.
Societal and governmental persecution was so intense in 2015 that many Rohingya fled the country by sea, making the dangerous voyage to Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia. An estimated 94,000 migrants left the country between January 2014 and May 2015, according to United Nations data. Approximately 70 people died in transit.
The ICG report identifies a number of problems with the recent elections, including “democratic deficits in the constitutional framework and some serious problems with inclusivity, given the disenfranchisement of approximately half a million Rohingya Muslims and the non-transparent cancellation of polling in some ethnic areas on security grounds.”
Just days before the elections, Amnesty International raised similar human rights concerns. “The jailing of peaceful activists, restrictions on free speech, discrimination and the political disenfranchisement of minority groups — in particular the persecuted Rohingya — seriously undermine elections in Myanmar,” the human rights nongovernmental organization declared in a report issued on Nov. 5, 2015.
According to Amnesty International, the Rohingya were “stripped of the Temporary Registration Cards — also known as white cards” in 2015, thereby depriving them of the right to vote in the country’s most important election to date. (The Rohingya were permitted to vote in the 2010 and 2012 electoral contests, which were even less open and fair than the 2015 vote.)
Challenges and high expectations
Although the ruling party was soundly defeated, the International Crisis Group points out that the election turned out well for the country’s powerful military, “because the outcome furthers its medium- and long-term objectives.”
The military seeks to counterbalance relations with China with a new strategic relationship with the United States and the West; ensure that the national economy is robust enough to fund the purchase of military hardware; and rehabilitate the military’s domestic reputation.
The military will also wield influence within the new government. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing has the power to nominate key members of the cabinet, including the ministers of defence and home affairs, who are military officers under his command. According to the International Crisis Group, “success in everything from the peace process to police reform and further political liberalization will depend on the co-operation of the armed forces.”
Suu Kyi and the NLD must meet very high voter expectations. “The responsibility for meeting expectations that now falls on their shoulders is daunting,” states the ICG report, which notes that the new government faces a steep learning curve because it lacks experienced technocrats.
After many years of authoritarian rule, government institutions require massive reforms. And the new regime will also have to tackle the problem of government corruption.
The new government will also have its hands full dealing with sporadic conflicts in Kachin and Shan states, as well as keeping the powerful and belligerent Buddhist nationalist lobby in check.
According to the ICG report, “Suu Kyi and the NLD will have to manage Myanmar’s relationship with China while continuing re-engagement with the West — something that Suu Kyi may find particularly challenging given the strong perception that she is pro-western.”
Suu Kyi and the NLD will also have to address the persecution and disenfranchisement of the Rohingya minority. Since being released from house arrest and becoming a prominent political leader, Suu Kyi has been shamefully indifferent to the plight of the Rohingya.
Clearly, Suu Kyi did not want to alienate anti-Rohingya voters before elections were held. Although she recently made a public statement in support of civil rights, progress is likely to be slow. The ICG report points out that “any moves the NLD government makes on this issue will come under particular nationalist scrutiny.”
Honorary Canadian citizen
In March 2012, John Baird, then Canada’s foreign affairs minister, travelled to Myanmar to meet with the head of the military junta, as well as with Suu Kyi, to discuss democratic reform. And Baird bestowed a certificate of honorary Canadian citizenship upon the opposition leader in recognition of her struggle for democracy.
In this season of hope and change, Canada could teach its honorary citizen a few things about pluralism, liberal democracy and brokerage politics. To that end, the Trudeau government should engage Myanmar during this critical period.
Canada could provide Myanmar officials with much-needed training in public administration. In addition, Ottawa could offer practical advice on how to reform public institutions and political parties, helping to make them more inclusive.
Myanmar will require help in the coming years to advance sustainable development. Many of Myanmar’s 53 million people live in poverty. According to Canada’s Department of Global Affairs, 70 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, barely eking out a living in agriculture.
For many years, Canadian assistance to the isolationist state was limited due to UN sanctions. That changed in 2014 when the Harper government designated Myanmar a country of focus for Canada’s development assistance. The Trudeau government should continue the work of re-engaging with Myanmar begun by the previous Conservative government.
During her stint as U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton played a pivotal role in America’s re-engagement with Myanmar. She worked closely with Suu Kyi to nudge the country’s military regime toward democracy.
In her 2014 book Hard Choices, Clinton clearly acknowledges that “ethnic Rohingya Muslims continue to be denied full citizenship and equal opportunities for education, employment and travel.” And the American presidential candidate contends that how Myanmar treats its minorities will determine, at least in part, whether the country is “able to achieve stability and democracy.”
“History teaches us that when the rights of minorities are secure, societies are more stable and everyone benefits,” Clinton writes. Suu Kyi should heed her friend’s advice.