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Pro Democracy Party Takes Power in Myanmar, But Questions Remain

By Lizabeth Paulat
February 5, 2016

This week a landmark event took place in Myanmar when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD) finally took power in Parliament. It’s a moment that has been decades in the making and is seen as a historic step for the country – which has long struggled with a military dictatorship.

Suu Kyi spent much of her life as a political prisoner for challenging Myanmar’s dictatorship. Under house arrest she continued to champion democracy, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. Yet questions over possible changes the NLD will bring Myanmar have caused anxiety within the country.

The first real question is: Who will become president? In Myanmar the president is chosen by members of Parliament, not the public. And with Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party holding the vast majority of seats in parliament she might seem like a clear frontrunner.

However, despite overwhelming popularity, Suu Kyi is technically barred from the position. That’s because in 2008 the constitution was amended by the military government to prohibit anyone with foreign relatives from becoming president. With a foreign husband and two children with UK passports she is not technically eligible. And because the military holds 25 percent of the seats in parliament, the constitution cannot be re-amended without their approval.

This has caused a general sense of unease in the country. On Wednesday, in her first speech since the NLD took power she urged the public to remain patient and calm telling them, “Don’t be anxious. You will know when the time comes.”

However, many NLD parliamentarians were more effusive, celebrating their majority takeover. It’s reported that many wore orange shirts in solidarity, to contrast with the minority green military shirts on the parliament floor.

One MP named U Min Oo told The Guardian, “It’s the second time I have been elected but this time it feels different, because the NLD is majority. It’s an overwhelming majority, but we all come from different backgrounds and we can guarantee diversity.”

However, his statement brings up a considerable controversy that is plaguing the country. This involves the Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar that is routinely prosecuted by the majority Buddhist population. The position of extremist Buddhists, who often call for violence and limits to the Rohingya’s reproductive rights, has been described as “genocidal.” Rohingya are often forced into IDP camps, refused citizenship and voting rights, and face such deplorable conditions that thousands have chosen to flee on boats and starve at sea, rather than stay in Myanmar.

Displaced Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State – Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch chastised Myanmar for their persecution, pointing out that systematic killings – confirmed by the UN – were taking place within Rakhine State.

And despite nearly five million Muslims living in Myanmar, the NLD does not actually have any Muslims in their party. In fact, despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize and being seen as a great champion of democracy, Suu Kyi has a shaky history with the Muslim Rohingya minority. After winning the elections last year, Suu Kyi’s aide told reporters that they had, “other priorities” than the persecution of Muslims. He also went onto spout the extremist Buddhist agenda that Rohingya were foreigners. This is a position that has long been refuted by historians.

Her silence on the issue has also prompted comments from the Dalai Lama who told an Australian paper, “It’s very sad. In the Burmese case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something.”

Human rights advocates are hoping that with a pro-democracy majority in power, human rights reforms will begin to unfold. However, many feel that until a president is chosen, it will be impossible to know what the future holds for the Southeast Asian nation.

Photo Credit: Htoo Tay Zar/Wikimedia

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