Myanmar: The Rise of Democracy?

By: Pedro Santos Guasch

On November 8, 2015, Myanmar held its first openly contested general elections since 1990. Led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), obtained the two-thirds of seats needed to control both houses of parliament. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), backed by the military junta (known as the Tatmadaw), acknowledged the defeat, and serving President Thein Sein assured the electoral results would be honored unlike the results from the 1990 elections. Although the NLD victory is a positive step towards a democratic government, the constitution of Myanmar still grants the military the power to appoint 166 (25%) of the total parliamentary seats.

Myanmar -previously known as Burma- was a British colony until 1948 when General Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi, led the country towards its independence. Between 1948 and 1962, Burma attempted to sustain a  democratic government, but it was overwhelmed by conflict and internal struggle. The ruling party encountered political and ethnic troubles, in addition to  a fundamental clash between democratic policies and the country’s constitution.[1] The Myamar’s short-lived democratic government came to an end in 1962, when the Burma Socialist Programme Party led by General Ne Win overthrew the democratically elected government and established a military regime. Gen Ne Win’s actions led to Burma’s isolation from the rest of the world for over twenty-six years, affecting the country’s trade and social contacts, ultimately resulting in economic depression.[2]

In 1990, the NLD won the elections, gaining 392 of the 492 available parliamentary seats against the military-backed party, which only received ten percent of the parliamentary seats. However, the ruling Tatmadaw refused to recognize the election results and proceeded to arrest political protesters, including Suu Kyi, who was put on house arrest intermittently for fifteen years.[3]

The international community’s reaction to Myanmar’s military government varied by country and region. The United States and the European Union chose to impose unilateral economic and trade sanctions, in order to force Myanmar’s leaders to address this human rights violation. Nonetheless, several member-nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rejected the U.S. strategy of imposing multilateral economic sanctions on Burma, stating that, further isolation would be detrimental for the country’s development. Myanmar’s economic and political relations with the ASEAN members, specially India and China, have helped the Tatmadaw to counteract the impact of the economic sanctions by focusing on cross-border trade.[4] The lack of consensus in the international community has been counterproductive in protecting human rights and has helped maintain the repressive military regime in power.

In 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which banned the entrace of goods produced, manufactured, grown or assembled in Myanmar. Additionally,  American financial institutions were required to freeze the assets of individuals who held senior positions in the State Peace and Development Council, the former ruling government.[5] After fifteen years of Myanmar’s economic and political isolation, the United States has shifted its unsuccessful strategy towards constructive engagement, focusing on developing diplomatic relations, which can help to persuade internal change in Myanmar.[6]

Myanmar has consistently failed to draft a constitution with democratic principles such as the protection of the human rights of all ethnic groups in the region. Many of the ethnic minorities persistently call for the drafting of a federal constitution, which would grant them more autonomy. For instance, in 2008 Burma passed a third constitution drafted by the military following an unjust referendum process, plagued by accusations of voter coercion and fraud.[7] According to the Human Rights Watch report, many Burmese citizens did not have access to the draft of the intended new constitution and were unfamiliar with its content, up until one month before the referendum. The 2008 constitution gives the Tatmadaw 25% of parliamentary seats, hence an effective veto of any constitutional amendment, which requires 75% or more of parliamentary votes. Furthermore, Article 59(f) of the Burmese constitution prohibits a candidate and the parents, spouse, or children of the candidate from holding citizenship of another country.  This article precludes Suu Kyi from becoming president since she has two children who hold British citizenship.[8]

In spite of this, NLD’s victory is representative of the potential for democratic change. Nonetheless, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the NLD will encounter several challenging issues that have divided Myanmar for the past sixty years. As leader of the NLD, Suu Kyi will need to strategize a way to begin talks with the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, who, under the constitution, does not answer directly either to the executive, the legislative or the judiciary branch.  Suu Kyi must thus be cautious and take a gentle approach to pursue and enforce political changes in the country without threatening or upsetting the omnipotent Tatmadaw. Does this mean that the military government’s past human rights violations and atrocities will go unpunished? Only time will tell.

Another critical issue is the lack of representation of the minority groups like the Muslim Rohingyas, who are not considered citizens and were therefore unable to vote in the past elections. The newly elected government has to amend or draft a new constitution to recognize and include ethnic minorities who live in fear across the country.

Rome was not built in a day, and the transitioning process from a military dictatorship to a democratic nation will take many years. Notwithstanding, with internal structural change and international engagement, Myanmar can see some light at the end of the tunnel.


[1] See This Day in History: Burma Coup D’Etat, http://www.historychannel.com.au/classroom/day-in-history/463/burma-coup-detat.

[2] Joshua L. Savey, Unilateral Sanctions: An Effective Foreign Policy Tool in Myanmar?, 50 Willamette L. Rev. 371, 381 (2014).

[3] Myanmar’s 2015 general elections explained, BBC (Dec. 3, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33547036.

[4] Michael Ewing-Chow, First Do No Harm: Myanmar Trade Sanctions and Human Rights, 5 Nw. U. J. Int’l Hum. Rts. 153, 87 (2007).

[5] Savey at 377.

[6] Savey at 390-391.

[7] See Vote to Nowhere: The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/burma0508webwcover.pdf .

[8] See Constitution of the Republic of Myanmar May 29, 2008, ch. III, art. 59(f),http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs5/Myanmar_Constitution-2008-en.pdf.

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