Nudging Myanmar towards democracy

Myanmar’s forthcoming election, the fifth step of the so-called roadmap to democracy introduced in 2003, has of late generated much cautious optimism. The elections are likely to throw up a ‘disciplined democracy.’ Shorn of rhetoric, this implies likely space for a civilian government and national reconciliation as the Constitution 2008 will come into effect once the new parliament is in place after the elections.

Another reason for optimism is that this year’s elections could pave way for a foothold for democratic forces, a few seats in parliament, and a platform to gain valuable experience and wrest more power by 2015. In the words of one opposition leader: “Why don’t we as a people take this opportunity to help (military ruler Than Shwe) make a graceful exit and gain democracy in the process?”

Myanmar looks with hope to the South Korean precedent, whose presidential and National Assembly elections in 1987 and 1988, though hardly considered free and fair, gave opposition parties and candidates a legitimate platform to develop their voices, attract supporters, learn the political process, and oppose the ruling party.

Myanmar’s military junta has entered into ceasefire agreements with 17 ethnic rebel groups between 1989-94, who form 40 per cent of population and control sizeable land mass around the periphery, allowing them to retain their arms and control some of the territories occupied. The 1990 elections had seen most ethnic groups join hands and fare well.

Smooth election

As a prelude to a smooth election the military junta has been pressurising the ethnic groups, to transform into border guards under the army and form their own political parties and contest the forthcoming elections, or in the least lay down their weapons, all demands refused by most ethnic groups.

After the 2010 elections, ethnic minorities will lose their rights and privileges as the Constitution sets out a ‘self administered division’ for Wa and UWSA (the biggest of the ethnic minorities with 15,000-20,000 fighters) and to create 14 assemblies in areas home to the major ethnic groups, making the first offer of political space to the non-Myanmarese. However, these regional assemblies will be under the junta, which has the power to appoint a fourth of the members and the chief minister of the region.

These provisions could lead to ethnic groups losing their right to choose their chiefs and to self determination rights and thus, dissent. This could provide impetus to the eruption anew of the six-decade old civil war, currently in its ebb, if the military junta is unable to settle the issue before the election. Thus, it would also become incumbent on the ethnic minorities to come together and pose a united front even if some semblance of autonomy is to be achieved in their areas.

National identity

Another area of interest is Buddhism, identified with Burmese national identity. The junta has used Buddhist authority or ‘Buddhification’ to rally nationalist sentiments in the army and among the general population, to foster an ideological Buddhist nationalism, perhaps more significantly, to deflect public attention away from other crises, including agricultural shortages, economic failures and imminent anti-government demonstrations.

The present preparations project that Myanmar could see a well organised election with all the drawbacks of a managed electoral process but with some sort of endorsement by ASEAN, India and China. This scenario could draw Myanmar out of its current isolation and enhance western and regional engagement.

If the present regime fails to ensure a violence free-election and engineers a landslide victory of USDP by naked interference in the post-electoral process, coupled with strife between the army and ethnic groups, deteriorating law and order could drive Myanmar into Beijing’s arms.

A reasonably stable Myanmar with its western region secure is an ideal scenario for India reining in insurgents along Indo–Myanmar border and prodding insurgent kingpins to talk with the new regime, given its softer semi-civilian face. Greater Indian investment in Myanmar, preferably through private sector and the spread of information technology and broadband connectivity there would enhance our ties and tilt the balance in our favour, resulting in a possible slowdown of Sino–Myanmar relations.

 Myanmar’s importance for India as a ‘land bridge’ for CLMV countries and the rest of South East Asia and her dangerously close liaison with China has prompted us to reinvent the political, security, economic and strategic significance of our relationship.

The elections will definitely democratise Myanmar far more than it is today. In due course, it may be possible to amend the Constitution and electoral laws, as India keeps nudging its important eastern neighbour in that direction.

(The writer is a political analyst and former editor of Organiser)

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