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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 50 New Delhi December 5, 2015

Myanmar’s Tryst With Democracy — The Road Ahead

Sunday 6 December 2015, by Sandeep Shastri

Myanmar is clearly at the cusp of momen-tous change. The excitement and sense of anticipation among the citizens in the country are palpably visible. In its journey of transition to democracy, the much-heralded elections of November 8, were a very important milestone. In the last leg of November, when conducting a training workshop for some newly elected representatives to the Parliament and State Legislatures in Myanmar, one could glimpse in the glint in their eyes their hope and vision for the Myanmar of tomorrow. Their strong resolve as well as anxieties about the future were evident in their words. ‘We have created history.. We must sustain it and not slip back into the rut of the past’ was how one newly elected woman a youth leader pensively reflected on the events of the past few weeks.

The results of the 8th November elections have swept the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. The voter of Myanmar has unequivocally spoken in favour of change, categorically endorsing the pro-democracy movement and the nation’s transition to democracy. The fear of the young lady at my workshop, about losing the movement and the need to carefully nurture and build on the victory is on account of the strong position of the military even as those victorious assume power early next year.

The tidal wave of victory that Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD rode, endorsed the huge sentiment for change and democratisation that this Nobel Peace Prize winner and her party represented. Given the fact that in the new legislature (both at the national and State/regional level), the Army would nominate an additional 25 per cent of members (as per the Constitution), the NLD had to aim at a steam-roller majority among the elected seats. The victory handed down to the NLD by the voters was overwhelming with other political players, including the ruling USDP, winning a small clutch of seats.

Myanmar as a nation brings together diverse ethnic groups. If close to two-thirds of its population is of Burmese ethnic origin, the balance one-third is made up of several smaller ethnic groups. The Constitution worked out an interesting formula of decentralisation, dividing the country into seven States and seven regions. The States gave representation to the different major non-Burmese ethnic identities while the regions were where the dominantly Burmese population lived.

In the run-up to the elections, it was anticipated that the NLD would do well in the Burmese-dominated regions but would face stiff competition from different ethnic parties in the seven States. The results have shown that save in two States, (Shan State and Rakhine State), the NLD swept the polls in all the regions and five of the States. The ethnic parties in these five States where the NLD did well, were electorally routed. In the Shan State (which is the largest State and has the Shan ethnic group in the main) and the Rakhine State (in which the Rohingya problem drew global attention), ethnic parties performed reasonably well. Thus, the mandate of the election was clearly and decisively for change as represented by the NLD and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. As the new government assumes power in the coming few months, what would be some of the critical issues that would need to be dealt with.

Firstly, the leadership of the NLD would need to dialogue with the Army as it prepares to assume power. The Constitution, as it stands today, ensures a major role for the Army. This essay would later deal with the debate on the amendment of the Constitution and its contentious provisions. Besides, the nomination of 25 per cent of the Members to Parliament and the State Legislatures, the Army and its Chief, plays a major role in nominating three important Ministers—Defence, Interior and Border Affairs. As the electoral outcome became increasingly clear, the Army Chief went on record that the armed forces would respect the popular mandate. The incumbent President too has promised a smooth transition. As the transition begins, the role of the Army and those who wield power today will inevitably be the focus of public attention.

Secondly, the current Constitution of Myanmar has a few provisions which have been the focus of controversy. One such provision prevents anyone whose children are citizens of another country from becoming the President of the country. As a result, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be a candidate for Presidency unless the Constitution is amended. Amending the Constitution is likely to be a long-drawn process. Thus, in all likelihood, the NLD chief will nominate someone as the candidate for Presidency until such time as the Constitution is amended.

Thirdly, in the recent past, there has been a demand among different political groups that Myanmar should usher in a genuine federal democracy. The different ethnic groups strongly favour federalism as they believe that a decentralised federal system would do justice to their aspirations. The NLD leadership too has favoured a federal arrangement. Given the fact that the NLD has done spectacularly well in all regions and States (save two), one hopes that the new ruling party would take the process of decentra-lisation logically forward. A linked issue is the peace process. Several armed groups (linked mostly to some of the non-Burmese ethnic groups) are active in some parts of the country. Just prior to the elections, the government had signed a peace accord with some of the armed groups (a few major armed groups had stayed away). The NLD leadership had then asserted that any such peace accord should be negotiated and signed only after the elections. As the new government takes charge, this process too would be keenly watched.

Finally, the people of Myanmar are keen to see its leadership unite and bring together the diverse elements that make up this vibrant society. Prior to the elections, the ethnic parties had assumed that they would play a crucial role in the post-election scenario as they assumed that the preponderance of the NLD would be limited to the Burmese majority areas. Aung San Suu Kyi had always maintained that her party would draw support across the country and was not limited to the majority ethnic group. With the results indicating a near pan-Myanmar presence for the NLD, the party and its leadership would now be expected to apply the healing balm of unity and bring together the aspirations and hopes of diverse social groups. The smaller social and religious groups would look to the NLD and its leader to ensure fairness and justice to all.

Undoubtedly, the next few months would be a critical phase in Myanmar’s democratic transition. A huge responsibility rests on the strong shoulders of the charismatic leader of the NLD who has played a major role in scripting Myanmar’s new experiment with democracy.

Dr Sandeep Shastri is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Jain University and a Professor of Political Science. As a Senior Adviser to the Forum of Federalism, Dr Shastri has led a team of experts who have conducted Capacity Building Workshops for different stakeholders in Myanmar over the last two years. The views expressed in this article are his personal views.