Sad truth of Myanmar: Democracy is in the hands of military

Avalok Langer
Avalok LangerNov 04, 2015 | 15:49

Sad truth of Myanmar: Democracy is in the hands of military

In 2013, I took a small loan from the "Bank of Dad", (a loan I am still repaying), and boarded a flight to Myanmar. The plan was simple, a 19 day ringside seat to the process of Burma coming to terms with being Myanmar, a fledgling democracy adapting to the political chaos of "people's rule".

I landed, pendrives and press card safely hidden in my socks, expecting to find myself in middle of a cold war themed spy thriller; secret police sipping tea at every street corner, secret handshakes and a guarded local population suspicious of outsiders. But boy was I wrong.

There was a buzz in the air. The National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi's party had won 43 of the 44 seats in the 2012 by-elections and the people were filled with hope, "I will vote for Daw Suu, she will be our new president after the 2015 elections", said a optimistic taxi driver, somewhat ignorant of the fine print in his country's new democracy, but happy to be free. Well, somewhat free.

 Photo: Avalok Langer

In 2008, through a rather dodgy referendum, the army passed Myanmar's new constitution (a document they had written keeping their interests in mind) ending four decades of military rule and ushered in "democracy". The world celebrated, Aung San Suu Kyi had won, democracy had won, the dark age of military oppression was over and the west, eyeing the economic opportunities provided by a virgin Myanmar, lifted sanctions and lost all leverage. However, as always, the devil is in the details.

Lessons in democracy

One of the most interesting experience I had in my 19 day visit was that of attending a democracy class. Yes, a democracy class. Having speant four decades in an insulated bubble of military oppression, the people were blissfully unaware of what the democracy entailed (to be fair, Indians are still quite unaware). Across the country, NGOs had been holding classes for citizens as well as sitting members of parliament as the population had previously never experienced the idea of choice. It was amazing to see a cross section of people; men, women, teenagers, senior citizens taking notes as a 23-year-old girl, explained the idea that with rights come duties.

At the end of the class, I had the opportunity to talk to those in attendance and it became clear that while NLD and Suu Kyi were the crowd favourites, they were blissfully unaware of the political process. Silence greeted my question on political demands, they had none, it seemed they hadn't thought that far. In India, whether it is the usual "bijali, paani, sadak" or even "gau maatha", people have demands, however redundant, cast or communtiy based they maybe. Possibly it was a case of lost in translation, but the line of answering in the class remained simple, "we want NLD and we want Daw Suu".

 Photo: Avalok Langer

While awareness levels across Myanmar have gone up in the last two years and people are more informed about their politcal choices, India's tryst with democracy (where there exists diverse political opinion, but not necessarily political awareness) is proof that political awareness takes time.

Suu Kyi can't lead the nation

It's no secret, for the people of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi is somewhere between a rock star and a demi-god. She is the name that rallied a thousand (dozens) nations to place sanctions on Myanmar. Her struggle united a movement and gave hope to so many who have spent decades in and out of jail and with the onset of democracy, by and large the people want her to lead, but she can't.

Knowing that Suu's late husband and sons are British citizens, very strategically, the military has placed a clause in the constitution that bans anyone with a foreign spouse or children from Presidency. So even if the NLD gets a majority, they cannot nominate Suu Kyi as their presidential nominee. To overcome this hurdle, they will need to amend the constitution, however, the army has a plan for that as well.

Military quota

In 2010, several generals exchanged their fatigues for woven longyis and established the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the party that is presently running things. However, as any officer will tell you, "an army works on principle of zero risk to its interests" and not wanting to leave their fate to the people, the military who wrote the constitution, ensured that 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats were reserved for the Army, ie officers in uniform sitting in Parliament voting as a block.

Therefore, no matter how poorly the USDP fairs in the upcoming elections, the 25 per cent bloc remains in place and can act as a veto to any constitutional reform the NLD may choose to usher in (if they they do manage a landslide). But despites, NLDs amazing performance in the 2012 by-polls, USDP has deep pockets and the power to mobilise sentiment. Additionally, a number of regional parties have cropped up and not all of them are aligned to the Lady, given her stand, or lack thereof, on minorities, namely the Rohingyas.

The Rohingya question:

For a few years now, western Myanmar has been on the boil. Imagines of burnt houses, communal clashes, and thousands of Rohingyas Muslims fleeing for their lives have periodically popped up on our time lines and news feeds.

I spent an evening with a group of activists who provided me with an interesting insight to the rising communal tension in Burma that has resulted in close to one million Muslim Rohingyas being labeled stateless and ineligible to vote.

We were sitting in the lobby of one of Yangon's first five star hotels, making full use of the free wifi and eating overpriced spring rolls. "You are from India, so I am sure you understand vote bank politics", explained a Thai activist who had spent the last two decades working closely with the pro democracy movement of Burma.

'The military realised that to sell democracy and keep the investment gravy train flowing, they have to respect the electoral process. So to retain power they have to win. To do so, they have mobilised a Buddhist national identity to cater to the majority Burman population and made the Muslims, namely the Rohingyas the enemy," she explained. "The violence we see is a direct result of this."

In much the same manner as the cow or Hindu-Muslim tensions are made political rhetoric in India, Wirathu, a Buddhist monk and the face of Myanmar's anti Muslim agenda, has used communal disharmony as a tool for political mobilisation and the results are for all to see.

 Photo: Avalok Langer

Not only has the idea of a Buddhist Myanmar taken hold over large sections of the majority community, but Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who at first attempted to speak for the Rohingyas has been forced into silence by mounting public pressure. Like the military she too needs the majority to back her. Harsh realities of electoral politics and the military's move to communalise has levelled the playing field, tarnishing Suu Kyi's saintly persona.

Daw Suu's silence has not gone unnoticed. Much like India, Myanmar is a melting pot of ethnicity, many of whom have waged decades of war for freedom. Regional and ethnic parties who are fielding their own candidates are apprehensive about their rights is the new politcal framework and Suu Kyi's silence has not been reassuring. This could prove to be a hurdle if NLD needs to form an alliance.

The transition from Burma to Myanmar is far from complete, but the country has taken huge stride towards opening up. While, political activists continue to be repeatedly arrested, the rapid expansion of mobile networks has acted as a tool of empowerment, reducing the impunity with which government forces used to act. However, with less than a week to go for Myanmar's general elections and campaigning at a fever pitch, ethnic tensions, communal violence, poverty and military control remain a reality. Yes, Myanmar is holding elections and possibly, unlike the 1990 verdict, the army will respect the verdict, but its amply clear, no matter the result, the army is still in control and democracy will arrive at their pace.

Last updated: November 04, 2015 | 18:38
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