Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 March 2018

Myanmar prepares for its imperfect election

Myanmar's journey towards a more open and democratic society is very long, but it has already started, writes Sholto Byrnes

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi receives roses from a supporter during a campaign rally for the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Kawhmu. Romeo Gacad / AFP
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi receives roses from a supporter during a campaign rally for the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Kawhmu. Romeo Gacad / AFP

Next month’s elections in Myanmar have already been receiving the world’s attention.

There have been plaudits: they “mark a historic step”, and will constitute “an election of many firsts”.

There have been warnings: “The conduct and results of these elections will fundamentally shape our engagement with the Burmese government in 2016 and beyond,” said US assistant secretary of state Daniel Russel.

And there are already observers: from the Carter Centre, the EU and Asean, who are on hand to ensure the November 8 polls are as free and fair as possible.

Unfortunately, the elections are also destined to disappoint.

To begin with, misinformation abounds. They are being referred to as the first genuinely democratic national polls Myanmar has experienced since 1960. That was two years before the military took over and led the country down the path of isolation and poverty from which it only began to retreat almost 50 years later, in 2010, when reforms began under a civilian president.

Wrong on two counts. Firstly, there were democratic elections in 1990, won by the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).

This was not what the generals had expected, however, so they decided not to recognise the result and continued their rule for another 20 years.

Secondly, the fact that a quarter of seats in parliament are reserved for the military means that the election can only be considered partly democratic at best: it also means that for the NLD to win a majority, it would need to take 67 per cent of the seats.

Most observers think this would be impossible, as the military-aligned ruling USDP does have some support, while parties representing some of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups are predicted to win up to 30 per cent of the vote.

Moreover, even if the NLD won every single seat, it would still be short of the more than 75 per cent of parliamentarians needed to change the constitution and remove a clause written with Ms Suu Kyi expressly in mind, which bars anyone with children or spouses who have foreign passports from being president (her two sons are British).

So, two things need to be borne in mind. Whatever the result, even a landslide for the NLD, their Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader will not, and cannot, become president.

And as Bridget Welsh, professor at Ipek University in Turkey and senior research associate at Taiwan’s National University, puts it: “The outcome of these elections will change Myanmar politics – just not to the extent of democratic direction many expect.”

If predictions are lowered to this more realistic level, the Myanmar vote should certainly be welcomed. There are concerns over the integrity of voter lists, advance voting and intimidation, and there are areas where polls cannot take place because of localised conflict. But it will be a huge improvement on the 2010 elections, which many claimed were rigged and the NLD boycotted.

A genuine contest is progress and a step towards greater democracy – just as Myanmar has been taking steps towards greater freedom and openness, but hasn’t become a model of liberalism overnight – should be applauded.

Outsiders ought, moreover, to be wary of attempting to dictate the pace of change – especially given the catastrophes that have resulted from recent western efforts to force liberal democracy on other countries.

It seems all too likely, however, that anything less than an NLD victory, with Ms Suu Kyi as president in all but name, will be seized on as proof by her legion of well-placed and influential fans that the election was fixed.

She is encouraging this in a way that Prof Welsh says is reckless: “She has been ratcheting up expectations, saying that the NLD will win 90 per cent of the seats. It’s totally unrealistic.”

The NLD leader’s sometimes imperious ways have also caused trouble within her party. Nearly all the respected Generation 88 group of former student activists have been snubbed as candidates next month, while her biographer Peter Popham admits that she “has a powerful sense that she is entitled to rule”.

Indeed, “the lady” recently told an interviewer: “I’ve made it quite clear that if the NLD wins the elections and we form the government, I’m going to be the leader of that government whether or not I am president.”

Mr Popham – author of The Lady and the Peacock – may well be right when he says: “there is no doubt that she is the most popular politician in the country”.

But back seat driver is an office unknown under most constitutions, and having someone other than the official leader believing that they have the right to call the shots can potentially undermine the rule of law itself.

During her years of suffering for the cause of democracy in Myanmar, which included a decade and a half under house arrest and an assassination attempt, Ms Suu Kyi became almost as admired a figure internationally as Nelson Mandela.

The future of Myanmar is, however, about more than just her. There are other capable leaders, both in her own and other parties. The country’s problems are too complex for it to be imagined that an NLD victory and Ms Suu Kyi as president are all it would take to put the country on a course to peace and prosperity.

When the results come in, we should remember this. Myanmar has come a long way in five short years. We should wish its people well on their journey towards a more open society – not carp and castigate just because it hasn’t reached the end of that road yet.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia