There are three certainties in the Myanmar election: Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become President; with 25 per cent of seats reserved for it in the bicameral Parliament, the Army will remain a powerful force even if the Union Solidarity and Development Party, whose members are mostly all former military officials, loses; and Myanmar’s Rohingya problem will remain — if anything, it has been heightened by this election.
The election, set to take place on November 8, is the first full electoral exercise since 1990 when Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) got a clear majority. The Army had that election annulled, and Suu Kyi spent most of the next 20 years under arrest.
In 2008, the Tatmadaw, or military, changed the Constitution to keeps its grip intact in ways that would be difficult to change. It gave itself a quarter of the 664 seats in the Myanmar Parliament.
A clause barring anyone with a spouse or children of another nationality from running for President was aimed at excluding Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British, as are her children.
But in a script Indians will find familiar, Suu Kyi has said she will nominate someone from her party to run instead, indicating she will be the power behind the throne.
At a final pre-election press conference on Thursday in Yangon, Suu Kyi left no doubt on that score. “I will be above the President. It’s a very simple message.”
The NLD is pitted against the USDP and a slew of ethnic parties for the 498 seats available to direct election. NLD’s 43-out-of-45 score in the 2012 byelections, its first electoral outing in more than 20 years, and the reception Suu Kyi has commanded during the campaign, show the party is certain to do well in the majority Burman constituencies. Suu Kyi’s silence on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, at tremendous cost to her global image as an icon of democracy and human rights, was clearly aimed at corralling this vote.
Displaced by communal violence, more than 100,000 Rohingyas are living in camps since 2012. Suu Kyi skipped the camps when she visited Rakhine state to campaign, confirming fears among the Rohingyas that a democratic Myanmar will make no difference to their plight. Even so, hardline Buddhist parties contesting the election have dubbed her and the NLD as pro-Muslim.
The NLD is also hoping to make inroads in the ethnic minority areas, which have 200 of the elected seats. Dozens of parties are in the fray, but Suu Kyi is well loved in these parts as the daughter of General Aung San, the father of independent Burma, remembered for the historic February 1947 Panglong Agreement, which promised internal autonomy to these “frontier” groups.
However, elections in vast swathes of Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Shan states, and Bajo region, have been cancelled as last month’s peace deal that President Thein Sein signed with eight of 15 armed groups has failed to end the conflicts in these regions. The outliers include the two biggies, the Kachin Independence Army, and the United Wa State Army in Shan state bordering China.
How the Army takes the results, especially if the NLD wins a landslide victory, will be crucial, especially as government formation has to wait until five months after the results. Under Myanmar’s constitution, the President is elected by the new Hlluthaw, or Parliament. That election will take place next March. The wait is long, and could prove problematic.
Earlier this week, President Thein Sein, who is from the USDP but is not supposed to campaign in the election on any side, said in a radio address that the election is “proof that Burmese society and its citizens deserve democracy and that we are ready to give momentum to change”.
But sceptics are pointing to a video posting on his Facebook containing footage of peaceful scenes from Myanmar and violent Arab Spring pictures and fighting from the Middle East, with the message that “only when peace prevails will democratisation be implemented”. Thein Sein also made a detailed speech on the subject during a visit to his native village.
“Our government is changing to a new one. It is a very dangerous task. [M]any Arab and Muslim countries are transforming into democracies at the same time as us [but they] cannot change to democracy till now and face bloodshed every day. You can see them if you have TV. Isn’t it true? Every single day, there are bombings or mine blasts. Planes are bombing from above on daily basis. The country is in ruin. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing [for their lives]. …However we are taking cautious steps towards democracy; as a result, there is no bloodshed in the country. About the ‘change’ and ‘Time to change’ [NLD’s catchline]. In fact, we have already changed while changing to democracy. We only need to try to maintain the democracy and continue. We have already changed from military government to democratic government. What change there is left? There is nothing left except changing to communism. Want to change to communism? No one wants it, right?” (from http://www.elevenmyanmar.com)
Certainly, it suits most countries, including India with its security concerns in the Northeast, if Suu Kyi and the military could rule together, in the same way that the US and the British tried to make General Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto share power in Pakistan back in 2007 — the Army for stability, and the popular politician to give it a democratic face.
The Myanmar Parliament, Hlluthaw, consists of a House of Representatives and a House of Nationalities, with 440 and 224 seats respectively. Votes will be cast for three-quarters of the total 664 seats: 330 in the Representatives, 168 in the Nationalities. The remaining 25% (66 seats) is reserved for unelected military representatives, who have a veto over change in the Constitution.
Over 6,000, from 91 registered parties. In 1990, NLD won 392 of 492 seats available; in the 2012 byelections, held mainly in areas that the NLD dominates, 43 of the 45 seats that were open.
Official announcement could take days or weeks. Preliminary results could be declared on November 10.
Elected members of each House will choose their own candidate, and the unelected members will choose theirs. These three candidates will then be voted upon by the entire Hlluthaw in joint session. The winner will become President; the two losers Vice-Presidents.