Myanmar’s new democracy and the rot within
This past Wednesday was a momentous time for Myanmar, in which its first elected civilian president in 50 years was sworn in. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won last November’s historic election that has now allowed it to select a president over the ruling military junta. Myanmar has lived the past five decades under military rulers who have devoted the majority of the country’s income in keeping the military loyal, while accumulating private fortunes. In theory, the results of the election are supposed to bring the beginning of sustainable democracy building, but thus far it has proven to have severe limitations in that field.
Part of the problem rests with the election itself, in that the person the majority of people wished to see as president, Aung San Suu Kyi, is legally barred from holding the position. A law was put in place by the military pre-election to prevent anyone who has an immediate family member that holds foreign citizenship from becoming president. This has been viewed by many as a shot at Suu Kyi since her sons hold British citizenship.
That didn’t stop citizens of Myanmar from voting for Suu Kyi’s NLD party in November however. The voters overwhelmingly chose the NLD because they felt Suu Kyi would hold the strings of power after she publicly stated she would “be above the president” and “make all the decisions”.
There are two key issues with this theory though. First, the military, regardless of the immense support for the NLD, is guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary positions which means it can veto any constitutional changes proposed by the new democratically elected government. The second issue is Suu Kyi staying true to her statement of “being above the president”, in that she chose Htin Kyaw as the president for the country due to his supposedly high loyalty to her. Ironically this is exactly how the military has run the country for the past 50 years. This isn’t to say that Suu Kyi shouldn’t be handpicking the president or other officials for that matter, since the voters did in fact wish for this, but basing these selections on loyalty is a slippery-slope to an authoritarian government.
The new government is just one part of the democracy building process though. Another ‘elephant in the room’ resides with the Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar’s government has long disputed the Rohingya people’s status as citizens of the country. Think of it like illegal immigrants in the United States, except in the case of the Rohingya, they have been living in the territory for generations, many before Myanmar was even a country.
In this past election, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had their names removed from the voter list, and any formal identification was taken away from them. This effectively rendered them stateless and worse yet victims of violence, discrimination and resettlement into camps or other countries. Unfortunately there is little appetite within Myanmar to solve the issue, as the majority of its population is Buddhist and reject the Rohingya entirely. This doesn’t look to change anytime soon either. Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize by the way, has been slow to condemn the violence and many question if she will be any better for the Rohingya than the military run regime was.
Based on the recent actions by international actors, it is doubtful the international community will do much to pressure the NLD to improve the situation for the Rohingya either. In 2012, the World Bank began reinstituting aid to Myanmar, and in 2013 the European Union lifted almost all sanctions against the country except an arms embargo. The U.S. has also eased restrictions on investment in Myanmar to all but entities tied to the military.
Despite the 2005 agreement which designates that the United Nations Security Council is prepared to take action under the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ if a government either lacks the capability or desire to protect its populations, the Security Council has remained silent on the Rohingya. Support for the new government will likely increase around the world to keep the democracy building flowing, but it’s hard to imagine a true democratic society in Myanmar while crimes comparable to genocide are occurring within its own borders, and seemingly nobody wants to end it.