Myanmar's quest for democracy | The World Weekly
Why elections are unlikely to change Myanmar
The elections that took place in Burma/Myanmar on Sunday were the first ‘free’ electoral competition to be held since 1990 and the first whose results, apparently, are being respected since the military took power in 1962. The event has attracted the world’s attention, driven by a battalion of journalists gathered to cover “Burma’s transition to democracy”.
But will it really be so? Many people in Yangon would probably shake their heads and to understand why, one needs to go no further than the current constitution. Drafted by the former military junta in 2008, it gifts the armed forces with sweeping powers and makes it basically impossible for any elected parliament to take them away.
Chapter four entitles the military to retain 25 percent of the seats in parliament. As a majority of 75 percent of votes is needed to modify the constitution, this means that the armed forces enjoy de facto veto power over amendments.
They are not shy when it comes to using it. On June 25, only months before the vote, the parliament was summoned to vote on a draft law that would have reduced the majority required to pass a reform. Ironically, a proposal to amend their de facto veto right was de facto vetoed by the military.
“The military designed the Constitution to allow for an NLD government but limiting the power of the government, so it is not a threat to military control,” wrote Mark Farmaner, the Director Burma Campaign UK, in an email statement to Asian Correspondent. “The elections cannot pave the way for constitutional reform. The Constitution is specifically designed to prevent that,” he argued.
The armed forces also have the right to choose the minister of home affairs, border affairs and defence, while chapter 13 states: “If there arises a state of emergency that could cause disintegration of the Union, disintegration of national solidarity and loss of sovereign power or attempts therefore by wrongful forcible means such as insurgency or violence, the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services has the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power in accord with the provisions of this Constitution.”
This clause allows the military to get complete control over the State machine if a crisis takes place – or, some may say, to stage a ‘constitutional coup d’état.’
“The Constitution is fundamentally flawed, from the very start,” says David Mathieson, an analyst with Human Rights Watch. “The Commander in Chief could just walk into the President’s office and say: look, we have a serious crisis, we have to take over.”
It is also worth remembering that Myanmar is plagued with conflicts that involve “insurgency or violence,” something that would make it easy to use such privilege.
As this article is being written, bitter clashes are taking place in Shan State, where an army offensive that began in early October has left over 6,000 people displaced. It is not even clear why the fighting is going on in the first place: some say it is a tactic to punish the Shan State Army – North (SSA-N) for not signing a national ceasefire, others argue that strategic reasons are at play.
Then, of course, there is section 59 (f), according to which the president “shall he himself, one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power, not be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country.”
The provision may seem general enough, but as it happens only one major political figure fits that description: it is Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading opposition politician who would be widely expected to get the presidential post, were it not for the constitutional text.
This peculiar provision has come under scrutiny recently. On November 5, Suu Kyi held a press conference and told her audience that if her National League for Democracy (NLD) wins, she will be “above the president”, as “the Constitution says nothing about someone being above the president.”
Such a statement, if taken as a serious policy line, could herald a serious conflict in the future parliament. Or maybe even outside it.
According to Mr. Farmaner, “Aung San Suu Kyi running the government is not something that they [the armed forces] are willing to accept, which is why they put clauses in the Constitution to block her being President. If she is too overt in exercising her unofficial power the military could object she is violating the Constitution, and this could cause problems in the future.”
Aung San Suu Kyi says 'It's not finished yet'
As Myanmar's ongoing vote count pointed to a landslide victory for the opposition National League for Democracy, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi told RFA's Myanmar Service in an interview on Wednesday that victory in the Nov. 8 national elections marked only the first step toward the goals of her supporters. The 70-year-old Nobel laureate told RFA's Khin Maung Soe that popular suspicion that the country's dominant military would refuse to honor the results were understandable, but that she believed that the nation "cannot be caught in the bond of suspicion."
RFA: How free and fair do you think the elections were?
Aung San Suu Kyi: We have made many complaints regarding violations. We made these complaints not because we want to stir up problems. Our people need to believe that these elections are really free and fair. And that’s why we had to submit official complaints against actions which are not in accord with the rules and regulations. Some cases have to be reported to the police, some to the electoral commission. And we cannot say such cases are very few.
RFA: How are you going to solve the problem of advance votes that came in after the polling stations closed?
Aung San Suu Kyi: These are not in accord with the rules and regulations. The rules are very clear. Advance votes within the country cannot be brought in after the 6 a.m. opening of the polling booths. And advance votes from overseas cannot come in later than 4 p.m.
RFA: Some USDP candidates conceded defeat and congratulated their respective NLD rivals who won the polls. What do you think of that?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Those kinds of actions are politically honorable and I respect these actions. I’d like to say I truly thank them.
RFA: NLD won the majority of seats they contended. What factors do you think make it possible to win in such a big margin?
Aung San Suu Kyi: That’s because the NLD is close to the people. The NLD was born of the people, and NLD members are from the people. We cannot be differentiated from them. Our hearts beat on the same note. We struggled together, we suffered together, and we had hopes together. We dreamed together for nearly 30 years. The NLD and the people are colleagues, comrades-in-arms. I think that’s the reason they supported us.
RFA: What are your feelings at this winning moment?
Aung San Suu Kyi: We do not definitely have a winning moment yet. I don’t see it that NLD has won the elections yet. It’s because of people’s qualities. Political awareness of the people is very heartening. I respect them, love them. I can see that the goal people wanted is still far ahead and this is only the first step. Only after reaching there I might be able to tell you my feelings. There are so many things to be done. Right now, I’m thinking only what I should do.
RFA: Some people are still suspicious of the military. They are not sure the military will totally honor the results. Can you comment on this?
Aung San Suu Kyi: It’s natural they have suspicions. But we cannot be caught in the bond of suspicion. We have to carry out what we should be doing with a firm determination and everyone is expecting these tasks to be done in proper manner. A people’s army should be hand in glove with the people. Military representatives in the Hluttaw (parliament) have told me more than once that they also want to be with the people.
RFA: You have requested to meet the president, commander in chief and the lower house speaker. Do you mean meeting them individually or together?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I can meet then individually or I can meet them together. I will meet whoever accepted my request.
RFA: People have accepted your slogan "time for real change". What are you going to do in the first place?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Well, the first thing is to bring about a change of administration. This will be carrying out the main task of the election result in respect to the people’s wishes. This will be the first major change.
RFA: How many educated people will you have in the government?
Aung San Suu Kyi: What do you mean by "educated?" We must contemplate what the meaning of being "educated" is. Some people think a person with plenty of degrees is an educated one. But I believe a person who can judge a situation correctly and make timely decisions is more important. It’s not that we must not value these graduates. I myself value them and respect them. We have only about four percent of the people in our country who are (college) graduates. So can we not value the majority? No, we must. If we just value the graduates, then does that mean our people are not valuable? I don’t believe that. What is important is we need right people in right positions.
RFA: People are left with three legacies since the military takeover in 1962: selfishness, mistrust of others and fear of everyone. Because of fear, people dare not go into the public and they lose their self-esteem. So what will you do to get rid of these three?
Aung San Suu Kyi: You said selfishness first, and then mistrust and fear. Actually, it is the other way round. It starts with fear. When fear sets in, you don’t trust others and when you don’t trust anyone then you become selfish. I cannot trust anyone, I must do it myself, and I cannot depend on anyone. What you said was the opposite of that. To abolish fear correctly is to nurture law and order. I have said this again and again. People need security of the mind. Why do they want democracy? Because it can give them freedom and security in a balanced way. People must have freedom and at the same time they must have security. They must not be using freedom to fight with each other. When they have security of the mind, their fears will subside, and their mistrust of others will also decline. There will be no need to worry that somebody will be looking at you with jealousy. They won't have to worry that someone will report some lies to their superiors and get them into trouble. This fear of being unjustly punished would disappear and I believe confidence and trust will mount and people will have more love and respect towards one another.
RFA: I notice you always care about young people. What do you think of young people in our country smoking and using drugs and the entire population physically stunted due to malnutrition? What will you do to bring them back to be physically on par with others?
Aung San Suu Kyi: This has something to do with the economy. I’ve always said that the most important thing is job creation. Jobs will earn them money and build self-confidence. Jobless people will have no self-confidence. And they feel they are worthless because when you don’t have a job you have to rely on someone. After so many years of malnutrition the bodies of our young are stunted. There’s a certain age when your height stops growing and you cannot change that. This sort of body growth cannot be fixed. But there are many things that can be changed. You might have a small body structure but there are opportunities to make yourself very fit and healthy. So we’ll have to work hard in many aspects. The problem of young people smoking and drinking is not a problem only for our country; It’s happening in many countries. But with regard to drug abuse, effective deterrents should be laid down to stop the problem. Young people drift away from society because, in many cases, they have no hope or goals. So, hope will have to be given to the young. The participation of young people in this week’s elections was so terrific, so admirable. They have objectives and goals like winning the elections. Because they have aims and goals to bring out their desires rightfully, our youth worked so hard to such an unbelievable extent.
RFA: When will the changes become noticeable?
Aung San Suu Kyi: First we must be able to form a government. After that, we’d have to lay out, as a duty, in front of the people what we will do during a certain time frame. The NLD has such plans to carry out. Not vague statements like we’ll give you a better economy or a better health sector. It has to be clear and precise. But we will need to become a government first.
RFA: What will you do to form a government then?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Well, we just can’t do it ourselves. The present government will have to cooperate. The Union Electoral Commission must finish its work first.
RFA: Can you explain about foreign investment and utilization of natural resources?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Of course we need foreign investment and at the same time we have to use the natural resources to a certain extent. There will be projects where we need foreign investment. The important thing is for our people to enjoy some of the benefits. Foreign investors will not come and do things without any returns for themselves. And we don’t expect them to come work for us free. But the local population should benefit rightfully. The locals should benefit just a little more than the companies.
RFA: Can you tell us about foreign policy?
Aung San Suu Kyi: The non-aligned policy which had been in practice since independence has been very successful. Not joining any groups. We played well with our neighbors India as well as the People’s Republic of China. We had good ties with other SE Asian nations too. We had no animosity towards anyone.
Myanmar’s elections have raised some uncomfortable questions for China’s ruling communist party on the country’s tightly controlled social media platforms, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. Sun Liping, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University was among the first to question the official line that Western-style democracy was simply not appropriate for China at its current level of development. “Actually, democracy is a normal way for a normal society to behave,” he posted on the Sina Weibo microblogging service, according to Washington-based Radio Free Asia. “It’s a way of life that allows for human nature. Just because grown-ups told kids in the past not to talk and eat at the same time, doesn’t mean that talking and eating are incompatible.” The post was retweeted more than 2,000 times in a few minutes, Radio Free Asia reported, and prompted a lively debate between supporters and opponents of one-party rule - itself unusual on China’s increasingly heavily censored social media. “They voted one by one,” wrote lawyer Li Fangping, in another widely retweeted post in reference to Sunday’s vote. “You can see they are smiling. Do Burmese qualify better than the Chinese? As we all know, Burma’s GDP, middle class, literacy rate and transportation facilities are all worse than China.” Another Weibo user sarcastically remarked that yet another country “had stepped on the ‘evil’ path of freedom, democracy and happiness”. Some of that debate can still be seen online, although Professor Sun’s original post seems to have vanished, while searches for Burma have now been blocked by Sina Weibo.
RFA: What have you in mind about the release of detained students and political prisoners?
Aung San Suu Kyi: We would have to work within the bounds of the law. There should be no political prisoners in a democratic country.
RFA: What about laws restricting freedoms?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Laws restricting freedoms like Article 5, Article 10, etc must be changed. We will have to change these kinds of laws. We tried to do that in the Hluttaw but we didn’t succeed as we were a minority.
The NLD-led new government needs to make a clean break from the previous Burmese government's poor rights record.” - Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division
RFA: I want you to say something for the people in this interview after the elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi: I would just like to thank all the people. I am encouraged, and I appreciate and value the support of the people. But it’s not finished yet and I’d like to caution all to look out for instigation. In the next few weeks, couple of months, people must be able to control themselves, beware of instigation aimed at creating riots and disturbances. There might be provocations from the sidelines when you are walking your own path but these can be overcome by trust and understanding of each other and it is important to calmly move towards the goal. And I believe you all can do it. In one word, thank you all very much.