Diverse but isolated – Myanmar heads for new elections

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    Myanmar goes to important polls on November 8, this year. This kite-shaped country is set within an arc of mountains and the sea, and in this natural geographic isolation, the people are by instinct loners, and xenophobia under Ne Win’s autocracy was popular. While 85 per cent of the people are Buddhist, the tribes in the mountains are majority Christian or animist. The Chins for instance are 90 percent Christian and the Shans more Thai than Burmese. The Rakhine region adjacent to Bangladesh is mainly Muslim, and pre-Buddhist animism exists throughout. In this cultural diversity, the Burmans take their dominance for granted, and are resented by ethnic minorities.

    Myanmar’s chequered history is an inadequate basis for modern nationhood: from 1948 to 1962 there was inefficient parliamentary democracy under U Nu, followed by 50 years of military rule from 1962 to 2012. Despite spectacular natural endowments, the best rice in the world, most minerals and precious stones, fisheries, forests and energy, it became the sixth poorest nation. The 1990 elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic opposition were annulled, and in 2010 the military- backed party won 80 per cent of the seats plus 25 per cent reserved for serving officers.

    In 2012, far-reaching changes took place. President Thein Sein was inclined to accommodate the Opposition, Suu Kyi was released from detention, elected and became leader of the Opposition. Political parties multiplied, thousands of political prisoners were released. The Myitsone dam project was suspended in line with the previously unheard of ‘wishes of the people’, and 21 separate rebellions were reduced to a couple with an uneasy truce in all but the Kachin and Shan states. Foreign leaders visited Myanmar, and the president and Suu Kyi travel abroad freely. Myanmar now has perhaps the freest print media in all of southeast Asia. Foreign investment started, and capitalism flourishes with inequality and corruption and Chinese profiteers everywhere.

    Two parallel negotiations have taken place; between the Centre and the ethnic minorities on autonomy, though with a lack of definition of a federal State and the unlikelihood of genuine autonomy. There were also negotiations for constitutional reform that produced only minor amendments. Suu Kyi is disqualified from the presidency, and relations between major personalities, especially Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, have deteriorated.

    The minorities are restive and the ceasefires may not hold. Fighting in Kokang in Northern Shan state is led by Kyar Shin, an octogenarian warlord based in China whose motive is financial rather than political, and there are atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan. To Burmese Buddhists, the Rohingyas are Bangladeshi dark-skinned Muslim imports during the raj, though there were dark Muslims there even before 1784 and had lived peacefully for 200 years. Communal violence in Mandalay and Meiktila in central Burma is stirred up by fundamentalist Buddhists – an apparent contradiction in terms, but who exist nonetheless.

    Real power is with the military, and pro-democracy parliamentarians are a small minority. The burden of expectations on Suu Kyi is great, and the pressure on Thein Sein enormous from the military fearful of losing power. Suu Kyi, in not attacking the Army, has been accused of making herself “irrelevant” and the London Times asked, “saint or sell-out?” Suu Kyi has never been confrontational by nature, and not the all-or-nothing human rights activist admired by Amnesty International. She is not an icon but a politician, and knows that without a special role, the army will retain power and the world could not change that. It remains hard to see how the army can deliver democracy or Suu Kyi settle for less.

    Historically, Myanmar has been overshadowed by China, which remains the unofficial patron of the military regime. Although 153 Chinese were sentenced last July to life in Kachin State for illegal logging and the Chinese, who control the distributive trade throughout Northern Myanmar, are hugely unpopular, China will always be the major foreign influence in politics, economics and the people’s minds. This influence cannot be superseded by India, the United States or any other nation.

    The army generals endorsed reform to preserve their position, not to undermine it. The situation of the people is incomparably better than it was five years ago but no further breakthrough is likely. In the forthcoming elections, the army will see further proof of their unpopularity, and some minorities may be tempted to go back to rebellion. Suu Kyi’s party may be unable to form a government and it is the president who will lead the country. Thein Sein may not stand again, and Shwe Mann, recently ousted as chairman of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, whom Suu Kyi has called an “ally”, may be a compromise choice as president since he is a neutral figure and a former speaker. In such a scenario, Suu Kyi could get the post of speaker.

    The name of the senior general, Min Aung Hlaing, has lately cropped up as a potential president. In a rare interview, he declared that the military will not step aside from politics until a peace deal is reached with all the country’s ethnic armed groups, but will respect the results of the forthcoming general election even if Suu Kyi’s party wins. The clear message was that there would be no repeat of 1990 when the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory was annulled. The powerful, 59-year-old Aung Hlaing has control over how and where the army wages war, and an extensive political outreach. He has the right to appoint ministers, choose a quarter of the MPs in parliament and the ability to block any attempt to erode the army’s power.

    The general is not a recluse. Like others in the country’s leadership, his aides actively curate a Facebook page, with more than 220,000 ‘likes’, and provides updates ranging from which aircraft have been purchased to social projects he has visited. “If the people get the right information about the army they will understand us,” he claims, “They’ll see the military is defending the interests of the people and implementing the interests of the people and defending them against threats to the country.” As long as political parties played by the rules of Myanmar’s ‘disciplined democracy’ the carefully limited space for debate and political activity would remain, but there is no sign that he wants to reduce the military’s grip on Burmese political life and hand over to civilians. That will be the case until ceasefires and peace deals have been concluded with all Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups. “It could be five years or 10 years – I couldn’t say,” he said. “I believe the election will be free and fair. That is our true wish. We are committed to helping make that happen. When the election commission announces the result we have to respect it. Because it will have been democratically done.”

    Min Aung Hlaing has said he was planning to retire when he turns 60 next year. He is a possible president, with a quarter of the parliament’s seats under his control and, if he so desires, a bye to the final three candidates and a guaranteed post at least as vice-president. Whether he is then voted into the presidency will depend on the makeup of the chamber because in addition to the nominated military bloc he will need the support of some of the freely elected MPs. That may prove a big task, and if the NLD falls short of a majority, it is possible that Thein Sein would be better positioned to reach out to ethnic parties and secure a second term. With the multitude of dark horses, the race for Myanmar’s top job seems wide open.

    Source: The Telegraph