On April 1, 2012, Burma had its second election in less than two years.
Numerically, the by-election result was substantially insignificant compared to
the general election conducted on November 7, 2010. The by-election was held in
45 parliamentary constituencies, vacated by members of parliament who assumed
different ministerial positions in the government.
The National League
for Democracy (NLD) secured an overwhelming victory, winning 43 out of the 44
parliamentary seats it contested, which is over 95 percent of the total 45
available seats. Although in a lesser number of constituencies, the NLD
performed better than the 1990 general election in which it won over 80%. The
military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) secured only one
seat, in a constituency where the NLD candidate was disqualified.
have been high hopes and optimism about the progress of democratization. The
by-election was significant for several reasons.
Firstly, the NLD, which
boycotted the 2010 general election, participated in the electoral process.
Secondly, the election itself was one important benchmark for the Western
nations to review their sanctions policy.
Thirdly, the Burmese government
wanted to improve its legitimacy and credibility.
If one looks at the
poll result, it is undoubtedly an absolute victory for the NLD party. Does that
mean a political defeat for USDP and the military? What does the USDP-led
government gain from the election? The more interesting question is
understanding which direction the Burmese politics is headed in.
recent years, the Burmese government’s political objective has been to convince
the international community to believe in its sevenstep road map toward
The government’s goal was to achieve its objective without
sacrificing the dominant role of military in politics.
While the Western
sanctions played important role in pressuring the Burmese government toward
democratic reforms, the authoritarian regime came under immense pressure
following the “Arab Spring,” especially in Egypt and Libya in 2011, where mass
uprising successfully forced the demise of two powerful dictatorial
The top leadership in the Burmese military hierarchy was also
gravely concerned about the possibility of instituting an international
commission of inquiry into suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity,
which was recommended by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights
in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, in 2010, and supported by the United States and
15 other nations.
The government’s desire to chair the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was one other important reason why the military
leadership forced itself to improve in the areas of human rights and other
democratic reforms. All these political developments happened after the 2008
constitution was ratified in a referendum, which entrenched the military as the
IT IS important to understand that the by-election result
is also the success of the military’s carefully orchestrated political strategy.
The NLD’s participation in the by-election means that the party has officially
abandoned its long-time fundamental demand for the recognition of the 1990
general election result. By participating in the election, the NLD has also
boosted the military’s attempts to legitimize its power.
Some may call
this a political compromise.
With just over 6% of parliamentary seats,
the NLD falls far short of making a significant impact on balance of power in
the parliament. However, the NLD can utilize its presence in the parliament as a
foundation to prepare for the next general election.
Currently, both the
parliament and the government are indirectly controlled by the military through
the country’s constitution, which automatically reserves 25% of parliamentary
seats for the military without any election.
Moreover, for any
constitutional amendment, the approval of more than 75% of parliamentary votes
is required. One major challenge to democratic values is the provision that
empowers the military to assume power at times of national emergency. It is
unclear as to whether the military would abuse its constitutionally guaranteed
power to suppress the voice of the opposition.
With the NLD’s
overwhelming electoral victory, the Western nations would feel obligated to
review their sanctions policy. In light of the ongoing developments, the Western
governments will gradually ease and eventually lift sanctions, provided the
current pattern of reforms continues.
Foreign policy change has begun
with the United States, one of Burma’s long-time fiercest critics, announcement
of easing some restrictions on investments and the nomination of Derek J.
Mitchell, Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, as its new
A major political debate will evolve in the parliament on
several key issues, including the principles of the 2008 constitution. The NLD
and other like-minded parties will be vocal about the necessity to amend some
basic principles of the constitution.
However, many in the USDP and the
military leadership will be hesitant to compromise on the subject, at least in
the near future.
The pace of democratization process still largely
remains in the hands of the military. Currently, one of the biggest lingering
concerns for the former military generals is their own security. There is a
chance of political reconciliation in the coming years if the military is
convinced that a civilian government would not initiate punitive actions to
revenge the past actions of successive military regimes.
importantly, the success of the ongoing democratic reforms would greatly depend
on the progress of government’s peace initiatives with the country’s ethnic
minorities. Cease-fire agreements with armed groups by themselves are
inconclusive. Some sort of political autonomy is essential to establish mutual
trust between the central government and ethnic minority groups. The provisions
of such political arrangement must be guaranteed in the constitution, by
identifying state and union subjects.
While restoring ties with the
Burmese government, the international community must understand the root of
Burma’s decades-old conflicts.
It is neither the confrontation between
the military and the NLD, nor a power struggle between retired General Than Shwe
and Aung San Suu Kyi. It is because of lack of mutual trust and denial of
equality of rights to all citizens.
Both Prime Minister Thein Sein’s
government and the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi must continue to take
steps to address the root cause of the country’s myriad
Simultaneously, the ethnic minorities must demonstrate
sincerity and seriousness to the process, while not surrendering its core demand
for autonomy and equality of rights.
reconciliation with ethnic minorities will not bring lasting peace and stability
The writer is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts
in modern Burma/Myanmar and general secretary of the US-based Kuki International
Forum. He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and non-academic
analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely
published in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and North