Looking East

Myanmar: Democracy in Brakes

06 Apr, 2015    ·   4856

Wasbir Hussain presents a reading of the political climate in the country

Wasbir Hussain
Wasbir Hussain
Visiting Fellow

Signals emanating from Myanmar indicate the country’s semi-civilian government is pursuing democracy with the brakes on. The brutal crackdown of a student protest by the authorities in early March has once again brought the spotlight back on a nation that was under military rule for 49 years until 2011. Apart from sowing seeds of doubt among the citizens about the possibility of actually experiencing a democratic free spirit in the days ahead, Naypyidaw’s decision to put down the student movement against the National Education Bill has upset donor countries and human rights groups across the world.

The student protestors, led primarily by the All Burma Federation of Students’ Unions (ABSFU), have a set of 11 main demands that include the right to establish student unions at their institutions, freedom to study the country’s ethnic languages and greater funding for education. The National Education Bill passed by Parliament in September 2014 prohibits student politics by not allowing the formation of students unions. On 10 March, the police used brutal force to break a protest by students and monks in the city of Letpadan, some 140 km north of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial hub.

The government’s action on the students may have been disheartening for Western countries that have supported Myanmar’s rather reluctant march to democracy, but many would think four years on the slippery road to a democratic form of governance is a bit too early to give a verdict on the intentions of the people at the helm of affairs, which includes the military. The biggest irony in the whole story is the near silence of the country’s best-known symbol of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD had in fact backed the controversial educational bill last year.

If Ms Suu Kyi has refrained from demonstrating her sympathy for the students’ protest, except for urging all sides to keep away from violence, she has also not bothered to lend her voice against human rights violations by the country’s government. It is not difficult to see through Ms Suu Kyi’s game-plan as she and her party is seeking the support of the government in revising Myanmar’s constitution which currently bars her from running for president. The military-drafted constitution has a clause preventing anyone with a spouse or children of foreign citizenship from becoming president. The daughter of independence hero General Aung San, Ms Suu Kyi’s sons are British nationals. She and her sons, of course, have a huge following in Myanmar. 

Despite the ban on Ms Suu Kyi from becoming president, the NLD is planning to contest the national elections later this year. If this is the case, backing the students in their genuine demand for more freedom in matters relating to affairs at educational institutions would have been a good strategy for Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD to adopt. After all, the role of students as a moral and political force is rooted in the 1920s and 1930s when Ms Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San was at the forefront of a movement that sought autonomy for universities and the right to set up student unions. The democracy movement that Myanmar witnessed subsequently has its roots in this students’ stir.

Ms Suu Kyi’s silence on the students’ protest may have anguished her supporters as of now, but they know she is Myanmar’s best bet to usher in true democracy, and are expected to rally around her in any case. The NLD, too, is aware of this fact and have therefore taken the decision to contest the elections. Ms Suu Kyi and her colleagues seem to be convinced that if the NLD were to win the polls, it would give them greater power and authority in parliament to bring about further amendments to the junta-drafted constitution and do away with the controversial clause that bars her from becoming president.

The current semi-civilian establishment in Naypyidaw, too, would obviously want the opposition NLD to contest the national elections later this year because without that the polls would look like a sham electoral exercise in the eyes of the international community. That may hurt Myanmar’s interest in view of the liberal aid now pouring in for the country’s development after years of sanction against the brutal military regime. Moreover, this would be the first election under the country's new democratic system, and as such is very significant. In March, therefore, Myanmar President Thein Sein met Ms Suu Kyi for the fifth time since the Nobel laureate's release from house arrest in 2010. Presidential spokesman and information minister Ye Htut said, “It was a one-on-one meeting and they discussed matters concerning constitutional amendments and holding a free and fair general election.”

The latest crackdown on the students reminded everyone of the 1988 student uprising in the country that was quashed by the government, with hundreds killed and imprisoned. The crisis drew international attention on Myanmar’s struggle for democracy and freedom from a brutal military-led dictatorship. That was supposed to have been history when in 2011 Myanmar’s generals stepped down, and the government began a process of reforms, with the backing of the US. The impact of this transition has been felt on the economy that is fast evolving, but the country’s road to democracy has been rocky to say the least.

The US has built its case for extending liberal aid to Myanmar keeping in view the aspirations of the Burmese people. The US has been saying it is providing assistance to deepen and accelerate Myanmar’s political, economic, and social transition; promote and strengthen respect for human rights; deliver the benefits of reform to the country’s people; and support the development of a stable society that reflects the diversity of its people. Total US assistance to Myanmar between 2012 and mid-2014 is estimated at US$ 202,185,000. But, contrary to expectations, national reconciliation is not happening and the road has been thorny. There has been fighting recently between ethnic Kokang rebels and the Myanmar army in north eastern Shan state that sent thousands of refugees fleeing across the border into China.

India’s stakes in Myanmar, too, are heavy. As the world’s largest democracy, India is expected to aid Myanmar in consolidating its transformation into a true democracy. If it succeeds in doing so, New Delhi will not only have a democratic neighbour, but will have managed to wean Myanmar away considerably from the grip of the Chinese. The attempt by the Narendra Modi government to raise the bar on India-Myanmar relations is a good effort in this direction. Myanmar is already showing signs that it could actually be against becoming a strategic pawn of China. New Delhi’s strength lies in the fact that while recognising and backing Ms Suu Kyi in her struggle for democracy, it maintained more than cordial relations with Myanmar’s military establishment. What is needed is consolidation of the ties, demonstrated by Prime Minister Modi’s November 2014 visit and talks with Myanmar’s leaders, and, of course, a continuous nudge not just to march along but value the true ideals of democracy.