Democracy in Myanmar?

On 8 November, millions of citizens of Myanmar flocked to the polls in the country’s first democratic elections. Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) faced incumbent president Thein Sein, head of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the party of Myanmar’s military junta which ruled the country since a 1962 coup. Daw Suu Kyi (Daw is a Burmese honorific meaning Aunt) won in a landslide, gaining an absolute majority in both houses of the parliament.

Image courtesy of East Asia and Pacific Media Hub U.S. Department of State, public domain.

Image courtesy of East Asia and Pacific Media Hub U.S. Department of State, public domain.

But change in Myanmar seems to come slowly. While these elections are a huge step forward, many have argued that the elections are only a minor step forward; the wife of one dissident argued that this government ‘is about ten percent better than the last one.’ So after these elections, what has really changed?

Myanmar’s New Parliament

Myanmar’s parliament certainly gives the appearance of change. Myanmar has a bicameral parliament, consisting of the upper house (the House of Nationalities, or Amyotha Hluttaw) and the lower house (the House of Representatives, or Plyithu Hluttaw). 25 per cent of the seats in both of these houses are reserved for members of Myanmar’s military services, a reminder of the slow pace of Myanmar’s transition to democracy. The head of Myanmar’s government is the president, who is elected by the parliament. There are also regional Hluttaws for all of Myanmar’s administrative divisions.

The provisional election results were overwhelmingly in favour of the NLD. It captured 330 (of 440) seats in the lower house, and 168 (out of 224). This gives the NLD an absolute majority in both houses. The USDP also captured a few seats, but the majority of military influence in the legislative process will come entirely from the 25 per cent of seats allotted to it by the constitution.

The other remaining question is who will become president. Aung San Suu Kyi is the undisputed head of the NLD; her domestic support, and as a winner of a Nobel Peace Prize her international recognition is peerless. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has already sent his personal congratulation to Daw Suu Kyi, telling her that the election results are ‘a reflection of the people’s confidence that you will be able to help them fulfil their hopes and aspirations.’ However, she is barred from personally assuming the office. The 2008 Constitution of Myanmar bars anyone from becoming president if their spouse or children have foreign citizenship; Daw Suu Kyi’s children and late-husband had British passports, and the clause was widely perceived to be directly targeted at her.

Unless the clause is amended—which is unlikely, given that it would require support from members of the military establishment—Daw Suu Kyi cannot herself run for the presidency. But she has said that she will retain control over the NLD, possibly from the position of Speaker of the House. So while a new president will be chosen in February 2016, the reins of power will likely remain with Daw Suu Kyi.

Concerns with the Elections

There were a number of concerns which hamper the legitimacy of the elections. Firstly, voter registration roles were comically incorrect. The NLD estimated that 30-80 per cent of the election rolls were incorrect. For instance, many deceased people are still listed as registered voters. Even an NLD MP, U Kyaw, noted that his name was missing from the list, saying ‘If even MPs are missing from the lists, then I doubt that ordinary residents are included.’ Though the impetus was put on voters to correct the lists (there was a consulting window in which the public was allowed to examine and attempt to correct voter lists), the bureaucratic difficulties were immense. The necessary forms were in short supply, and could often be only turned in to offices which required several days of travel. These voter registration problems created a general attitude of disillusionment with regards to the elections.

Problems with voter rolls were amplified by drastic malapportionment problems in Myanmar. Elections to the lower house are based on township, not on population. According to The Irrawaddy, the ratio of voters in the largest township to those in the smallest township is 397:1. The huge mismatch means that some votes count less than others. Moreover, elections are much cheaper to run in the smallest constituencies. This dramatic malapportionment of seats also casts a pall over the proceedings of the elections.

But most significantly, there is a severe disenfranchisement of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Myanmar’s majority Burmese ethnic group is only 68 per cent of the country’s population. Other ethnicities tend to be concentrated in the periphery of the country; in many of these conflict-prone states, the threat of violence was sufficiently high that elections could not be administered, meaning that the vote of several minorities was not heard. More directly, the Rohingya minority, located in Rakhine State, has never even been accepted as citizens of Myanmar. The government refers to them as Bengals, so unsurprisingly they were systematically disenfranchised. In total, one can estimate that several million minorities were unable to vote, meaning the election results are not totally representative of the population of Myanmar.

Going Forward

While it appears that change is on the horizon for Myanmar, there is certainly no shortages of challenges going forwards, both for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, and the country as a whole. Chiefly, the military still plays a disproportionate role in Myanmar’s politics. Its unelected representatives control 25 per cent of parliament. The military also controls security services and the judiciary; the ministers for defence, home affairs, and border affairs are selected by the head of the army rather than the president. Though democratic elections are a huge step forward, democracy in Myanmar has a long way to go.

Moreover, the NLD faces the problem of its own success. NLD candidates were successful all over the country, including in the ethnically diverse border areas, in many of which the security situation remains precarious. The NLD, which is primarily associated with the majority Burmese ethnic group, booted out many of the local parties which represented ethnic groups. This means that many of the concerns of the ethnic groups may go unrepresented in parliament. While this is no sure sign that the ethnic periphery of Myanmar may once again erupt in ethnic conflict, it may be a confounding factor.

Myanmar’s 8 November elections are a step forwards, with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD being democratically elected into office. However, the election was far from unproblematic, with bad voter rolls, huge malapportionment issues, and underrepresentation of ethnic groups. Furthermore, the problems facing the new administration will likely prove challenging for many years to come. But change has always come slowly in Myanmar, and there is every chance that gradual change may continue to push Myanmar along the road to democracy.