By Lauren Lam
For the presidential candidates here in the United States, all that is required to ensure their presidency is winning the national election. For Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi however, leading her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to an electoral victory was only half the battle; now she must convince the incumbent government, the public, and the international community that her victory actually means something in a country where elections historically mean nothing.
The military has been in power in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1962. Although the military stepped back from direct rule in 2011, the semi-civilian government is still largely directly and indirectly controlled by the military. As the leader of the main pro-democracy opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the military’s key targets; since 1989, she has routinely been sentenced to house arrest, prison, prevented from participating in the elections, and subjected to various other restrictions on her rights. Her party won a landslide victory in the November 2015 elections, so it would appear this is all about to change. Yet this victory may not be as great an accomplishment and a strong signal of progress as it would seem. The NLD won the elections back in 1990 as well, but instead of Aung San Suu Kyi assuming office, the military ignored the election results and went on to continue military rule.
Change is desperately needed in Myanmar. According to the American think tank Freedom House, Myanmar has a “not free” rating, and the internet and press are still severely restricted. The incumbent military government has a long history of ignoring democratic rights, has consistently persecuted minority groups including the Rohingya Muslims, and has caused economic stagnation in the country.
Contrastingly, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize back in 1991 for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”. Her party promotes a transition to a multi-party democracy in Myanmar, the introduction of widely protected freedom of speech, the implementation of rule of law, and national reconciliation. Such political freedom and increased accountability would be miraculous.
Beyond these immediate policy changes, such a platform could dramatically improve Myanmar’s international standing, which could also gradually lead to an economic revival. The US, the EU, and other western allies placed heavy sanctions on the government of Myanmar because of its poor track record when it comes to political freedom. While many sanctions were lifted between 2012 and 2013, many are still in place and are conditional on Myanmar’s continued move towards democracy. The EU’s embargo on arms and related material, its ban on exports of equipment for internal repression, and its ban on the provision of certain services remain intact to at least later this year. The US government has begun to allow American companies to invest and do business in Myanmar, but the government remains very critical of the military’s role in the economy and lack of transparency. Therefore, the alleviation of restrictions does not apply to any entities owned by the owned forces and the Ministry of Defence. President Obama continues to increase sanctions on those who undermine democratic reform and commit human rights abuses. Aung San Suu Kyi is widely supported by the west, and restrictions would likely continue to be removed if she were in power. Myanmar is in dire need of foreign investment to boost its economy. Its GDP per capita is currently ranked 165th with a measly value of $5,200; for comparison, the GDP per capita of the United States is $56,300.
Having Aung San Suu Kyi in power could also be monumental for the region. The think tank argues that the Asia-Pacific region shows some of the most progress of democratisation and liberation, yet many of Myanmar’s neighbours including Laos, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam still with a “not free” classification as the Asia-Pacific region as a whole only has a 38% freedom score. Democracy began taking hold in many former colonised nations in Asia and across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century, but progress has stagnated in the twenty-first century. Aung San Suu Kyi’s presidency could be an important opportunity to jumpstart democracy in Southeast Asia.
That is, if Aung San Suu Kyi ever comes to power. While the military has conceded its loss and is negotiating its transition out of power, it has so far refused to let Aung San Suu Kyi take the presidency over a technicality. According to the constitution, which was drafted and is protected by the military, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president because she married a foreigner and her sons are not Myanmar citizens. Although the military have met with Suu Kyi several times since the November elections, the military has been quoted saying they have no plans to alter the clause in the constitution.
The NLD must submit their candidates for the presidency in a month’s time, and although there are rumours of a few potential candidates, the presidency situation remains altogether unclear. It could be argued that this new era is about more than just Aung San Suu Kyi and that any NLD president would be a welcome change; yet, if Suu Kyi is blocked from assuming office, this is still highly symbolic. It demonstrates that the military still holds significant sway in political affairs and brings back old memories from the 1990 election. Perhaps below the surface, nothing has changed at all; victory still means nothing.
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