By Lauren Lam
Staff Writer

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.


Image by totaloutnow


The Lady: Assessing Aung San Suu Kyi’s Commitment to Democracy in Burma

By Ariana Criste
Staff Writer

The National League for Democracy (NLD), a political party in the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi, swept the polls in the mid-November elections–the first open election in Myanmar since the nineteen nineties. This election is a historical landmark for Myanmar, which was previously under the leadership of an authoritarian military junta. A momentous and long overdue victory, these elections mark the beginning of the transition away from the iron grip of the ousted military junta to the promising future of the NLD.

Aung San, Myanmar’s champion of democracy, spent fifteen years under house arrest and was only released five years ago. She is a Nobel Peace Laureate and has drawn praise domestically and internationally for her grace and poise during her fifteen years under house arrest, which she underwent for her involvement as a protest leader in protests against the military junta. As perhaps the most famed political prisoner in the world with a streak of defiance, many look to The Lady, as she is commonly referred to, in hopes that she will address and find solutions to the communal violence and ethnic tensions that Myanmar is facing right now.

Indeed, ethnic conflict within the country is at a critical point. The ethno-religious minority that is native to the Rakhine state of Myanmar, the Rohingyas, willingly face unsafe conditions to flee by boat for neighboring countries in hopes that they will be welcomed and gain some sort of recognition from these countries. Since 2012, tens of thousands of Rohingyas have been killed in communal violence fueled by anti-Muslim sentiments and carried out by the majority group of Burmese Buddhists, including extremist Buddhist Nationalists in the country. Amnesty International has referred to the Rohingya people as “the most persecuted refugees in the world,” and they are a stateless people who are disenfranchised. As a result of this marginalization, tens of thousands of Rohingyas have decided to flee their home to seek better conditions elsewhere.

Aung San’s silence on the plight of the Rohingyas has drawn international criticism. In the past, The Lady has rejected the view that the crimes against the Rohingya constitute ethnic cleansing. She has also said to not “forget that violence has been committed by both sides,” and told international media to not “exaggerate” the situation. The only Rohingya-related issue that she has taken a stance upon is the two-child policy that some provinces in Myanmar implemented for Rohingyas that she believes are discriminatory.

The forecast for Rohingyas under the NLD does not seem optimistic. Aung San’s silence echoes the majority opinion that the Rohingya are Bengali immigrants or foreign aliens. Much of the base of support for the NLD comes from the Buddhist extremists that are carrying out the attacks against the Rohingya population.

For what are likely reasons of political expedience, it is unlikely that Aung San or the NLD will address the Rohingya issue. They are navigating a post-authoritarian political landscape where the military stills plays an active role in politics and will hold seats in the government even after the transition between parties occurs. If they showed active support for the Rohingyas or other Muslim ethnic minorities, it is likely that the loss of perceived political legitimacy would play into the interests of the military.

The NLD is walking a narrow line as it tries to move forward with the transition towards democratization in Myanmar. External forces are vying to hasten or slow this transition. Political actors, some domestic and some international, have varied expectations for the party. The NLD must balance outcries from NGOs about the Rohingya crisis, especially considering the media attention on the issue right now. They also have to deal with external imposition of ideals of democracy from the West and from investors in the state who may not have a complete idea of the situation domestically, and who have expressed discontent with the pace that Myanmar is democratizing at. They must maintain political legitimacy against a military regime that actively tries to detract from the legitimacy of their leadership. To do this requires the NLD to narrowly maintain viewpoints and policies that do not alienate their political base, much of which holds very anti-Muslim sentiments.

In this light it is unlikely that, under Aung San, the Rohingya peoples will see their cause furthered. While this provides hardly any consolation, it is also unlikely that violence from an institutionalized, state-led level will worsen. It is very probable that the state of Myanmar’s transition to democracy will be a positive force in the lives of the Rohingyas and other ethnic or religious minorities in the state. All of Myanmar will see tangible benefits from the transition to democracy from the previously brutal military government, and the NLD will likely lessen the active oppression on the populace that was experienced under the previous government. As state corruption and brutality decrease, the Rohingyas should experience marked improvement in their situation. This prediction must be taken with a degree of reservation, however, because it is unlikely that they will gain true state recognition and rights in the near future. This is not politically feasible in the current climate, which is why noted human rights champion Aung San and the NLD are avoiding the issue. It seems that, for this marginalized and persecuted group, the National League of Democracy under Aung San will not be a shining beacon of human rights advancement. Still, with Myanmar’s slow path of democratization, the Rohingyas can expect gradual increases in their rights and privileges and, hopefully, integration and acceptance into Burmese society.

Image by Rob Beschizza



PROSPECT Journal is collaborating with East by Southeast, a new blog focusing on China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. As part of this collaboration, PROSPECT will be intermittently publishing articles by the East by Southeast bloggers, who all live and work in the region. Our journal is excited to bring a wider range of expert analysis of Southeast Asian affairs to our readers.

By Brian Eyler
Contributing Writer

The China-South Asia Expo opened without a hitch yesterday in Kunming despite online calls for a continuation of environmental protests outside of the Expo’s opening ceremony site. It seems protesters decided to stay home due to a combination of sticks and carrots offered by local authorities. On June 3, Kunming’s mayor announced the release of key environmental impact assessment data concerning the construction of a PetroChina oil refinery and PX chemical plant side project scheduled for construction 40 km from the city’s downtown area. Also, the excessive presence of armed and unarmed public security officers lining the city’s streets and manning the Expo site also likely turned protesters away.

What is the rationale behind the excessive security measures? What’s really at stake at the 1st China-South Asia Expo?

The Expo, a combination trade fair and high level forum for investment and trade promotion discussions between China, Southeast Asia and now South Asia, is part of China’s “Bridgehead Construction” strategy to establish Kunming and Yunnan province as a gateway between China and its neighbors to the south and west. A smoothly running Expo not only will seal multilateral agreements and high-value business deals that will streamline regional trade and investment, but it will also guarantee the continuation of soft-budget infrastructure development projects sponsored by Beijing to Kunming and Yunnan province that are part and parcel of the “Bridgehead” strategy.

The event is critically central to China’s plans for regional economic integration, so much so that Premier Li Keqiang, coming off a series of trade promotion visits to South Asian countries, was purportedly scheduled to attend yesterday’s opening ceremonies. But to many a Kunminger’s disappointment, Li Keqiang didn’t show up, and Vice Premier Ma Kai was sent in his stead.

The Expo is the continuation and augmentation of the long-running Kunming Import and Export Fair with a twist due to an ongoing provincial rivalry in China. The Kunming Fair focused on trade promotion and relations with mainland Southeast Asian nations, but in 2005, Yunnan’s neighbor, Guangxi became jealously vocal toward the volume of central level funding pipelined to Yunnan for improving relations with China’s Southeast Asian neighbors as part of the bridgehead construction strategy.

The antagonism makes sense to a degree given Guangxi’s border with Vietnam and its maritime orientation toward Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As a result, the Guangxi provincial government gained responsibility for trade and investment relations with ASEAN states and Yunnan’s responsibilities were curbed to its mainland Southeast Asian neighbors. After years of lobbying to the central government in Beijing, Yunnan’s provincial officials gained a one-up over Guangxi: a new designation as China’s gateway province to not only South Asia, but the entire Indian Ocean region including the east African coastline. Thus the China-South Asia Expo was born and designated for launch in Kunming.

The Expo grounds are open for the public to browse through mazes of booths promoting a variety of tradable goods mainly from Nepal, Pakistan, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam as well as China (which has the greatest representation at the Expo), but the real action is happening far from the Expo site.

Top level ministers, business leaders, and heads of industrial organizations from around the region are meeting at locations undisclosed to the public to negotiate multilateral trade agreements, sign business deals, and iron out the obstacles that currently block the flow of goods and people through the region at logistical chokepoints like China’s border nodes with Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

On the agenda is a renewed discussion of highway and rail linkages between Yunnan and India via Myanmar and Bangladesh. This link will cut through and over the Himalayan foothills on some of Earth’s most rugged terrain. The route also will pass through Myanmar’s militarized Kachin state. India tabled the discussion of this strategic pathway in 2009, and construction is unlikely to begin any time soon.

Also on the agenda are talks to establish cross-border economic zones (CBEZs) between China (Yunnan) and Myanmar at Ruili and China (Yunnan) and Laos at Mohan/Boten. However, China’s success in establishing robust and productive CBEZs with its neighbors is extremely limited. Since 2007, both funding and political capital in both China and Vietnam has been earmarked for a CBEZ at the Hekou/Lao Cai border area in southeastern Yunnan and Vietnam’s northernmost province. Despite years of negotiations, the two sides have yet to settle on the structure and purpose of the CBEZ – they have wavered between ideas such as an export processing zone, a high technology industrial park, and Guangxi’s Commerce department chief declared at a 2011 negotiation that his vision for the zone would emulate the Eurozone. Clearly, while decision makers lack technical knowledge to solve this problem (and consistently crowd out the private sector in the process) the negotiations lose steam due to a failure to identify or fabricate a true economic purpose for the CBEZ. Tenuous diplomatic relations between Vietnam and China also contribute to the stalemate.

Will the discussions with Laos and Myanmar meet similar fates?

Conspicuously absent from the slate of Expo related meetings and discussions is participation from the civil society groups, academics, and the private sector outside of the region. Issues such as global warming, environmental degradation, food security, urbanization, and energy and water resource management are beginning to drive political agendas in both China and the region. Sustainable economic development in China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia cannot proceed forward without including discussion of these key issues and without reaching out to a broader base of stakeholders who are already deeply rooted in the region.

The ExSE blog team will continue analysis of the China-South Asia Expo throughout the weekend. The Expo concludes on Monday, June 10.

See the original post here.

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