Long Read: Eyes on a Myanmar election prize

Long Read: Eyes on a Myanmar election prizeKyi Hlaing is a child of Myanmars independence in 1948, but he has never cast a vote that counted. On Sunday he has his chance.

The 67-year-old engineer from the countrys delta region says he finally left the civil service in disgust at how colleagues with military connections were being promoted ahead of him. Many went on to big positions such as deputy ministerial posts or directorships at government-owned companies.

All the institutions are dominated by the military, Mr Kyi Hlaing laments, during an interview outside his Yangon home that is punctuated by the roar of two fighter jets sweeping back and forth overhead. We cannot get smooth change at the moment.

His scepticism is a reminder that Sundays general election, while a landmark event in Myanmars dramatic transition from military rule, is as much about the control of democracy as the historic expression of it. Aung San Suu Kyi, still exalted as a freedom fighter by some in the west, may well end up leading the largest party in parliament, but this will not be a South Africa-style shift to majority rule. Instead, the vote is likely to supercharge a struggle for how far, and how fast, the transition since 2011, from almost half a century of repressive dictatorship, is allowed to progress.

The fight at the ballot box is a microcosm of the wider contest to shape the direction of a nation sandwiched between the worlds two most populous states, China and India. The country also known as Burma is grappling with great power rivalries and internal conflict, some of which has spilled across its borders. It is also a hub of legal and illegal trade, from drugs to the green jade gemstone coveted by Chinas new rich.

Political relations with Beijing have been strained, and many western investors and governments remain cautious, reflecting wider anxieties about whether the reform story, told so enthusiastically over the past five years, risks coming to a sudden halt. Western powers, especially the US, have a lot riding on their support for a transition they need to be successful at a time when their strategies in other regions are under sustained attack.

If the post-election period is OK and everyone agrees to the formation of a government, then we will take the next step, says Kyaw Lin Oo, a political analyst in Yangon who fled the country as a student activist in the 1990s. Otherwise, the democratisation process will stop and we will return to authoritarian rule.

Military bloc

Myanmar is jittery on the eve of the first national election to be held under nominally civilian rule since the early 1960s. There are few precedents and little reliable polling data to help predict the result of a vote set in motion when Than Shwe, the last junta leader, handed power in March 2011 to a government led by Thein Sein, another former general. Three quarters of the seats in parliament will be up for grabs, with the remainder reserved for the military.

This guaranteed officers representation is one of several stops the generals and their civilian proxies have imposed on the election and parliament. All votes on constitutional change require a 75 per cent plus one supermajority, giving the military bloc a veto on fundamental reform. Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of a nationalist hero assassinated on the brink of independence, is barred from the presidency, because her two sons by her late British husband have foreign passports.

If the NLD performs strongly, months of precarious dealmaking are likely to follow. The new parliament may not even begin work until 90 days after the election and it then has the contentious task of choosing the president.

It will be a big test for Ms Suu Kyi in the face of increasing criticism of her allegedly autocratic style, lightly-sketched political programme and the decision to bar some high-profile former political prisoners from standing for the NLD. It may also put pressure on the military. In August, Shwe Mann, a former junta number three, was ousted as ruling party chairman, highlighting splits between senior officers.

The period until March is going to be very, very tense, as people negotiate who does what, says one foreign diplomat.

Reforms since 2011 include political prisoner releases, the large-scale arrival of mobile telephony and the start of a revival of industries from clothes-making to oil and gas. But this is happening against a darker backdrop of continuing corruption, fresh detentions, abuses of power such as land-grabs, and ethnic conflicts of varying intensity across large swaths of the country.

Urban vs rural

A construction boom that has sprinkled Yangon with glass, glitz and gridlock has also heightened the commercial capitals distance from the rural areas in a country of 53m people. Little of the economic growth, forecast by the Asian Development Bank at more than 8 per cent this year and next, has penetrated the villages and small towns of a country more than two and a half times the size of the UK.

Long Read: Eyes on a Myanmar election prizeIt is in these areas, away from the plentiful election observer teams and general urban enthusiasm for the NLD, that the poll may be decided. There are signs of political activity in many villages and not yet the disillusionment with voting that sometimes comes with experience of its limits. Mother Suu said that, if shes elected, shell do her best for the people, says Aye Aye Than, a 26-year-old hotel cashier living with her parents in a farming community in the eastern state of Shan. And if the people dont like her any more, she will resign.

The elections will test the cohesion of a fragmented country cemented by force for most of the 130 years since the British overthrew King Thibaw Min. The battle between Ms Suu Kyi and the military is just one element in a struggle involving a kaleidoscope of ethnically-based regional parties that in some cases oppose both the NLD and the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party as well as each other. Long-running talks to achieve the first nationwide ceasefire in more than 60 years of conflict between the government and armed ethnic militias achieved agreement with only eight of 15 rebel groups last month.

A disturbing new aspect has also emerged in the countrys longstanding politics of difference. A monk-led Buddhist ultranationalist organisation known as Ma Ba Tha has provoked international condemnation and portrayed the NLD as pro-Muslim, because the party opposed new laws to restrict religious conversions, interfaith marriages and even the right to have children. Those rules are seen as part of a broader government crackdown on Muslims, particularly those from the Rohingya minority, who are denied civil rights such as voting and have been forced to flee in their tens of thousands into squalid camps.
Long Read: Eyes on a Myanmar election prize

In Kyaukphyu on the wild coast of the western state of Rakhine, burnt mosques are a reminder of sporadic but deadly anti-Muslim violence that has killed hundreds in the past few years. In an indication of the unpredictability of Sundays poll, Oo San, a 42-year-old owner of an electrical goods shop, says he supports the NLD but will back the Buddhist ethnic Arakan National party. Not because he hates Muslims, he says, but because he thinks it has a better chance of beating the ruling USDP.

I am an Arakan but I am also a democrat as well, he says. We need more freedom, we need more justice. At the moment I feel there is no justice.

In some respects the poll will be a way station in Myanmars efforts to establish its place in the world, as it moves from its junta era status as a Beijing backyard. China, which kept the generals afloat during the era of western sanctions, is still an important player. It is developing big infrastructure projects from energy pipelines to giant dams for hydroelectric power.
Long Read: Eyes on a Myanmar election prize

But resentment in Myanmar towards Chinas resource play culminated in the governments shock 2011 decision to suspend work on the Beijing-backed Myitsone dam in the countrys north after local protests. The Letpadaung copper mine, operated by Chinas Wanbao, has for years been the centre of demonstrations and sporadic security force violence. Chinese foreign direct investment has slumped in the past few years, while tensions between the two countries rose further after ethnic clashes in the Kokang region spilled over into Chinese territory. Beijing has built contacts with opposition parties, notably hosting Ms Suu Kyi on her first ever visit in June.

While many sanctions have been lifted and a vanguard of US and European companies from fast-food chains to brewers has come in, it is not yet a corporate gold rush. The politics have been tricky too: an EU national police training programme attracted fresh scrutiny when officers from the force attacked students at a protest in March.
Long Read: Eyes on a Myanmar election prize

Some US critics in Congress and beyond complain Washington is giving the Thein Sein government an easy ride, because the Obama administration wants to portray Myanmar as a foreign-policy success at a time of heavy criticism over its stance on the Middle East.

That has allowed others the chance to quietly develop influence and opportunities. A stream of Japanese corporations and overseas development assistance $5bn in debt relief, loans and grants in 2012 and 2013 alone has arrived. India aims to upgrade an existing friendship highway into a main 3,200km trade route linking the two countries and Thailand.

Pressured generals

As the election approaches, military gerrymandering has not completely locked the process down. The countrys own history is a reminder of how surprises can drive events. The 1990 poll resulted in an 80 per cent haul of parliamentary seats for the NLD and an emergency spree of detentions by the junta to stifle the possibility of a repeat of a 1988 uprising that is thought to have left thousands dead. Ms Suu Kyi spent most of the following 20 years under house arrest, while other leading NLD figures served long jail sentences.
Long Read: Eyes on a Myanmar election prize

If the NLD again records a big win, Ms Suu Kyi may feel emboldened to put greater pressure on the generals and they may feel more threatened. They plan to continue moving at their own pace, installing someone they trust possibly Mr Thein Sein again as president to insulate themselves from prosecution and to protect their wealth. Ms Suu Kyi has taken a gamble by declaring that should her choice of leader be installed, she will lead the government and be above the president.

Back in Yangon, Mr Kyi Hlaings enthusiasm for the election is real, but also tempered by experience. Asked if he thinks there will be rigging, he replies enigmatically that this is Burma: some things will happen in the Burmese way. It is a recognition that voters inkstamps are a starting point, rather than a climax, in this historic but singular poll.

Change will happen gradually, he says of the election and its aftermath. We cant get it in just a single night.

Source: Financial Times
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