NEW YORK – Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) scored a landslide victory in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 general elections, which national and international electoral observers said were held peacefully and relatively in a free manner. According to Myanmar’s Union Election Commission, the NLD has secured a clear majority in the 664-seat parliament, where 25 percent of the seats are reserved for the military per the constitution that was adopted in 2008.
The NLD’s triumph was significant in that the people of Myanmar had spoken freely for the first time in 25 years. In the 1990 elections — the last elections considered to have been free and fair — the NLD won a decisive victory by capturing some 80 percent of the seats contested. However, the ruling military junta, which had ruled the country in isolation from the rest of the world since 1962, nullified the results and stayed in power.
This time more than 6,000 candidates from some 90 political parties took part in the elections, though the main election campaign was fought between the NLD and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by Thein Sein. Thein Sein, a former general, became president after the 2010 general elections, which the military government had organized in accordance with its own seven-step roadmap for the transition to democracy.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate who has fought for democracy in Myanmar since 1988, was kept under house arrest at that time and the NLD boycotted the 2010 elections, which internationally were not considered to be credible.
Once in office, however, Thein Sein implemented a series of reform measures aimed at bringing Myanmar back into the mainstream of the international community. Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest shortly after the 2010 elections, won a seat in Parliament, along with many other NLD candidates, in the by-elections that took place in 2012. The election results this time clearly showed that the people of Myanmar wanted genuine democracy as advocated by Suu Kyi, rather than a continuation of the military-backed USDP government.
While the latest elections are an important milestone in Myanmar’s democratic transition, the post-electoral period will be more important as the country faces the daunting task of achieving genuine democracy. The immediate challenge facing Myanmar will be the formation of a new government of national unity and reconciliation over the next few months.
Suu Kyi has proposed, and Thein Sein and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces have agreed, that they meet to discuss the transition process once the final elections results are announced. The president, as well as leaders of the USDP and the armed forces, have pledged to accept the election results, and ensure a smooth and peaceful transition process.
Their pledges must be translated into action to ensure cooperation from the military, which controls the country’s internal affairs, defense and border security. For its part, the NLD needs to strive to form a government of national reconciliation by engaging the military and the country’s ethnic minority groups. Myanmar’s population is made up of 135 ethnic groups. The participation of the representatives of these ethnic groups is equally important for the future of the nation-building and democratization process.
The constitution bars individuals whose spouses or children are foreign nationals from becoming president, thus effectively blocking Suu Kyi, whose children carry British passports, from assuming the post. The removal of this constitutional clause is an urgent matter that the new government should tackle.
The reform of the military — which wields considerable influence in politics, business and other areas of Myanmar society under the constitution — into a law-abiding, professional body that is solely responsible for national defense is another challenge facing the nation’s democratization efforts.
Since lasting peace is a prerequisite for successful nation-building, a comprehensive peace agreement with all ethnic groups, which are demanding a federal system and have been fighting the central government to this end, is an equally urgent issue that must be pursued. Under the government of President Thein Sein, the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) was signed with eight ethnic armed groups on Oct. 15; however, seven other groups did not participate. While the NCA was a major step forward in achieving lasting peace, fresh discussions should start between the new government and the remaining armed ethnic groups with the aim of achieving a comprehensive ceasefire agreement that will commit all armed ethic groups to a lasting peace in Myanmar.
During the campaign period leading to the Nov. 8 elections, many cases of human rights violations were reported, including harsh punitive actions taken against protesters. Institutionalized discrimination against the minority Muslim community in Rakhine state and elsewhere also continued under the rising influence of xenophobic Buddhist organizations. More than 500,000 Rohingyas in Rakhain State, who remain stateless, were disenfranchised in the latest elections, despite being allowed to vote in the 2010 and 2012 polls.
Democratization is a process, not an event: A round or two of successful elections will not immediately bring about genuine democracy. For democracy to take firm root, long-term commitment and tireless efforts are required by the government and people to build and strengthen democratic institutions that will ensure such key fundamentals as freedom of speech, freedom of political and religious affiliation, respect for human rights and rule of law.
Clearly much more needs to be done to ensure Myanmar’s democratic transition. While ownership of the democratization process belongs to the government and the people of Myanmar, the international community, including Japan, should continue to support Myanmar’s democratization process so that genuine democracy can take root at an early date.
A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is the author of the recent book “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) published in Japanese by The Japan Times.
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