Myanmar: Call for change dominates the streets

October 24, 2015
Wirathu, leader of the extreme right-wing religious nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement.

With elections due on November 8, a loud call for change in Myanmar (formerly Burma) can be heard in the streets.

All commentators predict victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) over the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Several factors, however, indicate it will not be a landslide.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, known throughout the country simply as “the lady”, came to political prominence in 1988 when she returned to Myanmar to support her ailing mother and became embroiled in the students' struggle against the military regime.

At the time, she was known because of her father General Aung San. He was a leader of the independence struggle against the British and still the most revered and recognised figure in the country's history.

Aung San was assassinated just months before independence from Britain, when Aung San Suu Kyi was a child.

After the bloody repression of the 1988 protests, she quickly won a name for herself as an intelligent and courageous advocate for democracy. Challenging the military dictators, she suffered 15 years of imprisonment and house arrest.

Is it possible, after more than 50 years under military rule, Aung San Suu Kyi, now 70, could come to power?

Technically, under the current constitution, the answer is “no”. Even if the NLD wins a majority, she would be ineligible to become president because her two sons have British passports.

The constitution precludes from the presidency anyone who has a spouse or a child who “owes allegiance to a foreign power”.

Still, to Aung San Suu Kyi, this “technicality” seems to be of little concern. Speaking on India Today on October 7, she said: “I have made it quite clear that if the NLD wins elections and we form a government, I am going to be the leader of that government, whether or not I am the president.”

What, then, are her chances? With no reliable surveys to measure voter intentions, most pundits point to the two previous occasions when the NLD competed in elections as the best indicators. In 1990, in elections quickly annulled by the military, the NLD won 52.5% of the national vote, which would have given it 80% of the parliamentary seats.

More recently, in a 2012 by-election, which brought Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament, the NLD won 66% of the vote. It won 43 of the 44 seats it contested.

This election record points to a big win for the NLD, but several crucial factors, some of which have arisen during the campaign, indicate a much tighter result.

In Myanmar, it is said that you do not want to get on the wrong side of the military, the students or the Buddhist monks. In this election campaign, it is the monks, at least some of them, who are having an impact.

On October 4, thousands of hardline, nationalist monks from the Ma Ba Tha movement gathered in Yangon to celebrate the passing of the so-called Protection of Race and Religion laws.

These are clearly aimed at Muslims, especially Muslim women. One of these laws is the Inter-faith Marriage Law that allows the state to regulate religious profession and conversion.

A firebrand Ma Ba Tha leader, 47-year-old monk Wirathu, who called the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on human rights a “whore” because her report condemned the treatment of Muslim Rohingya communities, is calling for an end to head covering for Muslim women and halal slaughter of animals.

Because the NLD opposed the Protection of Race and Religion laws, Ma Ba Tha has denounced NLD as “a Muslim party”. The increasingly influential Warathu has even come out in support of the ruling USDP, saying: “If we have to choose the best, it is the President Thein Sein's government.”

Ironically, and disappointingly according to many human rights groups, throughout the campaign, Aung San Suu Kyi has not offered a word of support for the disenfranchised Rohingya population. She has clearly taken a pragmatic approach, not a principled stand in support of this marginalised group.

Moreover, while numerous NLD Muslim members competed for electoral candidacy, not one of the more than 1000 NLD candidates is Muslim.

Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer and NLD member, tried to explain this approach: “If the NLD chose some Muslim candidates, those campaigning groups can point out that the NLD is a Muslim party.”

Not surprisingly, as Myo Win of the Burmese Muslim Association points out, “90% of Muslims are now upset with the NLD”.

Sixty of the 93 competing parties in these elections are ethnically based, and will likely play a pivotal role in the new national and state governments. With 68% of the country's population belonging to the Burman ethnic majority, about 9% are Shan, 7% Karen, 4% Rakhine, 2% Mon and 1.5% Kachin.

Each of these minority communities has several of “their own” parties, some of which advocate for self-determination.

For example, the Arakan National Party (ANP) in Rakhine State, running on a self-determination and anti-Muslim platform, is expected to win a majority of the 64 state and national seats to be contested in that state.

In parts of Rakhine State, the ANP is so dominant that it successfully lobbied the government to remove the right to vote from the Rohingya community and has thwarted NLD candidates throughout the campaign.

NLD candidate Kaung San Hla, who is contesting a state seat in Rakhine State, told The Irrawaddy: “We can't hope to get votes in this area. It's even very difficult to rent a building to open a party office.”

The popularity of some ethnic-based parties, the anti-NLD campaign led by nationalist Buddhist monks, and the inevitable incumbency factor will all hamper a possible landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD. But her biggest barrier is the 2008 constitution, which allocates 25% of parliamentary seats to the military.

Before voting starts, we know that a quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of the national parliament will be filled by the military.

Mathematically, this means any opposition party or coalition needs to win 67% of the remaining seats to hold a parliamentary majority. Or, another way of looking at it, the incumbent military-created USDP only requires 34% of the elected seats to hold a majority.

An NLD alliance with some ethnic-based parties is, thus, a possible scenario.

Aung San Suu Kyi's campaign speeches have emphasised her party's focus on multi-party democracy, rule of law, national reconciliation and human rights. However, throughout the campaign, she has been notably vague on her party's detailed political platform. As The Irrawaddy notes, it has been a campaign of “principle over detail”.

In spite of these weighty obstacles, judging by the number of NLD red flags with the golden, fighting peacock carried by what appears to be every second car, rickshaw and street vendor, a historic change is due.

Living under military rule since 1962, “Time to Change” is the NLD's understandable choice of campaign slogan. Across the country the mood resonates with this slogan, and with the expectation and that the lady's time has come.

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