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A long road to democracy

18 November 20150 comments

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party has won a landslide victory in Myanmar’s first effectively free elections since 1990 and this, ostensibly at least, looks like a win for the good guys.

When power is transferred next year it will end almost 50 years of sometimes brutal military rule that began with a bloody coup in 1962.

And the nation’s incumbent president Thein Sein is making all the right noises; vowing to abide by the law to ensure a smooth transition to a new government.

Myanmar's democracy movement leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar’s democracy movement leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Suu Kyi faces a tough job in uniting a nation that has more than two dozen armed militia groups representing marginalised ethnic groups who have fought guerrilla wars for more than 20 years.

She is barred by the constitution from becoming president, even if she leads a parliament that would elect her to that role.

The constitution prevents anyone with children or a spouse holding foreign passports from being president. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, as are her two sons.

And even with the NLD dominating parliament, the military will retain an influential role, including control of the crucial ministries that oversee the security of the country; and, a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for unelected military officials.

But Suu Kyi, or ‘The Lady’ as she is known, has indicated she will make the decisions even if someone else has to be president.

She has called for “national reconciliation” talks with the military. Since 2011, the generals have governed by proxy through the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is comprised mainly of former army officers who retired to join the party.

Although it’s not clear what exactly Suu Kyi means when she calls for “reconciliation” with the military, she will need to forge a working relationship with the generals in order to address a host of issues facing the country.

Among the foremost is trust.

Myanmar has been riven by ethnic conflict since independence from Britain in 1948.

The government signed a ceasefire agreement with eight of the two dozen armed ethnic groups in October. But many of the most powerful ethnic armies refused to sign, while the government refused to allow others to take part in negotiations.

There is little trust in the peace process, as ethnic armed groups accuse the military of undermining negotiations by launching offensives.

Notwithstanding that, the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) – one of the most powerful of the ethnic militias – has welcomed Suu Kyi’s electoral victory.

KNDO head Major General Nerdah Bo Mya congratulated the National League for Democracy (NLD) for its win in November 8 elections.

“We welcome a victory that wins Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government. Under a democratic government it will be easier for ethnic people to achieve our goals,” he said.

General Nerdah pointed out that ethnic rights should not be forgotten in the euphoria now sweeping the country.

“The rights of ethnic people are equally important as democracy, without them you don’t have justice. If they fail to acknowledge us, they will fail,” he said.

General Nerdah said the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was now worthless.

“The NCA in its present format was never going to work or be accepted. How could it, when only eight out of 17 ethnic armed groups signed it and the government forces were even bombing Shan people on election day?”

General Nerdah said that the NLD and its leader now had the opportunity to do better than Thein Sein.

“They need to not only recognise ethnic rights, but need to hold real political dialogue with us and to legislate for our rights.”

General Nerdah said it was too early to predict how the Burmese Army would react to the election result, but warned that the generals had previously disregarded election results.

“They have history, in 1990 it took months for them to react, but they did, by refusing to acknowledge the huge vote for the NLD and by jailing Aung San Suu Kyi for 14 years,” he said.

The Karen community in Australia has expressed similar misgivings.

“We don’t know what will happen but we hope things will get better and we will have peace,” one Melbourne-based community leader said.

“The Karen people have always been the targets of this government and we still don’t trust the military,” the leader said.

Indeed, as the election got underway the government stepped up its military offensive against the Shan ethnic minority in the north-east.

“We hope that Aung San Suu Kyi is able to do what she says she will – to reconcile everyone and to bring peace,” the leader said.

“She is saying the right things but we still fear the influence of the generals. We will see what happens and whether they will really give up power,” the woman said.

The support from the Karen follows an historic visit by Suu Kyi in June to a Karen refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.

Suu Kyi was due to address many of the 50,000 Mae La camp residents. But in the end Thai authorities allowed her to briefly speak to just 1,000 people.
“I will never forget about you guys.  Don’t worry, I’ll try my best to make sure you can come home soon,” she reportedly told them.

Beyond armed conflicts, Myanmar faces other difficult issues.

It is one of the poorest countries in Asia and is riven by sectarian tensions.

About a million Rohingya live in Myanmar and almost all of them have had their citizenship rights gradually stripped away.

The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority of Muslims living in a Buddhist majority country. Despite having roots in Myanmar that go back generations, they are widely considered illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The perception of the Rohingya as interlopers has fuelled discrimination that has become entrenched in policy. The Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions in western Rakhine State, confined to displacement camps and villages, with little access to healthcare or education.

About 120,000 people of several ethnic origins remain in refugee camps across the border in Thailand after fleeing decades of war. There is pressure from Thailand for them to return to Myanmar but the security situation remains uncertain and many of their traditional homelands are infested with landmines.

Furthermore, corruption has become deeply entrenched in Myanmar because of decades of isolation and autocratic rule by successive military governments.

The recent unfettered rush to exploit Myanmar’s rich natural resources has only further fuelled ethnic conflict.

In her election campaign Suu Kyi promised a return to the rule of law. For many compelling reasons around equity, access and justice this one of the things desperately needed in Myanmar as the nation embarks on its experiment with democracy.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist