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Elections in Myanmar

Rahul Mishra was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 19, 2010

    Myanmar’s military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), recently announced that elections will be held in Myanmar on November 7, 2010. As expected, the announcement has invited speculations (often marred by scepticism) about the motives of the junta. There have also been questions raised about the way elections are going to be held; for instance how democratic, non-partisan and fair or otherwise they will be? The stand taken by countries on this issue is also quite on expected lines. For one, the US State Department and European Union member countries and the United Kingdom have questioned the ‘inclusiveness and credibility’ of the elections and its entire process, while ASEAN member countries are more or less positive and appreciative of the junta on the issue.

    On one hand the military Junta is wary of the international backlash in case it tampers with the election process, and on the other it knows what its fate would be if ‘truly fair and democratic elections’ are held. The reason for its fear is apparent; the junta has to fight elections with Aung San Su Kyi (who, so far, has been barred from fighting elections as she is still a prisoner) who commands popular national and international support. The junta is resolved to accommodate international apprehensions as long as it doesn’t hamper the junta’s political interests.

    As a gesture of truce to the opposition parties and international community, the junta released Tin Oo, the vice chief of the National League for Democracy on February 14, 2010. Apparently, on his release from house arrest, he stated that there is need for dialogue between the government and the opposition in order to arrive at lasting peace and prosperity in the country. His release was seen as a response to US President Barack Obama’s call for restoration of democracy in Myanmar and the release of the opposition party members including Aung San Su Kyi. During his visit to Japan in November 2009, Obama had said that the junta should unconditionally release all political prisoners, halt any conflict with ethnic minorities, and work towards the democratic process by initiating a dialogue with the opposition. It is widely believed that Obama’s diplomatic move was a part of his policy of engagement as he himself admitted that neither sanctions nor engagement with other parties have helped resolve the crisis in Myanmar. ASEAN member countries have also been consistently indicating that rather than being harsh on Myanmar, the international community and the countries of the region have to take recourse to dialogue and constructive engagement.

    The upcoming general elections in Myanmar will prove to be a ‘litmus test’ for the junta as it seems to have acceded to the demands of a formidable opposition for democratic elections. The other reason for the announcement of election dates is that Myanmar’s economy and the condition of its people are in dire straits. The junta has realized fully well that if it has to prevent any further popular uprising, it has to achieve legitimacy to govern the country. Perhaps the junta is seeking an easy devolution of power similar to that of ‘guided democracy’ in Indonesia where a percentage of seats in parliament are reserved for military personnel and a number of corporate firms governed by the military.

    If the junta’s plans fall in place, it will not only be able to effectively control national politics and administration but will also secure greater international support. Though nothing substantial can be asserted at this juncture, nevertheless, if the junta comes to power it is likely to get closer to India. India, due to its own security and strategic concerns, has been supporting the junta albeit hesitantly. During the recent India visit of Than Shwe, India did not force Myanmar on the issue of restoration of democracy, and thus avoided a controversy. This is just one example of how sensitive India is on matters concerning Myanmar. In early 2010, during the visit of India’s Union Home Secretary and other officials, Myanmar assured India of possible support for apprehending insurgent leaders like Paresh Barua and others belonging to a number of northeastern groups like NSCN-IM and separatist groups of Tripura. Also, Myanmar has been keen on upgrading its air force and has sought MiG-29 purchase from Russia while seeking training assistance from the Indian armed forces.

    Myanmar’s eagerness to befriend India is not just about maintaining good relations with a neighbouring country and a rising power but also because its relations with China have gone through a bumpy ride owing to border problems between ethnic Burmans and Chinese on the northern borders. This has led to clashes between the two communities. Additionally, Myanmar wants to safeguard its resources which are seen by many within Myanmar as the cost levied by China for supporting the reclusive regime.

    In the international context, the situation in Myanmar, particularly manifested by the announcement of elections, has evidently diluted the strong stance of the Generals. The current state of affairs has come about due to variety of reasons ranging from the situation after cyclone Nargis, the monk revolution (also called as maroon revolution), international diplomatic pressure particularly of the US to the unrelenting pressure from human rights groups and international aid agencies to expedite the process of governance and hold free and fair elections.