It was astrologers who decided in 1948 that Burma’s independence from Britain should be declared at 4.20 a.m.; who in 1970 decided to switch to driving on the right; and in 1987 to demonetise certain banknotes, thus wiping out savings and preparing the ground for the uprising that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to national prominence. In 2005, planetary alignments helped General Than Shwe decide to move the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw, though a more plausible factor was that the military wanted the capital to be well inland, fearing an amphibious invasion. On 8 November, Myanmar will hold its first general election since 2011, when a quasi-civilian government was established after 49 years of military rule. The astrologers are being kept busy.
More than six thousand candidates from ninety different parties are running for office in national and regional elections held under a first-past-the-post system. Next February, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – the country’s bicameral parliament – will appoint a president from the three candidates nominated by both houses and the military (a quarter of the seats in the Hluttaw are reserved for the army, a provision of the 2008 constitution intended to help it retain its grip on power). Aung San Suu Kyi herself can’t become president: anyone with a foreign spouse or children is barred (her two sons are British citizens, as was her late husband).
The military, like the political party that represents its interests, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), backs gradual reform leading to what it calls a ‘disciplined democracy’ – one that won’t threaten its authority or the personal fortunes that have been amassed. The USDP’s main challenger, and the overwhelming favourite to win the election, is Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). At the Panglong Conference called in 1947 to decide the place of minority groups in post-independence Burma, General Aung San, father of Suu Kyi, spoke of his wish for an independent, secular and democratic union of federated states.
The NLD remains committed to that and to Aung San’s daughter’s position at the head of the party and, they hope, Myanmar itself: Suu Kyi told an Indian journalist that, after the election, she ‘would be the leader of that government whether or not I am the president’. Along the border with China and Thailand, myriad ethnic parties are demanding the establishment of a federal state, a lasting ceasefire (some rebel groups signed a ceasefire agreement with the military last month, but the largest insurgent groups refused to sign), political rights and a share of the country’s natural resources.
Only the most Panglossian supporter of the USDP would expect it to win a majority. It does have the advantage of incumbency, and has some legitimate achievements to boast of: it has liberalised the economy over its five-year period of government, legalised freedom of expression and association, acknowledged the presence of widespread corruption in government and business, and accepted, if not realised, the federalist aspirations of resource-rich regions like Shan state. It has also engaged in retail politics – building bridges, fixing roads and doling out satellite dishes – which has made it more popular with voters who have no strong party allegiance. But the USDP remains a symbol of ideological orthodoxy and military authoritarianism. Its relationship with Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, as well as a Janus-faced tendency to rig or ignore election results (as it did in 1990 and 2010), as well as to stall democratic reforms, has inspired deep mistrust among younger, urban and non-military constituents.
The NLD isn’t an orthodox political party either, but a vehicle for the cult of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has adopted an imperious style of leadership. She has expelled members who disagree with her, prevented NLD candidates from speaking to the media, and called on the voters to ignore the actual candidates and cast their ballot for the party. There is no second in command, and no cadre of experienced representatives (activists who took part in the student protests of 1988 were controversially not included on the list of possible NLD candidates). There is no official NLD presidential candidate, and there are few well-defined policies. Suu Kyi has come under heavy criticism for saying nothing about the government and military’s brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims, which has led to a regional refugee crisis: the government claims the Rohingya, who have lived in Myanmar for generations, are stateless; more than 100,000 have been forced from their homes and live in insanitary camps, where they are brutally treated by government forces.
Suu Kyi claims that there has been ‘no ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya, and she has been censured for that too, but it’s clear that she’s in a difficult position: the USDP and nationalist groups like the Ma Ba Tha, a powerful organisation of Buddhist monks, have already portrayed her as anti-Buddhist, and in an attempt to pacify such critics, the NLD didn’t include any Muslim nominees on its list of candidates. Out of the six thousand candidates from all the parties, only ten are Muslim. As for Suu Kyi’s decision to bar candidates from talking to the media, she’s trying not to give Ma Ba Tha or the USDP more ammunition. Although the West has treated her as a saintly figure, Suu Kyi is above all a pragmatist who has decided this is the best means of taking on the government and the Ma Ba Tha.
The 2008 constitution forbids monks to engage in politics but as the self-appointed ‘guardian’ of the Burmese race and religion, the Ma Ba Tha has attacked Muslims and other ethnic minorities, and made itself an unofficial instrument of USDP propaganda. Its ‘voter education’ programmes amount to little more than attacking rival parties, the NLD especially, that failed to support the controversial Race and Religion laws passed in August, which make it an offence to have more than one spouse and make it difficult to change your religion or for a woman to marry a non-Buddhist; they also stipulate that women in certain regions shouldn’t have more than one child in a three-year period. All these measures are intended to damage the rights of the Muslim minority.
It’s likely that all the parties will do less well than they hope: the NLD wants to win at least 80 per cent of the vote, as it did in the 1990 election, but smaller parties representing ethnic minorities will probably deplete its share in areas like Chin state; the USDP needs a third of the contested seats in order to form a majority with the military; the ethnic parties also want a third of the seats to counterbalance the military.
European monitors will be there on polling day for the first time, and the EU has called for elections that are ‘inclusive, transparent and credible’, as opposed to the standard ‘free and fair’ – less moralistic targets for an election that is likely to be disrupted by innumerable problems. These include the inevitable teething pains of any infant democracy: inaccurate electoral registers, for example, and a lack of voter awareness. Then there are the after-effects of Cyclone Komen, which hammered parts of the country in July and has made campaigning near-impossible in the poorest and most inaccessible regions, such as Ayeyarwady.
On 13 October, the chair of the electoral commission, U Tin Aye, suggested postponing the elections because politicians couldn’t campaign in those regions and voters wouldn’t be able to reach the polling stations. The suggestion was eventually withdrawn, much to the relief of foreign governments and NLD supporters who suspected the trickeries of the past. There is an insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories in Myanmar, but usually there’s just been a cock-up. In this case, U Tin Aye, a former general still devoted to the military, didn’t realise the effect his off-the-cuff remarks would have.
Voting has been cancelled in borderlands, such as Kayin state, where rebels have refused to allow polling in areas under their control, or to ensure the security of voters. For six decades, ethnic groups in the states of Shan, Rakhine, Kachin, Kayah and Kayin have been demanding autonomy within a federal state and a share of the profits from the natural resources in their regions. The fighting in these areas has killed thousands, displaced millions and resulted in vast human rights abuses. The USDP is hailing a partial ceasefire, signed on 15 October after two years of negotiations, as an important step towards a nationwide truce, and argues that a change of government would endanger progress on that front. Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, claims the lack of NLD involvement is a reason for the limited success of the negotiations, and has urged armed ethnic groups not to rush into any decisions, implying that it would be better to wait until after the elections and work out a more sustainable deal. This is also a battle over two rival legacies: an armistice would bolster Thein Sein’s legacy as a reformer and peacemaker, while, for Suu Kyi, a peace deal would honour her father’s ideal of a united Burma.
During the campaign, reminders of the generals’ power have been easy to find. Amnesty International has reported an ‘intensifying and far-reaching crackdown’ on peaceful activists. The military has banned any party statement that ‘can disgrace and damage the dignity of the Tatmadaw’. It has also asked to administer some of the polling stations sited in military compounds. The ousting of the parliamentary speaker, Shwe Mann, in August was another throwback to the days of dictatorship. Mann, a former general and chairman of the USDP, was rumoured to be discussing a post-electoral alliance with Suu Kyi and to favour a reduction in the army’s political power. If the generals won’t countenance such behaviour on the part of one of their supposed allies, it will be interesting to see how they handle having to deal with a longstanding enemy.
Fifty years of military dictatorship has resulted in collective prudence and austerity of expression. Shared memories of arrests, beatings and shootings temper the excitement of electoral empowerment. Whatever the election observers may say, it’s Suu Kyi herself who will – in the eyes of the West at least – decide whether or not the election has been ‘inclusive, transparent and credible’. She is the West’s true election monitor. The United States, the EU and especially the UK, are still, in some sense, in thrall to her moral rulings. Before 2011, Burma was the favourite cause of NGOs and politicians committed to human rights. Foreign policy was largely determined by what ‘The Lady’ had to say. Now there are bigger strategic and commercial interests in Myanmar, and her hold over Western governments has loosened. But in the inevitable cacophony that will follow election day, her voice will sound loudest. So it will be interesting, too, to see how Western opinion responds if the NLD fails to perform as well as it hopes, and she cries foul play.
There is no precedent in Myanmar for what is about to happen. The military aren’t accustomed to ceding power, and voters aren’t used to trying to take it from them. The three-month transition period between the election and the formation of a new government will be especially fragile if the result is close, contested or not respected. No one knows what may happen over the coming weeks and months, whatever the astrologers claim.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.