Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Myanmar Elections - No Change

The world’s media appears to be all cock-a-hoop about the election victory of the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi. But the reality is that little will change in Myanmar.

The generals didn't suddenly wake up one day believing in democracy. They wanted to end sanctions and their pariah status, but they didn't want to give up control of the country. They knew that couldn't win an election. The NLD are far too popular. Their solution? A constitution which has the appearance of a democracy, but which still gives them ultimate control.

Newly elected MPs will be joined by 116 MPs, 25 percent of the total, who are appointed by the head of the army. These MPs will choose one of the two vice presidents, who will, like them, be a soldier. The head of the Burmese army also gets to choose key government ministers. The Defense Minister, Home Affairs Minister and Border Affairs Minister will all be serving soldiers. This puts the armed forces outside of the control of the new government. The new NLD government will also not have control over the police, justice system, security services or issues in ethnic states. Without control of the police or being able to create a truly independent judiciary, this is another area where the NLD will be hamstrung. People could still be jailed for their political beliefs or actions. The military has been committing horrific human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in the country. Rape is used as a weapon of war, farmers are tortured and executed, and villages are bombed and burned. Legal experts say the abuses taking place meet the legal definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity. An NLD government will be virtually powerless to stop this.

An NLD government can't even use the military budget to try to rein in the army. The army sets its own budget. The government has to make do with the money left over. No surprise then, than military spending is higher than health and education combined. Just in case an NLD government still tries to implement policies the military doesn't like, above both parliament and government is a National Defense and Security Council. Constitutionally, it is the most powerful body in Burma. It has eleven members, six of whom come from the military, so it has a built-in majority. It could overrule decisions made by an NLD government. As if all these checks on the power of the government were not enough, the military also inserted clauses in the constitution that give it the right to retake power for vague and unspecified "national security" and "national unity" reasons. Basically, any time they like.

Given all this, it's not surprising that one of the top priorities for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is constitutional reform. The generals realized this as well. That's where the 25 percent of seats reserved for them in parliament comes in to play. To change the constitution, more than 75 percent of MPs have to vote for it. This means the military have veto power over constitutional reform. No change unless they decide they want it.

Despite all these problems, having an NLD government, however hamstrung, will undoubtedly be better that what came before it. But it isn't democracy, and it isn't acceptable. It can't be described as a step in a transition process, because under the constitution, no further steps towards a genuine democracy are possible. Myanmar now has a hybrid system of military rule and democracy. It's democracy on a leash, good enough for much of the international community who seek to strengthen their commercial ties with the country. But a situation where the military are not under the control of the government and where the military appoint key government ministers, would be considered completely unacceptable in any Western country.

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