Myanmar: The Road Ahead

Next year’s election will be a crucial test of Myanmar’s reforms and provide an indication of how much power the military is prepared to cede to civilian politicians including Aung San Suu Kyi, according to three experts at a joint JCI, Merdeka Center, Foreign Policy Study Group forum focussing on the country’s prospects for further democratisation.

Ambassador Redzuan Kushairi, the deputy chairman of the FPSG, warned that outsiders should be under no illusions about the challenges Myanmar faces as it emerges from decades of militarisation. “The whole democratisation process revolves around the military and the USDP,” he stressed. “It is a country that is very much controlled by the military.

The 2015 elections will be crucial.” It was the military, which seized power in 1962, that designed and drafted the 2008 Constitution setting the direction for the current reforms. The document institutionalised a leading role for the military in the political process reserving a quarter of all parliamentary seats for serving officers. The Union Solidarity and Development Party which forms the current government is led by the junta’s former leader turned President Thein Sein and, like him, its members are former military officers. Those moves ensure the military can veto any amendments to the Constitution, which require the backing of at least 75 percent of parliamentarians.

More than 2,000 political prisoners have been released since the reforms started and Aung San Suu Kyi, who’d been held under house arrest almost continuously since the 1990 poll which her National League for Democracy won in a landslide, is also free to move around the country. She also won a parliamentary seat in 2012. Legal reforms mean protests are now possible, within certain limitations, and journalists have greater freedom to report. The country’s ranking rose to 145 in 2014, compared with 174 in 2011, higher than Asean partners including Singapore and Malaysia.

The removal of sanctions has led to a surge in international aid and investment. “It’s a far less repressive regime,” noted Monash University Malaysia associate professor Marco Bunte in his presentation. “But we still see a lot of coercion.” Despite the acceleration in economic growth triggered by the democratisation process, continued ethnic conflicts and the repression of the country’s 1.3 million Rohingya, who are Muslim and not recognised as citizens, threaten to undermine the advances of the past few years.

The United Nations in April warned the treatment of the Rohingya, many of whom are now coralled into squalid camps with little food, water of medical attention, could amount to, “crimes against humanity.” Speakers expressed concern too at organisational problems within the opposition NLD, arguing to had failed to challenge the government on key issues such as the treatment of the Rohingya.

The younger generation complain too that a lack of democracy within the party deprives them of the opportunity to advance. The NLD also appears to have made little effort to prepare for the election, despite the chance that it could take place within a year, noted Universiti Malaya Associate Professor Jatswan Singh.