Myanmar caught in a cleft stick

Bidanda Chengappa | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on November 06, 2015

Running along: Going where?

Will the people opt for the chauvinist military-Buddhist clergy combine, or the pro-democracy elements?

Myanmar is scheduled to go the polls on November 8. These elections will make it clear to what extent its military dictatorship would actually encourage democracy in the country.

Two major obstacles that hinder the country’s political transformation from a ‘disciplined democracy’ into a liberal democracy are the powerful military and the resurgence of militant and chauvinistic Buddhist fervour. It is increasingly evident that the military will feed off the narrow Buddhist definition of nationalism.

Resurgent chauvinism

The architect of multi-party movement, the National League for Democracy (NLD), would perhaps witness a decline in voter support unless there is something drastic that happens at the last minute. The effects on the minorities, ethnic and non-Buddhist communities, including Muslims, will be dramatic. The military will find it difficult to control this Frankenstein of Buddhist nationalism.

Over the last five years since the last electoral exercise, political reforms towards democracy have progressed at a glacial pace. The pro-military civilian regime has convulsed on many issues that include the need to improve its human rights record, the inability to establish an effective human rights commission and restructure its judicial process from the lowest to the highest echelons, curbs on media which have re-appeared slowly, and failure to effectively end ethnic instability.

However, the pro-military civilian government did well to create an environment for foreign direct investment in key sectors and at the same time expanded its commercial diplomacy to meet the conditions set by western countries and international institutions.

The present constitution of Myanmar has always come to be seen as a controversial document with the sole aim and objective of keeping the military in power. Promises made in the early days of the Thein Sein administration on transparency and accountability in tune with liberal democracy have failed to fructify.

Clearly, the military’s predilections about its future are understandable. Its fears about the rise of democracy in the country, too, are understandable. The 1990 elections have left an indelible mark on its memory. Since 1990, the military ruled the country with an iron hand. Diplomats were warned to stay away from the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.

They were cautioned against supporting the restive ethnic minorities who inhabit the country’s borders with Thailand, Bangladesh and India. It is likely that the Buddhist base of the NLD will cede ground to the government-sponsored Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), at the behest of the chauvinistic clergy.

Importance for India

This combination is opposed to Suu Kyi and the non-Buddhist minorities, especially the Muslim community. Therefore the battle lines are drawn between narrow chauvinistic elements and the pro-democracy movement. The future course of action of the ethnic minorities, who have their reservations about Suu Kyi, is a moot issue.

Either way, the military will stand to gain. India will obviously watch the outcome of elections with great care and caution. Its only desire is that the outcome will bring in internal stability and a move towards some degree of parliamentary democracy. India’s credentials to deal with the military junta and its own track record with the pro-democracy elements are well known.

Importantly, India would wish for a friendly government in Yangon that would balance Myanmar’s relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Like India, the PRC has maintained a good equation with the NLD even during the mid-1990s and counselled the former State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) against rash steps to outlaw the former. The PRC had repeatedly counselled the military not take hard steps against the Muslim community. Bangladesh will hope that extremist elements, that are poised to come to prominence, will not upset the balance in relations and rake up communal issues in the sensitive Rakhine state. The US led-western world would watch these elections with substantial interest, given that Myanmar is also important to western initiatives in this extended region.

Suu Kyi still has a dominant role in this critical election despite the bar on her contesting the top post in view of the existing constitutional provisions. Radical Buddhist elements must not receive approbation at the hustings. The entry of religion into political power play would create greater challenges for a pro-democracy and pro-secular Myanmar.

The writer teaches International Relations and Strategic Studies at Christ University, Bengaluru

Published on November 06, 2015
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