Buddhist clergy calling the shots
Myanmar, now formally a democratic country under a civil government, will go for its second general elections on November 8. In 2011, the Army Generals, who had ruled the country with an iron hand for nearly half a century, decided to shed their uniforms and put on civilian garb to make Myanmar’s “democracy” look credible. They set up a political outfit named Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), headed by Burmese President Thein Sein, a former military commander. According to the 2008 Constitution, government officials/civil servants, including government ministers like Thein Sein, are not allowed to form political parties, although the Electoral Commission has approved the party nonetheless.
The first election in 2011 was a loaded-dice election in which the Army-sponsored party was destined to win. The second elections now will be no different either. How democratic will the elections be? Aung San Suu Kyi, the unchallenged leader of the democratic opposition in Myanmar, has been debarred from contesting the polls and running for the Presidency under a law which disqualifies any candidate with a foreign spouse or children. Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British national. So are her sons. The “law” was enacted with the sole objective of permanently preventing her from contesting and ever coming to power. However, her National League of Democracy (NLD) is contesting the polls and hoping to win a majority of seats.
Secondly, the Muslims who constitute about four percent of the population (official figure) have been debarred both from voting and bringing forth candidates from their community. The Buddhist clergy saw to that. Ashin Wirathu is a Burmese Buddhist monk and the spiritual leader of the anti-Muslim movement in Burma. He has been accused of inspiring persecution of Muslims through his speeches, although he claims to be nothing more than a peaceful preacher, despite openly referring to Muslims as the “enemy”. The series of organised attacks on the Rohingya Muslims, most of them living in the Rakhine province, led to the displacement of nearly 1.5 lakh of them who have been forced to live in ghettos, dependent on government doles. Another lakh and a half are believed to have escaped to other countries by boats, some never reaching their destination as their boats sank in the high seas. The only Rohingya legislator (elected in 2011) was told that this time he cannot seek a re-election.
The Buddhist clergy, like its Sri Lankan counterpart, is very powerful. It had earlier supported Suu Kyi and her movement for restoration of democracy but later changed its stand. It extended full support to the Generals and opposed Suu Kyi. Now it opposes her saying she is unfit to govern. In the coming days, Buddhist radicals are expected to assert themselves more forcefully.
The Buddhist clergy is also opposed to the Christians. There is a large population of ethnic minorities in Myanmar, divided into over a hundred distinct ethnic groups. The ethnic minorities have been carrying on an armed battle with the Myanmar State for a long time. There are seven provinces populated by the ethnic minorities. Four of them have a sizeable Christian population. They are afraid that with little monetary resources, they will be at a disadvantage to fight the coming elections. It will not be a level-playing field for them and reduce their chances of winning seats in the new Parliament.
How the opposition will fare in the November 8 elections is an open question. The parties have been directed not to criticise the Army or the Constitution drawn up by the Army. They have been allotted a time of fifteen minutes for election speeches on State television and radio, but the speeches will have to be vetted by the Election Commission.
Myanmar’s transition from a country ruled by an Army junta to a real democracy will not be complete as long as the Generals rule the country in civilian garb. The Generals are determined to hold on to power and give the country an Army-controlled democracy much like the “guided democracy” of Gen. Ayub Khan in Pakistan way back in 1957. Even the disqualification of Muslims from taking part in the election is reminiscent of Pakistan’s EBDO or Elective Bodies Disqualification Ordinance, which effectively eliminated all opposition to the military dictatorship.
As far as India is concerned, the relations between the two countries have improved considerably in the last decade. As India realised that it had made a mistake in treating Myanmar as a pariah because it was under a military dictatorship, it started taking corrective steps. With India having been cold to Myanmar, China had a field day to extend its influence in the country. Now India has a presence in Myanmar, providing financial assistance for its economic development.
Today, Myanmar occupies an important place in India’s “Look East” policy. There are several ongoing projects to deepen economic cooperation and trade between India and her neighbours involving Myanmar. One such project is the Asian Highway Network. Another is the East-West corridor. Then there is the Trilateral Highway connecting India with Vietnam through Myanmar. And lastly there is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project. Once completed, it will be of strategic importance for India as it will connect Kolkata port with Sittwe port in Myanmar by sea. Then Sittwe will be connected to Lashio in Mizoram by road and then to Kolkata. It will be an alternative trade route for India.
(The author is a senior political commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal)