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Myanmar faces problems galore

Myanmar faces problems galore
It is tempting to compare the recent Bihar state assembly elections with the parliamentary elections in neighbouring Myanmar. In both the polls, the dominant parties were decimated. Coincidentally, the Myanmar polls were held on November 8, the same day that the Bihar poll results were announced.

Despite many restrictions imposed by the ruling United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a political outfit serving as the civilian façade of the army, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi swept the polls. The overwhelming verdict of the people went against the USDP. In the Lower House of Parliament (House of Representatives), of the total 330 elective seats, the NLD won 225 and the USDP a mere 30. Similarly, in the Upper House (House of Nationalities), of the 224 elective seats, the NLD won 136 and the USDP just a dozen.

It should be kept in mind that in the Lower House, of the total of 440 seats, as much as 25 percent or 110 seats are reserved for army nominees. In the Upper House too, of the total 224 seats, 20 percent or 56 seats are occupied by the army. If these seats were de-reserved, the margin of NLD’s victory could have been much bigger. Suu Kyi is constitutionally debarred from running for the presidency. The military added a provision to the country’s 2008 constitution, preventing anyone with foreign family members from becoming president. Suu Kyi’s two sons are British, as was her late husband. However, there is speculation that she may contest for the speaker’s post.

There is no doubt that after the NLD’s landslide victory, the army, hitherto ruling in the name of USDP, will be forced to yield democratic space to Myanmar’s civil society. For democracy to be fully restored in Myanmar, the constitution has to be amended, doing away with the arbitrary reservation of seats for army nominees in both houses of parliament. Also, the constitutional provision that disqualifies Suu Kyi from becoming the country’s president has to be dismantled. A new, democratic constitution has to be drafted, replacing the current  army-framed constitution.

There are some tricky questions in the post-election scenario. The first, of course, is the election of the new president. Will the army, which has 25 and 20 reserved seats respectively in the two houses of parliament, allow fair and free elections to be held? Suu Kyi has already made her intention abundantly clear in this regard.  In a press interview she said she would be “above the president”. Suu Kyi clarified by stating that if she was required to field a candidate for the presidency who would fulfil the constitutional requirements, she would find someone “but that won’t stop me from making all the decisions as the leader of the winning party.”

Another problem for her will be winning over the Buddhist clergy. The clergy is now supporting the army. It is also dead against giving voting right to Muslims. The clergy, whose political clout in Myanmar has increased, is implacably hostile to Suu Kyi. In its opinion, she is “not fit to govern”. Then there is the problem of giving voting rights to the Rohingya Muslim. The Buddhist clergy is up against them. In fact, the Rohingyas were given voting rights in February this year. But faced with the anger of the clergy, the Government hastily backtracked and disenfranchised them the very next day.

While the entire democratic world has welcomed the NLD’s victory, China seems to have some reservations about it. Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China (CPC), has already issued a warning to the yet-to-be-formed new government. Myanmar, the editorial said, should not move closer to the US. In its opinion, such a move would be “wit-less” because it “would ruin the strategic space and resources it can obtain from China’s amicable polices”. It reminded Myanmar’s leaders that “China has been strategically magnanimous and kind (to Myanmar).” 

New Delhi must craft its Myanmar policy imaginatively keeping in mind the sensitivities of all the stakeholders involved. It becomes more important now as relations with some of our neighbours are not as good as they should be. Beijing’s hostile reaction to post-election Myanmar is an advantage for India. The possibility of widening economic cooperation with Myanmar should be fully explored. Irritants in mutual relations (like the raid on a rebel Naga camp in Myanmar in June) should be carefully avoided.

While befriending Suu Kyi and the NLD, New Delhi should not antagonize the army also because it will continue to be a powerful force in the country’s politics for some time to come. In Asia’s developing geopolitics today, Myanmar will play a major role. We cannot afford to alienate it as we had done in the past. 

(The author is a senior political commentator. Views expressed are personal)
Barun Das Gupta

Barun Das Gupta

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