On Sunday, November 8, the citizens of the Southeast Asian country Myanmar (commonly known as Burma) voted in the country’s first mostly free elections since a military takeover, more than 50 years ago. The country’s election committee is expected to take weeks in tabulating the official results, especially from rural areas. However, the preliminary tally indicates that pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won an overwhelming victory, taking 90 percent of seats so far. Equally notable are the reports from international election observers, who have confirmed that the nation-wide vote was widely conducted in fair and peaceful conditions, despite the potential for the ruling military generals to lose power.
Suu Kyi is a long-time advocate for democracy in Myanmar, and was placed in house arrest for much of her adult life, stretching from the late 1980s to 2010. The daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Suu Kyi and her NLD party won a crucial election in 1991 that was soon nullified by the ruling military generals (she was recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize in the same year). The situation persisted over the next 20 years, with periodic protests by NLD supporters that were quashed by the government, until the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) began enacting democratic reforms in 2010.
However, because these reforms have only been partially completed, the NLD’s apparent victory in this election places the future of Myanmar squarely at a crossroads. The revised constitution imposed by Myanmar’s generals still reserves a minimum of 25 percent of its Parliament for the incumbent USDP, in order to ensure that the military continues to exercise control over the country’s political affairs. Moreover, Suu Kyi herself was banned from holding the office of the Presidency given her history of rebellion against the military – a condition she reluctantly agreed to in order to move forward with other democratic reforms. (In recent days, Suu Kyi has claimed that she will act “above the President” in the event of an NLD win.) The generals have also hard-wired control over key government ministries, including interior and defence posts, and a veto over future constitutional reforms.
An even greater unresolved question is the fate of the country’s ethnic minorities, who in total are estimated to make up 40 percent of the population. In particular, Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have faced a relentless campaign of persecution in recent years, driven by military generals and nationalist Buddhist monks who view them as illegal migrants in the country – despite the fact that much of the community has been in Myanmar for several generations. Recent reports indicate that over 100,000 Rohingya are in internally displaced camps, and several thousand have already fled the country in conditions strikingly similar to those of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. The Rohingya were denied the right to vote in this year’s election, and Suu Kyi and her NLD party remained silent about their plight. Beyond the Rohingya, it appears that most of the country’s other ethnic minority groups failed to win representation in Parliament – leaving open the question of whether even the pro-democracy NLD will be sympathetic to their concerns.
What prompted Myanmar’s generals to open up the country to open elections that risk challenging their iron grip on power? And what might be the long-term ramifications of such a shift on the country’s neighbours? It’s difficult to truly understand the inner workings of the notoriously closed-off country, but a few trends may point to important factors in the military regime’s decision-making. From an international trade perspective, Myanmar used to be relatively stable in the flow of goods entering and leaving the country, with both imports and exports staying in the $1 – $3 billion range per year for most of the 1990s and early 2000s (for context, nearly $2 billion worth of goods crosses the U.S.-Canadian border each day). However, that number began to shoot up in the late 2000s, as the country became more enmeshed in the world economy. By the early 2010s, the value of Myanmar’s imports (the red line in the graph below) had sky-rocketed to $12 billion, while its exports (the blue line) had grown much more slowly, to $7 billion per year. This situation could have posed a potentially life-threatening problem for the regime: with such a recurring trade imbalance, the country would eventually face a crippling fiscal crisis in coming up with the money to pay for all the imports that its people were beginning to enjoy.
Enter the United States and the West. Because Western countries imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s military regimes, the country had to trade with its Asian neighbours, especially China and Thailand. While both countries’ economies experienced tremendous growth in their own right, they likely did not offer the same export market potential as industrialized nations that generally have higher costs for raw materials and low-grade manufacturing. Therefore, meeting the West’s expectations for democratic reforms may be a tool to open up trading relations and export markets to help finance Myanmar’s growth – something the United States has indeed mentioned in the wake of last week’s election. The fast-moving action on the Trans Pacific Partnership – a trade agreement between the United States, Canada, and many of Myanmar’s neighbours – may have upped the urgency for the military regime to access those markets.
However, all is not well in Myanmar, even with the seemingly peaceful transition to democratic elections. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims has intensified in the last two years, to the point that observers fear yet another refugee crisis could unfold in Southeast Asia, potentially destabilizing neighbouring countries that are themselves in various stages of transitioning to democracy and respect for human rights. The recent round of violence appears to be fuelled by Myanmar’s powerful monks, who preach a militant form of Buddhist nationalism that particular target Muslims as outsiders. The USDP government unofficially allied themselves with the popular monks, highlighting their pro-Buddhist laws in the recent campaign. Tellingly, neither Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party, nor Western countries, including the United States, explicitly called attention to the treatment of the Rohingya population – indicating that the monks may be too powerful to take on at the moment. Whether Myanmar successfully transitions to a legitimate democracy and contributes to regional stability may ultimately not rest on whether Suu Kyi can take on the country’s military generals, but rather its spiritual leaders.
The really big surprise in these results wasn’t the drubbing that the USDP got, or the NLD landslide, it was the massive defeat suffered by most ethnic minority parties. For a country still emerging from six decades of civil war, it is a big concern if the parliament fails to reflect the diversity of the country.” – Richard Horsey, independent political analyst
- “Myanmar Faces Historic Election with Potential to End Military Rule“, by Nathan Vanderklippe (The Globe and Mail)
- “Muslims Feel Disenfranchised in Myanmar’s Election“, by Nathan Vanderklippe (The Globe and Mail)
- “Myanmar Election: Aung San Suu Kyi Calls for Reconciliation Talks with Military“, by Oliver Holmes (The Guardian)
- “Myanmar’s Buddhist Monks Flex Muscle Ahead of Election“, by James Hookway and Shibani Mahtani (The Wall Street Journal)
- How do you see Myanmar’s future evolving? Should the United States and other Western countries normalize relations with the country based on the recent election?