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  • Nathan Tipping

The Threats to Myanmar’s Fledgling Democracy

Photograph: Flickr, xiamenpx

This is just the beginning of the road… there is a lot more to be done before our people will feel secure enough to celebrate – Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) following the party’s landslide victory at the 2015 Myanmar Election.

Suu Kyi’s words were far more cautious than many perhaps suspected. After all, the 2015 election saw the revival of democracy in a country ruled by the military for decades. Yet whilst the election is indeed a landmark in the country’s history, once the euphoria wears off the new government must confront the long-standing issues facing them. The enduring grip of the military, ethno-religious violence, and economic concerns will soon come to pressure the democratic trajectory Myanmar has set itself upon.

Following independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar was a democracy until a coup in 1962 saw the military take power. Soon after, the government embarked on a program of Soviet-style central economic planning alongside wholesale nationalisation, leading to stagnation and international isolation. Aung San Suu Kyi, is the daughter of Aung San, the Myanmar statesman who negotiated the country’s independence and widely considered the ‘Father of the Nation’. In the 1990 election the NLD won a massive majority, though the military annulled the result and revived it’s crackdown on dissent. Suu Kyi remained under house arrest until 2011, when the military began to gradually loosen its grip on the country in the run up to the 2015 elections.

The military remains a potent force in Myanmar’s politics and a very real threat to democracy. Prior to the election the military ensured its permanent political presence by passing a constitutional amendment granting it a quarter of the seats in government. It is no coincidence that for a constitutional amendment to pass it requires three-quarters support in the Assembly of the Union. Meanwhile, the military remains in control of key areas of government, such as energy and border controls. A number of worryingly vague constitutional passages permit the resumption of martial control in the case of a scenarios such as an unspecified ‘state of emergency’, potentially ending the budding democracy in the event of domestic instability. This cocktail of constitutional clauses has cemented the military’s stranglehold on Myanmar’s politics for the foreseeable future.

Ethnic and religious divides now pose the greatest risk to Myanmar’s developing democracy. The NLD gained such a massive majority by galvanising support against the incumbent military establishment, enough so to trump the appeal of ethno-politics. Now the challenge of maintaining unity begins. Minor ethnic and religious tensions have been exacerbated by crippling poverty and long term oppression. The same liberalisation that is finally allowing democracy to blossom in Myanmar is at the same time un-bottling ethnic tensions too. The Rohingya Muslims face the brunt of this oppression. Forced to live in segregated conditions in Western Myanmar, they face persecution from all levels of society. A number of prominent Buddhist monks have in the last few years began inciting violence against Muslims – allegedly sponsored by state officials, according to Human Rights Watch. This has so far culminated in the Rakhine State Riots in 2012 and the widespread anti-Muslim attacks throughout 2013, killing hundreds from all ethnic groups across the country. Many Muslims and minorities were denied the right to stand as candidates in 2015, even with Suu Kyi labelling the election ‘largely free’. Despite being stripped of citizenship for decades and being amongst the most deprived demographic in Myanmar, Suu Kyi has been relatively quiet on their suffering. Most likely this is to maintain unity. To express sympathy with persecuted groups would risk fracturing the NLD, which fielded no Muslim candidates in the 2015 election. By following a pragmatic realpolitik approach, Suu Kyi treads a fine line between maintaining order and permitting racial oppression.

Despite being one of the poorest countries in the region, Myanmar’s economic prospects now look promising. Since the gradual liberalisation of the country began in 2011, the EU and United States have lifted sanctions. Meanwhile, there has been a rush of foreign and direct investment from across the Western world and from South-East Asia, hoping to grab a share of Myanmar’s vast quantities of untapped natural resources. Severe flooding and landslides last year led to 1.6 million people being displaced and widespread infrastructural damage, which saw the growth rate drop from around 8% to 6%. Once again, the military will be a lingering obstacle to reform. Being the largest shareholders in many of the country’s industries, alongside being steadfast opponents of free trade, there remains the risk of corrupt officers becoming oligarchs by sapping an economy already on its knees.

After such a long struggle for freedom, Myanmar’s budding democracy has had little time to celebrate before the reality of ruling sets in. Rising ethnic tensions, the enduring threat of the military, and a rocky path to economic reform present pressing challenges, both to the unity of Myanmar’s politics, and to the stability of the country.

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