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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Myanmar's New Day

It's a country where semantic change understandably confuses outsiders. Long a military dictatorship, votes are being tabulated in the Country Formerly Known as Burma, and celebrations are continuing in the City Formerly Known as Rangoon under a flag that is barely five years old and in a capital that has only been so for nine years.

Under the watchful eyes of the statues of three ancient Burmese kings in Naypyidaw, however, some real change may be coming.

Myanmar, an ancient kingdom that became a British colony, gained its independence in 1948. A brief democratic period came to an end in 1962 when the military engineered a coup d'etat. They've been in power ever since. A large uprising in 1988 led to a free election in 1990. The landslide victory for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, widely compared to South African icon Nelson Mandela, was ignored by the military and they continued their iron-fisted rule. Another large uprising in 2007 (dubbed the "Saffron Revolution") led to an election which Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy boycotted. Unsurprisingly, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, backed by the military, coasted to a rigged victory.

That all seems to be changing. In a desperate attempt to jolt the country's economy and frustrated people back to life, the Burmese government has decided to concede to a general election, which took place on November 8th.

The country is multilingual and lacks a strong, fluid election infrastructure, so official results will take another few days, but earlier today, according to the Myanmar Times, an English and Burmese newspaper which managed to persevere through years of political censorship and repression, about 30% of the votes have been counted.

With 354 (30.2%) of the official results declared, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is sweeping the country. It has won over 85% of the seats so far in both the House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw) and the House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw). It is also dominating the local elections. The Union Solidarity and Development Party has been thrown out en masse, its acting chairman simply telling the world's press outlets "We lost." The tiny number of other votes have gone to mostly ethnic-interest parties as Myanmar's ethnic background is diverse and often turbulent.

The thundering NLD train probably isn't going to slow down any time soon, but Burmese democracy isn't established just yet. Aung San Suu Kyi, though nearly universally loved by the Burmese people, cannot run for president because her sons and late husband are not Burmese, a clause widely seen as designed to keep her out of power. Suu Kyi has said she will be in a position "above the president" if the NLD wins the election, but what that means remains unclear. Unless the military fully caves, which is extremely unlikely even in the face of crushing electoral defeat, Suu Kyi won't be president despite her much larger voice.

When the dust settles there will still be another barrier in the way for Suu Kyi and the NLD to fight. The Burmese military, though they have conceded elections and let the landslide of NLD votes come in for the time being, have reserved a quarter of both houses for themselves, and a three-quarters majority is needed to pass constitutional changes (namely, letting Suu Kyi become president). This means NLD is going to have to win in an enormous landslide. Myanmar's first-past-the-post electoral system makes this possible but still difficult. In the 1990 election that was thrown out, the NLD won 52.5% of the popular vote but nearly 80% of the seats.

Myanmar has many problems to sort out. The ethnic majority Bamar (Burmese) has often oppressed the ethnic minorities of Myanmar such as the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chin, and especially the Rohingya peoples. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority subject to persecution by the Buddhist majority. Just like nearby India, Myanmar is a country where dozens of languages are spoken. It is also a poor country surrounded by neighbors where tensions abound because of the incompetence and mismanagement of the military dictatorship. Refugees are flooding Bangladesh and Thailand from regional conflicts.

First of all, religious freedom must be championed in the new Myanmar. The military dictatorship has used a mix of Buddhism and nationalism to persecute Muslim minorities. Nationalist Buddhists recently have filled soccer/football stadiums to protests "Islamism", though questions have been raised as to whether it's political and fundamentalist Islamism or just Islam as a faith that they are protesting.

Myanmar is a unitary state, meaning most of the governmental work is done With its size and population, the unitary system may not be optimal. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, also a unitary state, nearly everything came from and to Baghdad. Today, Iraq is becoming a decentralized federal republic and with proper implementation (and a lull in religious tension would help too) could become much more effective. Likewise, Russia, a federation, a country of dozens of different ethnicities and two different words to describe its people ("Russkiy" for ethnic Russians, "Rossiskiy" for citizens of Russia, both ethnically Russian and not) manages to allow some degree of autonomy to its various peoples. While tensions and prejudices certainly exist in Russia against Central Asians and Caucasians, ethnic tension between the peoples of Russia proper is rare. Myanmar would do well to acknowledge its ethnic minorities and to give them proper autonomy over their own affairs and in their own languages as well as Burmese, and this includes dialogue and recognition of the Rohingya Muslims who have been brutally persecuted by the partially outgoing government.

Myanmar was sanctioned by the United States when it was a full-blown military dictatorship. Now that it is moving away from that to a certain extent, it has the opportunity to receive investment and growth from countries including the United States that have disagreed with its government's repression.

There is a lot of speculation on whether the Burmese government will actually change because of this election. While much of the two houses of Parliament will be NLD members, the president, barring a constitutional change put in by the new government despite the military's seats, will not be an NLD member, and much of the bureaucracy of the country remains in the hands of the troops. One of the NLD's most important priorities once those final results come in is to be able to move the country bureaucratically out of the doldrums it was and still is in under the military's rule.

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