Whenever Burma is mentioned, many people envisage a dictatorship not too dissimilar from North Korea with a Parliament and Government packed with those in military uniforms pushing extensive pro-military policies that increase the strength of the armed forces at the expense of the education, healthcare and livelihood of ordinary people. However since the creation of Burma’s ‘Roadmap to Democracy’ in 2003 and establishment of its 2008 Constitution with the intention of establishing a “discipline-flourishing democracy”, the reality in Burma is that it has been moving away from people’s preconceptions of it and towards a more democratic future.
Indeed earlier this month on 8th November, Burma took an important step towards leaving behind its dictatorial, military past that was responsible for widespread suffering, human rights abuses, killings, arrests and even the use of child soldiers, and instead towards a fully functioning democracy after holding its first free and fair elections since the introduction of a civilian government in 2011 that ended nearly 50 years of military rule. Although there were elections held in 2010, these were widely derided and denounced as flawed and lacking in credibility.
In the aftermath of these elections, it is clear that Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party has won the majority of seats in the Burmese Parliament, although the final result is not expected to be announced until around 29th November 2015 and the new Parliament will not convene and choose a new President until at least February 2016, and I am hopeful that the NLD will make progress in opening up Burma to the outside world.
“Major reservations and concerns”
Nevertheless, despite these elections serving as an important landmark for Burma’s transition away from dictatorship and towards democracy, I have major reservations and concerns not just about the quality of this democracy as it is clear that the appearance that the military’s grip on power is loosening is wrong, but also about the elections themselves as they took place without a substantial portion of the country’s population even included on the ballot.
The first issue – the quality of democracy – concerns the contents of the 2008 Constitution, which although a substantial improvement over what came before it in military-led Burma, still grants the Burmese military enormous power. For instance, although we have just celebrated the first successful elections since 2011 and the election of many new Burmese Parliamentarians to their Parliament, it must be remembered that 25% of the Parliament wasn’t even up for election, as this 25% is reserved solely for the military. If such a situation was to be replicated in the UK, it would mean that over 160, which is all of the MPs in the North East, the North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber combined, would be replaced by military representatives.
Along with holding a substantial number of seats in the Parliament, the military also have an iron grip over the Government, as despite their UK equivalents being chosen by the Prime Minister after their success at a General Election, the Burmese Home Affairs Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister and Defence Minister are all appointed by the military. This means that despite the democratic election of a civilian government, the military still control the police, security services and justice system, effectively allowing them to silence anyone who opposed them and preventing the free-speech that is vital for a healthy democracy.
Under the 2008 Constitution, the military in Burma also retains the right to retake control of the country for reasons of ‘national security’ and ‘national unity’, both of which are vague and deliberately ambiguous so as to allow the military to threaten any government thinking of reforms with a coup, backing up their parliamentary veto with hard military force if need be.
The second issue – the absence of women and ethnic minorities in the political process – is just as troubling. Out of the 6,065 candidates for the 2 Houses of the Burmese Parliament and the 14 State and Regional Parliaments, just 28 were Muslims and 903 were Christians in comparison to 5,130 Buddhists, and despite the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi, only 13% of candidates in the wider political process were female.
Not only does this demonstrate that the Government and the military have been stacking the hand in favour of the established elites, it also reveals that there is widespread discrimination against both women and ethnic minorities in Burma, particular the Rohingya. Overall, around 20% of the population, including up to 800,000 Rohingya, were deliberately disenfranchised or left unable to vote for a variety of reasons, of which being constitutionally barred, having their registration cards being removed and the limitations imposed by the 1982 Citizenship Law are just three.
There is also continual violence, stirred up by the military and ruling party, towards the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. Local experts believe that there is strong evidence of genocide still being committed against the Rohingya which led to the Rakhine State riots in 2012 and the killing of many Rohingya, and the ongoing, but much less talked about, refugee crisis in the seas of South East Asia with many Rohingya fleeing the country. So whilst the elections in Burma appear to move the country towards democracy, and to a great extent they do in comparison to previous elections, they fail to grant the continuously oppressed in Burma the voice that they need to stop their oppression and represent Burma.
“UK Government needs to do much more in Burma”
It is therefore clear that the UK Government needs to do much more in working with Burma to properly set the country on the path to democracy, and it is in issue that I have repeatedly raised with both the Foreign and International Development Secretaries.
In the elections there were almost 41,000 polling stations and the UK Government allocated £2.7 million of its £9 million fund to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to help train staff for these polling stations. Whilst I am glad that the Government made such a substantial commitment and lobbied the EU to deploy an Election Observer Mission to Burma, this money was provided to the Union Electoral Commission (UEC) in Burma which has a record on rejected ethnic minority candidates, and it is therefore important that the Government put pressure on the new Burmese Government to ensure reform in the UEC to prevent such disqualifications in the future and guarantee that UK money is not spent on active electoral discrimination.
With the NLD’s history of equally unfair treatment towards ethnic minorities and Aung San Suu Kyi's failure to adequately speak up for the Rohingya, the Government must also be forceful in raising the human rights situation in Burma with the new Government when it forms in April 2016, and I am glad that in an answer to my recent written question to the Government, Hugo Swire has met with the previous Burmese Government to discuss this issue and has stated that he will raise the issue with the new Burmese Government to address the human rights concerns and recognition of the Rohingya.
Then, and only then, can Burma take the road to democracy and can the repressed in Burma be truly free.