My take, Myanmar General Elections

On Sunday, November 9th, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) held its first ever truly democratic general election after five decades of military rule. Seventy-six political parties are competing for 330 seats in the lower house and 168 in the upper house. The main opposition to Military rule is the National League for Democracy (NLD), a popular political party that won elections in 1990 with 80% of the popular vote (the military denied the existence of these elections shortly after and began a crackdown). A spokesman for the NLD said they are expected to win 97 percent of the seats which is well over the 67 percent the NLD needs to win a majority and form a government. Even if not the NLD, almost all smaller ethnic parties are expected to side with the NLD in the event of a presidential vote.

However promising and democratic this may seem, the people of Myanmar are still not in complete control of their government. First of all, the entire military is separate from parliament’s control. Secondly, the constitution is designed to prevent the complete overthrow of military rule and therefore reserves a fourth of parliament and a third of regional positions to military appointments as well as the appointment of the Home Affairs Minister who controls the heavily criticised police, security and justice systems. This matters because Myanmar’s military and Justice Department are the two biggest threats to democracy in the country. The military has been known to engage in atrocities such as recruiting child soldiers, attacking ethnic communities and employing rape as a weapon of war, while the Justice Department has engaged in torture, extrajudicial killings and the taking of political prisoners. Both of these problems are created by the constitution which requires more than 75% of parliament to amend, which is a virtual impossibility due to the clause granting 25% of the seats to the military . The constitution also gives the military the right to take direct control of the government for “national unity” reasons.

It seems the real question is what can the parliament do. Well, even in the face of the 2008 constitution, quite a bit. They will have the power to appoint the head of the Electoral Commission who under the current government deliberately disenfranchised about 20 percent of the elector and purposely rejected Muslim candidates from running. They will be able to appoint the head of many other ministries, replacing military officials with those who have experience in their field (this is extremely important in areas such as health). They will also be able to support democracy through legislature that will make changes such as supporting freedom of speech. Perhaps the biggest gain will be in the ability to appoint Supreme Court Judges, although the military-controlled police may not give a prisoner free trial.

In conclusion, the Myanmar General elections, although restrained by five decades of military rule, are a step in the right direction. It is true that the people will be powerless to stop the military from raping, executing and looting villages and it is pretty clear that the 2008 constitution will do its job in ingeniously letting the military present a democratically elected government to the international community while they still hold ultimate power. However, through small steps such as freedom of speech and the replacement of military officials that oversee critical infrastructure such as transportation and health, the post-election Myanmar will certainly be better than its predecessor.

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