Talha Sadiq, Blog Writer
Canadians will be going to the polls on October 19, 2015 for the 42nd general election. At the same time on the other side of the world, after nearly 50 years of military rule, Myanmar will be preparing to head to the polls for the first time on November 8, 2015. Both countries may identify as democracies yet, the concept of democracy is alarmingly different depending which country you find yourself in.
The military plays an important role in Myanmar’s political structure and continues to be heavily involved in all levels of government and bureaucracy. Military generals still exercise authority in Myanmar with 25 percent of the seats in the parliament reserved exclusively for the military. The military has thus far refused to give up its absolute power and control, and has also failed to take the steps necessary for a true transition to civilian government. As a result, the military’s continued involvement in the political structure of Myanmar makes a genuinely democratic outcome in the upcoming general elections unlikely, even if the process is alleged to be “free and fair”.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has had growing support against the military-backed ruling party. Her party won elections in 1990 but the then-ruling military junta ignored the results. Though the military has allowed reforms in the constitution and has relinquished its absolute power, it seems unwilling to negotiate even a small reduction in its political power. Political analysts argue that even if the NLD secures the most seats in the election, the military-protected constitution will ensure that key decisions made and positions filled will remain with the military. Consequently, making the election largely cosmetic.
Even if the NLD secures a victory and is allowed to exercise some semblance of power, their reputation insofar as protecting Myanmar’s most vulnerable people leaves a lot to be desired. The NLD has been criticized by the international community for trying to secure voters by appeasing the majority groups and largely ignoring the persecuted minorities. None of the NLD party’s 1,151 candidates standing in regional and national elections is Muslim. With the military already in charge, it is pertinent for the minority voice to be heard in the parliament. This leads to systematic discrimination against the minorities, particularly the Rohingya.
The Rohingya in the Rakhine state have been persecuted for decades by Myanmar’s post-independence military governments. Due to the government’s victimization, the Rohingya and their concerns have never been heard. This is one of the reasons why they have not been recognized as an indigenous ethnic group, not granted citizenship, and not even included in the national census. The NLD and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi have yet to speak up against the state-sponsored ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. As the internationally acclaimed advocate for peace and democracy, Suu Kyi is expected to act without considering political gains. She has instead blamed both sides, the Buddhist extremist and the stateless Rohingya, for the violence. Suu Kyi’s perspective differs greatly from the reality on ground. Due to increasing conflict and persecution, hundreds have died, and almost half a million refugees have been displaced in Myanmar. Even if the democratic process plays out as it’s supposed to, neither the military nor the NLD offer any protection to the Rohingya.
It is important to understand that democratic processes strengthen through political evolution. However, progress requires the need for increased transparency in the electoral process along with protection of the fundamental rights to vote and citizenship – something that seems very distant for the Rohingya. Unless the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi keep principles of justice before votes, the plight and persecution of the Rohingya will remain changed.