Max Walden

Myanmar: Why a democratic win doesn’t mean democracy

Despite her landslide election win, the long road that has walked upon is no closer to its destination, Max Walden writes.


In May, 1990, Myanmar held its first multi-party elections since 1960. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy claimed a landslide victory, but the military rejected the result. Over 25 years later, history has not repeated itself.

The 2015 election in Myanmar is undoubtedly an astonishing win for electoral democracy in Southeast Asia.

Htay Oo, leader of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), conceded defeat early on, accepting the election results “without any reservations.” President Thein Sein and the chief of the military have congratulated Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) for “gathering the support of the people” and winning almost 80 percent of seats.

Embarrassingly, the ruling USDP even lost in Naypyidaw, the military’s creepy ghost capital built in 2005.

The Asian Network for Free Elections – the leading organisation that monitors democratic processes in the region, has declared it a “significant step” for Myanmar’s democracy and have praised the timely release of election results.

Despite the publication of the results, it will be a long time before Myanmar will become truly democratic.

Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency, although she vows to govern “from above,” the constitution reserves one in four parliamentary seats for military officials, and the nation’s most powerful bureaucracies will remain under the control of the army.

Civil society in Myanmar has proved astoundingly resilient under the grip of military dictatorship, and has actually played a significant role in the country’s transition towards democracy. The role of civil society organisations in politics was enhanced by the 2010 cyclone, where limited state resources necessitated assistance from NGOs and CSOs to provide crisis management and contribute to rebuilding efforts. There are hundreds or even thousands of domestic NGOs now operating there.

Yet Human Rights Watch reports that although there has not been an open crackdown against activists as in past elections, a “culture of sly intimidation of civil society still pervades.”

Moreover, Refugees International laments a lost opportunity to have extended Burmese civil society’s capacity and influence during this year’s terrible floods.

Myanmar’s media remains anything but free. In the lead up to this election, journalists have been subject to threats, harassment and imprisonment. At least 10 journalists have been jailed in the past year. It ranked 144 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index 2015, below Afghanistan, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

Democracy must also be representative of pluralistic societies. Despite its linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity, Myanmar remains aggressively dominated by Buddhist, ethnic Burmans who constitute around two thirds of the population.

In recent years, ultranationalist monk U Wirathu has led a movement called the Committee to Protect Race and Religion or Ma Ba Tha. Despite the country’s relatively small Muslim population, Ma Ba Tha has campaigned against Muslims as threatening Buddhism and the safety of Burmese people. They have even accused Aung San Suu Kyi of attempting to Islamise the nation.

This violent, majoritarian movement that has gained so much traction is fundamentally undemocratic.

Ethnic minority rights are a defining issue in what is supposed to be a democratic union of diverse peoples. The Kachin Independence Army’s continuing militarisation is a testament to the fact that the Government’s “peace process” is largely rhetorical.

Dangerous Burman chauvinism is, however, most pronounced in the treatment of the Rohingya who continue to flee by the thousands. According to an investigation by Al Jazeera in conjunction with Yale University Law School, there is “strong evidence” that the USDP’s marginalisation and persecution of Rohingya amounts to an intent to commit genocide.

A new NLD Government urgently needs to address this issue of minority rights. This seems unlikely, given Suu Kyi has been virtually silent on the matter of Rohingya persecution.

An election is, of course, a vital first step towards democracy. But a free press, flourishing civil society sector and institutions that protect the human rights of minorities are also fundamental.

Towards these aims, Myanmar still has a long way to go.


Max Walden

Max is a researcher and social justice advocate who has worked in the education and community sectors in Australia and Southeast Asia. He is interested in the promotion of the human rights of vulnerable groups, particularly asylum seekers and refugees.

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