November 9, 2015
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Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar – The endless struggle of a leader and a country drenched in violence and oppression for democracy and peace
Myanmar, former Burma, has a long history of occupation and struggle for independence, democracy and self-determination. In the 19thand 20th century, the British and the Japanese occupied its territory. Finally, in 1962, the country reached independence but this step wasn´t as positive as awaited: with a coup d’état the military took control over the country and under the slogan “the Burmese Way to Socialism” transformed Myanmar in a single party state where freedom of expression and association were strongly restricted and human rights were constantly violated.
During these decades of oppression and violence, the world got to know the situation of Myanmar mostly through the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD). This woman of extraordinary strength and endless believe in freedom and human rights has dedicated almost thirty years of her life leading the Burmese population in its struggle for peace and democracy in Myanmar. She didn´t abandon Myanmar not even when she had to decide between her family and her country. Despite huge personal sufferance she always chose to continue fighting for and with her homeland.
In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, symbolizing the support of the International Community for her work and the struggle of the people of Myanmar. Nevertheless, neither this important award nor the sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU over the past years could stop the violence, oppression and loss of lives in Myanmar. Every attempt to demonstrate and speak for peace and democracy was shut down with unspeakable violence by the military forces causing thousands of deaths, injured and arbitrary arrests.
In the last five years, after two new elections in 2010 and 2012, Myanmar has started a new path with some “democratic” changes under Prime Minister Thein Sein. Some hundreds political prisoners were released, the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi had the chance 2012 to participate in the new Parliament and part of the censorship for journalists was removed. However, the power of the military wasn´t reduced and no guarantees for the protection of human rights were introduced. Thus, leaving a lot of work to be done for reaching real democracy while ethnic and political violence continued dividing the country and causing death among the population. Until this day, Myanmar is no free country.
The new elections and the hope for change
2015 is a special year for Myanmar; after more than two centuries of foreign and military occupation, the population will have the chance to participate in “democratic” elections as Aung San Suu Kyi newly stated:
“For the first time in decades, our people will have a real chance of bringing about real change. […]We hope that the whole world understands how important it is for us to have free and fair elections, and to make sure that the results of such elections are respected by all concerned.”
The new elections represent a great source of hope for the population and are regarded by the International Community as a fundamental step towards real democracy. Nonetheless, the pre-elections period and the conditions for the vote are anything but peaceful and promising.
In May 2015, the police once again cracked down a student demonstration with more than 100 people arrested; In August, the president Shwe Mann was removed as head of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the ruling military party. Apparently, the most conservative forces within the military junta considered his openness to the opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Sky dangerous.In the same month, the country’s electoral commission announced that candidates and political parties were forbidden from criticizing the military during their state media campaign speeches. In addition, a report on the election media coverage of September 2015 showed that only foreign-based broadcasters provide voters with a plurality of views and information about contestants and political subjects. Among print media, state-controlled papers support the government, while only private newspapers support the NLD.
Another issue of concern are voter lists, which include dead persons and missing or incorrect names of voters. An estimated number of almost 10 million people could be enable to vote due to forced or indirect disenfranchisement caused for example by missing polling stations or incorrect voter lists. The most affected by disenfranchisement are the Rohingya Muslims, the most discriminated ethnic community in the country. Because the majority of them has no citizenship, the government neither allow them to vote not to be listed as eligible candidates. In addition to all this, during all the election campaign period many people were arrested or have been threaten or assaulted by officials.
However, despite all this injustice and continued violence, the biggest problem of these elections remains the fact that they will take place under the 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the military to ensure its power behind the veil of democracy. Here the main critical points of the Constitution:
1) Regardless of the results of the elections, the Constitution reserves 25% of the seats in the Parliament to the military. Therefore, the NLD needs to win twice as many seats as the military to secure its majority in the Parliament.
2) The military has veto right over every constitutional democratic reform to ensure the so called “genuine disciplined democracy” and it can retake direct control of the government on the basis of unspecified “national security and unity” reasons.
3) The military is neither under government nor under Parliamentary control. At the same time, it has the ultimate control in many fundamental areas and ministries as the Border Affairs and Home Affairs Ministry.
4) Aung San Suu Sky can not become President because of a clause in the Constitution that denied everyone having children with a foreign citizenship to hold this charge. An additional clause states that the President has to be “well acquainted” with military affairs without specifying how, giving so more space for discrimination.
5) The President and the government are independent of and not accountable to the Parliament on almost all policies and actions they undertake.
6) Above the government and the Parliament is the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) with eleven members, six of them appointed by the military.
Considering all this, the upcoming elections represent a big challenge for Aung San Suu Sky, the NLD and the entire population of Myanmar. What is needed facing all present obstacles is a united opposition but also this seems to be absent. Unfair practices during election campaigns and the use of Buddhist nationalism against the Muslims community, endorsed by the government, the exclusion of important people from the NLD lists and the failure of the party to take position in the ethnic struggle proposing alternative and tolerant visions already caused more disappointment and division among the population. Ethnic people are more likely to vote for their own minority parties as they don´t feel represented by the NLD, thus further threatening its conquest of the majority in the Parliament. 93 parties will stand in the election, reflecting the ethnic diversity and internal division of the country.
The 8th of November is a crucial day and it is up to the population of Myanmar and to the International Community to let it become a historical date. Regardless of all oppression and difficulties, this day gives voters the chance to decide their future sending a message to their government and to their people. Although it´s impossible for the elections to transform Myanmar in a democratic country, it is a chance for the people to speak loud and let know their will, a will too often and for a lot of them still oppressed. It will not mean democracy, but it could mark a transition, a step forward in the right direction.
The International Community plays a crucial role in all this process. During the elections, there will be more than 10.000 national and international observers and almost 300 accredited foreign journalists. Bearing in mind all violations and difficulties, their main goal has to be to ensure that the results are as transparent as possible and that not only the government of Myanmar but also the world will listen to and be aware of the voice of these people. The people of Myanmar should feel our support to be more confident in facing their government; and the government should feel our pressure to recognize the will of its people and not repeat the error of 1990, when the results of the elections were ignored.
Let´s do what Aung Sang Suu Sky asked us, let´s show our solidarity and our commitment to democracy, human rights and peace so that union and not division, peace and not violence, democracy and not repression will prevail in Myanmar. Let´s make November 8 2015 become a historical date, the beginning of a new transition path in the diverse and beautiful country of Myanmar.