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Myanmar: Fast forward to democracy

The decision of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to register as a “legitimate” political party may well become a turning point in Myanmar’s history. The NLD under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi had been at the vanguard of peoples struggle for democratic reforms during the last two and a half decades. The NLD applied for registration as a political party on November 23 as per the requirements of electoral laws. The 21 NLD signatories of the application included three founders of NLD – Aung San Suu Kyi, former General Tin Oo, and Win Tin.

The NLD was de-recognized as a political party after it refused to re-register as a political party as required by the electoral laws for 2010 elections. It had boycotted the 2010 elections as it considered both the 2008 Constitution and the electoral laws unjust.

Mandatory conditions for official recognition as a political party which have been amended now to accommodate NLD still include an acknowledgement that they respect the 2008 Constitution. Thus with the act of registration as a political party now, the NLD would be tacitly recognising the 2008 Constitution and its legitimisation of the role of army in the legislature and government.

The unanimous decision of the NLD’s 106-member Central Committee in favour of registering as a political party comes as no surprise. Aung San Suu Kyi and the other key NLD leaders have been deliberating over the decision for some time now. The decision was inevitable as President Thein Sein had gone ahead with progressive democratic reform measures even as he held out an olive branch to the NLD.

In fact his decision to sus end the construction of the Myitsone dam project, a Chinese aided joint venture, in deference to the popular demand had impressed many detractors of the regime including the NLD.  After the three contentious classes in the electoral laws, particularly the one pertaining to restriction on political prisoners contesting the election were changed, and a clause relating to the requirement for political parties to ‘protect’ the constitution was amended to ‘respect’ it, the NLD decision making became easier.

Ignoring President Thein Sein’s overtures would have compelled the NLD to function as an illegal political entity outside the government-recognized political stream. Absence from mainstream politics would have resulted in NLD being pushed to the sidelines, conceding more political space to other legitimate parties. In the long run this would have depleted the NLD of its following, discouraging moderate elements from active participation. Of course at the more practical level, by-elections are on the card for 48  seats in parliament. NLD’s participation in the elections would offer a chance to prove its mettle and get its leaders elected to parliament and push through more reforms.

There were other reasons also. The international environment is slowly changing in favour of Myanmar, despite some residual reservations about it.  ASEAN member-nations have already responded favourably to the democratic reforms undertaken by the government. They have agreed to Myanmar’s chairmanship of the 10-member group in 2014. The U.S. and the European Union, which have been steadfast supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle, have also been reacting positively to President Thein Sein’s reform measures.

The U.S. is seriously re-examining its Myanmar policy in response to the changes in the country. The U.S. Secretary of State Mrs Hilary Clinton’s scheduled to visit Myanmar at the end of November could hasten other changes as well. The sanctions regime which had been Suu Kyi’s strong suit, may well be eased sooner than later if Myanmar responds to some of the longstanding U.S. concerns on release of political prisoners and ending ethnic insurgencies.

The NLD decision is also likely to trigger other political opposition including the Buddhist clergy and ethnic insurgent groups to fall in line with the NLD or continue their opposition to the military-sponsored “democratic” regime.

Ethnic armed groups are in an existential struggle with the government as their armed cadres have to be merged with the border guards in terms of the 2008 Constitution.They are averse to do so without a political settlement. As a result they are not likely to be swayed by NLD decisionnless their future ceases to be a question mark under the present government.  According to The Irrawaddy, “which specializes in reporting on Myanmar”, *already five ethnic insurgent groups –Karen National Union (KNU) and Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), Karenni National Progressive Party and Chin National Front (CNF) – were holding peace talks in Chiang Mai in Thailand with a government delegation headed by Aung Min, Minister for Railways, on their future. The KNU, SSA-South and the CNF are reported to have informally agreed for a ceasefire.

However, the government had decided on one to one meetings with each ethnic group rather than meet them collectively. As a result smaller groups which have come together to increase their bargaining power have been left out of these efforts. For instance the government is yet to hold talks with United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a grouping with six full members and six associate members from Kachin, Arakan and Southern Shan states.

The All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA), an activist body of the saffron struggle of Buddhist clergy, has expressed its objection to the NLD’s registration as a political party. The electoral laws also forbid monks participation in politics. The government appears to be conscious of this objection and lifting the restrictions on monks’ participation in political activity is said to be on the cards.  The student groups also remain an important factor in the democratic struggle. Many student leaders and monks are still in prison. Unless they are released both the clergy and student groups would find it difficult to participate in normal political activity.

President Thein Sein appears to be on a fast forward mode in democratic reforms with a series of legislations to make politics inclusive and living a little restrictive. The latest in the series was the move to allow public protests in the country, which was a taboo in the days of military rule.  The President’s success in bringing back the NLD into national politics is perhaps the biggest achievement to date.

However, finding an equitable solution to ethnic minorities, who want meaningful autonomy in their traditional homelands, continues to be the single issue with potential to destabilize growth of democracy in Myanmar. No leader other than the late Maj Gen Aung San had been able to build bonds with them to achieve national unity. It is too early to expect President Thein Sein’s regime to do this as it has many more miles to go for a full-fledged democracy to even Burmans, let alone the ethnic minorities.  But it is well worth considering.

(The Writer, Col R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group.

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