When the nominally civilian government took power from the military in March 2011, it brought with it hope for change.
Most dramatically, the government’s reforms allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition National League of Democracy (NLD) to contest parliamentary by-elections in April 2012, following her release from house arrest in November 2010. Hundreds of political prisoners were released and laws passed to provide better protection for human rights; restrictions on media freedom were reduced; and preliminary peace agreements were reached with many armed ethnic groups.
Yet despite this, many repressive laws remain. In November 2014, Aung San Suu Kyi declared that the international community had been too optimistic. Human rights groups concur, arguing that significant backsliding occurred in 2014 on the progress made since political reforms began in 2011, especially regarding minority rights.
Challenges and opportunities
The outcome of this November’s elections will be decided partly by the votes of Burma’s ethnic minorities. The majority Burmans, who make up approximately 68 per cent of the population, will vote alongside 134 official minority groups.
But recent reforms present challenges as well as opportunities for Burma’s religious and ethnic minorities, including the Chin, Karen, Kachin, Naga and the much-persecuted Muslim Rohingya.
In northwest Burma, the government-initiated peace process is bringing new opportunities to Naga communities that until recently fought against the military. A new generation of village chiefs is embracing UN development projects and eco-tourism to connect with a globalizing world.
‘The authorities will bring ballot boxes to the village, but whether our votes will be counted or will end up in the river, we don’t know’
Attitudes to outsiders are mixed. When I visit Burmese Nagaland – one of the first foreigners to do so – I meet teenagers clutching Chinese mobile phones who are excited by a future beyond their village. Their grandfathers are more sceptical of change. Inside their bamboo huts, they sit shrouded in pipe smoke, while the younger Naga tell me excitedly about plans to build a hostel in the hopes of attracting tourists.
Asked about the impact of the upcoming elections on their village, the Naga are equally cynical, regardless of generation: ‘The authorities will bring ballot boxes to the village,’ the chief tells me, ‘but whether our votes will be counted or will end up in the river, we don’t know.’
As the election will be closely contested, representatives of both the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and opposition NLD are courting support in remote communities.
On the mountain road into Nagaland, I cross paths with a general who is touring local villages ahead of the election. I eat at the same ramshackle restaurant; the only item on the menu is dried goat meat. The general, suspicious-eyed and rotund, chews on the best meat, while his underlings eat goat offal that smells as horrible as it sounds.
Back in the village, the Naga tell me they have little time for current President Thein Sein and the USDP. As one villager tells me: ‘The USDP representatives come here and tell us what the government has done for us and that we should be grateful.’
The majority of the Naga I meet support the NLD. An elderly Naga woman with tattooed legs explains, ‘When NLD campaigners visit they ask us what we want the party to do for us. They listen to our needs rather than telling us why we should vote for them.’ Village support for the NLD is so high that one man has turned his meagre home into a local party headquarters. The NLD flag flies proudly above his doorway. Nearby, his blind wife peels vegetables with surprising speed and skill.
Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Since the reform process began, the Burmese government has agreed ceasefires with many of Burma’s ethnic armed groups, not only the Naga. Ceasefire accords allow the government to avoid conflict on multiple fronts in border areas, and thus to focus on countering political opposition in central Burma. However, efforts to conclude a common National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) have so far failed.
As negotiations proceeded during June and July, fighting continued in several states, including Shan and Kachin. Ethnic armed groups’ demands for regional autonomy and a federal system of government remain major sticking points. The current national constitution contains no provisions for regional autonomy. The very first line of the constitution prohibits secession.
Without support from the military, the Burmese constitution is impossible to amend. Constitutional provisions guarantee the military 25 per cent of parliamentary seats; the constitution also requires the support of 75 per cent of parliamentarians to pass an amendment, giving the military an effective veto on constitutional reform. In late June, Burma’s parliament voted against amending the 75-per-cent rule ahead of November’s election.
Constitutionally, individuals with a foreign spouse or children are barred from contesting the presidency. This means that Aung San Suu Kyi – who has two British sons – cannot hold the country’s top job.
Some ethnic minority groups have accused the Nobel Laureate of spending too much time campaigning to lift this constitutional bar rather than focusing on the issues that affect the lives of ordinary citizens. A journalist and activist from Kachin states that ‘the Lady should devote more time to discussing transport, devolution of power, human rights and even stray dogs – these are the issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives.’
Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the government’s renewal of its war against the Kachin in 2011 has further alienated support for the NLD. She has also been criticized by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama for failing adequately to condemn rampant anti-Muslim violence that began against the Rohingya people in Rakhine state and has since spread across Burma.
The Rohingya make up around 800,000 of the country’s 56-million population, and rank at the bottom of Burma’s social hierarchy.
Currently, Burma’s constitution does not include the Rohingya among the country’s indigenous groups, categorizing them as ‘non-national’ or ‘foreign residents’. The Rohingya were officially deprived of citizenship under a 1982 law enacted by the then-ruling military junta. Living in squalid refugee camps or makeshift villages in Rakhine, the majority of the Rohingya will be unable to take part in this year’s elections.
Owing to a lack of access to information, even officially recognized minorities may have difficulty exercising their voting rights. As Mai Democracy, editor at Chin World Media, explains: ‘In rural areas where most minorities live, few have access to television, or even radio. There are few newspapers published in minority languages, and those… face distribution and funding difficulties. The mainstream media pay little attention to issues facing minority groups. When minorities do appear in the press, it is usually in connection with an insurgency or inter-communal violence.’
A perceived lack of interest in minority issues among the Burman has led many ethnic groups to form their own separate political parties to contest parliamentary elections.
‘The Lady should devote more time to discussing the issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives’
In November, parties such as the Chin League for Democracy and the Karen National Party will compete against the NLD, potentially creating a third force that could thwart the League’s ambitions to take power. According to Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of national newspaper The Voice: ‘The NLD should make a pre-election pact with ethnic minority parties not to contest the same seats. Otherwise they will play into the government’s plans to divide and rule.’
The ultimate test of Burma’s reforms will be whether there is a real transfer of power after the election.
The military has promised ‘free and fair’ elections, but it remains to be seen whether it will honour the results. In elections in 1990, although the NLD won by a landslide, the junta refused to relinquish power. Burma’s transition is likely to be long and protracted. Any long-term change must be bottom-up and inclusive of the country’s diverse peoples.