Why India Should Be Interested in Myanmar’s Nov 8 Poll Results  

Upcoming polls in Myanmar will mark a change from military regime to military-civilian govt, writes Ashok Sajjanhar.

5 min read
Why India Should Be Interested in Myanmar’s Nov 8 Poll Results  

Considerable anticipation and expectation has been generated in international media about the parliamentary elections in Myanmar on November 8 and the implications for its march to democracy. Questions are being raised whether the elections will be free and fair, credible, inclusive and transparent. Will they make a difference in the country’s governance? What impact will they have on lives of ordinary citizens? And equally importantly, what will they portend for relations with India?

To understand the significance of the current electoral exercise, it is essential to remember that the polls are taking place under the constitution promulgated in 2008 by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), a party supported by the military which seized power in 1988. The constitution was hailed by the military as heralding a return to democracy. The opposition, however, sees it as a tool for continuing military control.

Officers of Union Election Commission check ballots that were cast in advance in foreign countries by Myanmar citizens, November 3, 2015. (Photo: AP)

The legislative branch consists of a bicameral legislature comprising the 440-seat Lower House and 224 seat Upper House. 25% of seats in both these Chambers – 110 in the Lower House and 56 in the Upper House – are earmarked for the military.


The Suu Kyi Factor

The major parties contesting the elections include the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which has been in power since the 2010 elections, which were widely perceived by observers – within and outside Myanmar – to have been blatantly rigged by the army in USDP’s favour.

Second, the principal outfit is the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi. There are over 30 smaller ethnic as well as student-focused parties. Their role is crucial as the regions account for 40% of the total seats. They could cut into Suu Kyi’s voter-base.

Members of National League for Democracy party rally through a suburb in Yangon, Myanmar, November 3, 2015. (Photo: AP)

Suu Kyi continues to command wide support amongst the masses. The NLD swept the by-elections in 2012, winning 43 of the 44 seats it contested. It is unlikely that it will be able to repeat the same performance this time. There are several reasons for this. The last time, most elections were in central Myanmar. This time, the regions will elect their representatives and they might vote on ethnic considerations for regional parties rather than for NLD.


Efforts to Stifle the NLD

Several segments of the population, particularly the Rohingyas and the Muslim minority, have been disenfranchised. The USDP and the army have put in place several laws in recent months, which seek to tilt the balance against the NLD. The dramatic rise of the radical Buddhist Nationalist Party in a country which is 90% Buddhist seeks to diminish Suu Kyi’s appeal amongst the masses.

Aung San Suu Kyi, (second from right) watches as a party patron greets supporters during a campaign rally in Yangon, Myanmar, November 1, 2015. (Photo: AP)

Even if NLD were to win convincingly, Suu Kyi will not be able to become president since her sons are British citizens and, according to Article 59F of the constitution, no candidate whose spouse or children “owe allegiance to a foreign country” will be able to occupy the top position.

Once constituted, the parliament will choose the president. After the election, the president and the government are independent of and not accountable to the parliament for almost all their policies and actions. Also, after the election, regardless of who wins, the military is empowered to appoint the home minister, control the police, the security services and the justice system. The military would not be under government or parliamentary control. The military-dominated National Defence and Security Council will be more powerful than the parliament and government.


Greater Democratisation?

There will be no possibility of making the constitution more democratic and reduce the military’s power, as support of at least 75% of the parliament is required for effecting any amendment to the constitution.

Myanmar’s Defence Minister Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin (centre), a candidate of military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), dances with supporters during an election campaign, October 31, 2015, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (Photo: AP)

The elections are unlikely to be a major turning point in a transition to democracy that many hope for or have built them up to be. Rather, they will be a first step in planned transition from direct military rule and pariah status to a hybrid military-civilian government.


Myanmar Goes to Polls

  • Myanmar general election decisive for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi whose party NLD continues to command wide support
  • It’s unlikely that forthcoming elections will be a turning point, instead it will mark transition from military regime to a hybrid military-civilian government
  • Success of India’s “Act East Policy” depends critically on strong partnership with Myanmar; India yet to deliver ever since Myanmar opened up in 2010

India-Myanmar Partnership Vital

The ongoing developments in Myanmar are crucial for India. Both countries share a common land border of 1,640 km and a long maritime boundary. Cordial relations with Myanmar are critical for India’s security and safety. Myanmar has been helpful in dealing with insurgent elements in northeast India.

It provides India connectivity with ASEAN. It can play a huge role in promoting economic prosperity and security of our northeastern region. The success of our “Act East Policy” depends critically on strong partnership with Myanmar. Although the last four years can be termed as the golden period in our relations, we have not delivered on the huge promise that beckoned us when Myanmar opened up in 2010.

In this file photo, Myanmar President Thein Sein travels in an open vehicle inspecting officers in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (Photo: AP)

Myanmar is undergoing dramatic changes in its political, economic and social arenas. It is imperative for India to closely follow the ongoing developments and take full advantage of emerging opportunities and potential. Stronger engagement between India and Myanmar is a significant contributor to regional peace, security and prosperity.

(Ashok Sajjanhar is a former Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.)

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