This week’s Burmese elections will likely be a significant watershed.
After five decades of military rule, the elections could herald a democratic era with a government representing majority interests and respecting minority rights. Burma could become a valuable Western ally and the UK could benefit from enhanced trade and influence. But the vote is unlikely to be straightforward. Mistrust remains high. Ethnic division is a feature of the political landscape. Nationalist and religious sentiments are rising. Transition to successful democracy will ultimately depend on a negotiated accommodation of powerful, divergent interests. Whatever the result, the UK should be ready to engage.
Kevin Mackenzie, British Council Director in Burma, provides a quick guide to the elections:
The political situation in Burma
There are three nationwide parties in Burma:
The National Unity Party (NUP) was established by the former army-dominated party which ruled Burma from 1962-1988 but won few seats in the 1990 and 2010 elections.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the ruling party of the former military government (1990-2011). Well financed and organised, it won 76% of seats in the 2010 elections, which were heavily criticized for not being free and fair and were boycotted by the National League for Democracy (NLD).
The NLD is the leading opposition party, led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi. In 1990 it won a landslide victory but was never allowed to govern. Until 2011, most of the party’s leaders suffered imprisonment, house arrest or exile. It won by-elections in 2012 and retains wide popularity.
There are also over 90 regional parties, mostly with ethnic affiliations.
There are real concerns about the fairness of the elections, a lack of impartiality of the Union Election Commission (UEC), inaccurate voter lists, fraudulent vote counting, possible vote cancellations on security grounds, voters lacking ID cards, and the USDP manipulating results. Yet all agree the 2015 elections will be freer than those in 2010, mainly thanks to increased international attention and the stronger role of local media.
In Burma, radio is the main source of information about politics, along with TV in some areas, while internet use is growing amongst urban youth. Newspapers and acquaintances also provide information, though many rural people display little knowledge of national politics.
Possible results of the election
Accurate predictions of voter behaviour are hard, due to the almost total absence of opinion polling. The NLD is expected to do well, thanks largely to the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi. However, the 25% of seats reserved for the military means any other party must win over 66% of the contested seats to gain a majority. There are therefore three likely resulting scenarios:
1: The NLD wins more than 66% of contested seats and a national majority. It can select the president and pass legislation of its own.
2: The NLD wins less than 66% of contested seats but enters an alliance with smaller parties. Combined, they hold more than 66%. The coalition can select the president and pass legislation.
3: The USDP wins more than 33% of contested seats and so, with the military, can select the president and pass legislation. This scenario resembles the situation from 2011-2015, though the USDP is unlikely to dominate to the same extent.
The election is likely to be followed by protracted uncertainty and the risk of political instability
Any government needs the support of both parliament and the military to govern effectively. The election is likely to be followed by protracted uncertainty and the risk of political instability while the full implications are being worked out.
After decades of isolation and internal conflict there is a need for greater trust: across Burma’s ethnic, political and religious divides, between its people and government, and between Burma and other countries. Only through building trust and strengthening ties internally and internationally will Burma’s huge potential stand the best chance of being released, for the benefit of its people and its friends around the world.
How the UK can help
The country desperately needs help in facing its many challenges. And the UK can help.
Burma is therefore on the brink of a difficult, uncertain period. The country is experiencing forces unlike any previously experienced. International agencies are supporting peace and political and economic reform. But democratic values, including tolerance for minorities, are by no means certain to emerge. The country desperately needs help in facing its many challenges. And the UK can help.
The high regard for British educational expertise brings opportunities for collaboration in education, training and skills. English will be essential for the next generation of leaders, which already includes many UK alumni, notably Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma’s creative industries, so long repressed, have much to contribute to the country’s unique cultural heritage and in forging a national identity. Burmese civil society is enjoying growing influence and, with the right support, could play an increasingly important role in democratisation. The UK’s strengths in these areas suggest it is ideally placed to assist. There are already important collaborative programmes between the UK and Burma. These include high-profile exchanges and co-operation between the University of Oxford, where Aung San Suu Kyi studied and lived, and universities in Burma, including the newly-re-opened University of Rangoon. But if they are to build significantly on this work after the election, UK policymakers and the relevant sectors and institutions must be ready.
Kevin Mackenzie, Director Burma, British Council