The 2010 Myanmar elections

January 4, 2011
By Marie Lall

On the 7th of November Myanmar went to the polls for the first time in 20 years. Whilst the elections have been written off by the west and welcomed in Asia, the issues around this seminal event are far more complex than at first meets the eye. This article will aim to shed some light on the background to the elections, what changes the new structure is likely to engender and what Myanmar’s main future challenges will be.

The ‘new’ Myanmar

The country today has changed dramatically over the last six years. In the autumn of 2004 intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt was arrested. The dismantling of the old security and intelligence structure allowed for limited but growing space for civil society in urban areas and a number of local grassroots organisations were able to develop and expand. In the previous decade 18 cease fires had been negotiated between ethnic minority insurgent armies and the regime. This in turn led to a limited development of civil society initiatives in the ethnic border areas. Lastly Cyclone Nargis brought death and destruction, but also international aid and most importantly support for these new local development and civil society organisations, many of which are now networked with each other and the outside aid and development community. In effect this mushrooming of grassroots organisations also led to a small but increasingly active civil society in urban centres, spearheaded primarily by a small but influential non military middle class. So whilst two decades ago the country was split between the regime and the NLD as the only opposition, today there are a number of new players, including those dubbed the ‘third force’, who have been working for change within the narrow parameters allowed within the country. Some of these individuals and groups have opened think tanks and training institutes, trying to substitute within the education sector for limited state investment and an impoverished education system. There have been other changes as well which have had deep effects on society at large. Telecommunication has improved connectivity across the country with mobile phones becoming increasingly prevalent. Today temporary SIM cards at a cost of around $20 allow everyone to communicate with the outside world as well as with each other, and the use of mobile phones is no longer limited to those who could afford the extraordinarily expensive permanent mobile phone accounts, or those with good political connections. In December 2009 private schools were legalised, leading to a dramatic increase of the already growing alternative education market – something which also points to a growing middle class. China’s influence is more palpable now as well – mainly with its investments in Mandalay and in the north. In short – in the last six years Myanmar has changed beyond recognition.

However for change to happen at a political level, a new state and government structure is needed. Despite his arrest, Khin Nyunt’s brain child, the ‘roadmap to democracy’, was kept on and this has led to the controversial new constitution, the elections and a proposed new state structure.

The elections

The elections held on the 7th of November were to a Pyihtaungsu Hluttaw (Union Assembly) for a five year term with a total of 664 seats, the members of which will elect a president within 90 days once the Parliament sits for the first time. The main assembly is made up of two houses, the Pyithu (People’s) Hluttaw (440 members) and the Amyotha (National) Hluttaw (224 - each state selects 12 members). Concurrently the vote was also to the third part of the structure – the Region and State Hluttaw (Local Governments) formed on basis of 2 per township + 1 seat from each ethnic group. The form of state for the first time has allowed for decent minority ethnic representation and is therefore a welcome change. However the form of government reserves 25% of the seats for the army, something most agree is highly controversial.

In total there are 1,163 seats across the three assemblies, however due to restrictions and the cancellation of voting in 300 excluded village tracts spread across 32 townships and 4 Wa and 2 Kachin townships, affecting around 1% of all eligible voters, only 1,103 seats were in the end contested. There were other constraints as well with no voting in 54 constituencies with only 1 candidate, a lack of understanding of the polling process and the NLD’s call for a boycott of the elections. The playing field clearly favoured the pro-regime USDP who were able to field candidates in almost all constituencies. Most of the other parties either chose to run only in areas where they had clear political clout – such as the ethnic parties, or in a fewer number of constituencies as this is what could be organised within the relatively short notice period and given the exorbitant cost of $500 for each standing candidate. 37 parties stood after the Election Commission refused to register 10 parties. Three of these were Kachin parties and this move in effect disenfranchised the Kachin population. The other parties who failed the registration process did this on the basis of not having completed the formalities. The NLD, until this year the main opposition party to the regime and with a pan Myanmar presence, withdrew from the election in protest at the election laws and on the basis of their Shwegondaing declaration, which refused to accept the new constitution. Given the NLD’s decision not to stand many rural constituencies in Bamar majority areas only had a choice between the USDP and the NUP.

Despite these issues preliminary feedback from across the country stated that voting was relatively free in urban areas. There were issues in some rural voting booths. However the main problem in the end were the advance votes which had been taken from the military and their families. These ended up nullifying some of the wins in urban areas where opposition candidates had seemed to secure wins on Election Day. It is unclear today how the parties will deal with the situation, and it has been speculated that the NUP might go to court for constituencies where advance votes had overturned winning candidates. However given the potential penalties of such lawsuits it is possible that none of these lawsuits will be pursued.

The results

The USDP took over 75% of the seats across the three parliaments. The NUP did surprisingly bad despite fielding candidates in most constituencies. However the ethnic minority parties, such as the SNDP and the RNPP have done comparatively well at all three levels, and they are well represented in their own local legislatures. It is also worth mentioning that whilst the Karen Parties were not that high up in the ranking in terms of the number of seats, there are three of them and the KPP and the PSDP have done relatively well. This is important in particular because of the ongoing conflict in Karen state and the way the Karen feel in the country. Since none of the pro-democracy parties were adequately contesting in the sub-national parliaments, a large number of these seats in the ethnic states were taken by the ethnic opposition groups. These sub-national structures are significant because they represent a potential new power base, with new members of parliament and a new civil service infrastructure to support the political machinations of the new institutions.

Why are these elections still significant?

Despite the fact that the pro regime USDP has kept overall control and will be supported by the military seats, this new parliamentary system still represents a structural change from a military junta to a presidential system with new institutions and resulting changes in governance such as local legislatures and taxes. It is expected that there will be limited level of local autonomy through the 14 regional legislatures, and the greatest likelihood for change will come in the ethnic states such as Shan state where the ethnic party has done well. Overall however the most significant change is that politics is legal again and it should allow for increased political space for civil society.

The major stakeholders in the election

At this juncture it is important to understand who the main stakeholders in the new system are and what their main interests will be. The military are the key here, and they have instituted the elections and the new structure to maintain military supremacy in the political system as well as institutionalized the security of the military leadership. Their aim is to occupy almost the whole the executive branch- especially the presidency and to control the chief ministerial positions of all state governments. Senior General Than Shwe in particular wanted to guarantee a ‘safe retirement package’ for himself and the other leaders. Another aim of these elections and the resulting structure is to try and engineer the decline of the traditional opposition in the form of the NLD, something which has been at least partially successful as the NLD is no longer a registered political party and the NDF has split away in order to contest the elections.

The 37 political parties each have their own stake in these elections, depending on if they represent the regime, the ethnic minorities, the opposition or the third force. The main result of these elections has been to split the opposition, not only between the NLD and the NDF, but across ethnic and political party lines. This will pose a long term challenge for the other main stakeholders – the ethnic groups and Bamar civil society at large, although it also allows for greater political participation for different groups who might not have identified with the simple NLD/regime binary.

Out of a total population of 53 million, around two-thirds of the population is Bamar (ethnic Burmese) and one-third is comprised of ethnic minorities. Many of these ethnic groups have been fighting the regime for decades. It was only in the late 80s and early 90s that cease fires were put in place. Some of these cease fire agreements are now precariously close to breaking down as the ethnic forces are refusing to become part of a wider Border Guard Force. Fighting resumed between the Kokaung and the army in 2009 and other armed groups such as the Wa and the Kachin have been actively rearming and preparing for armed conflict. The Kachin issue is particularly precarious because none of the three ethnic parties put up for elections were allowed to register by the election commission, in effect disenfranchising a large part of the Kachin population. Nevertheless outside of Kachin state it is in the ethnic states and their local legislative assemblies that most change is likely to take place in the first instance.

Bamar civil society also has a big stake in the new structure as the political space created in the past 6 years has to be maintained. As mentioned earlier, civil society organisations and development grassroots organisations have been allowed to develop and have increased in significance especially since cyclone Nargis. However political representation in the circles is treated with caution and many leaders will not have chosen to stand for elections, making this an election by proxy. The fact that there are over 2,000 political prisoners is also a reminder that there are red lines in Myanmar which one has to be careful not to overstep.

Often forgotten but of chief economic significance are the ‘cronies’. Many have made money under the regime but they have also been forced to buy up assets in the privatisation drive and for the reconstruction after Nargis. They still hold monopoly industries and are the only ones with any access to decent banking and financial services. Their future linkages with military within the new political structure should be observed as they have a great stake in making the new structure work.

Also an important stakeholder in the future of the country is Myanmar’s exiled population, some on the border in Thailand and others further afield abroad. There are differences between those living on the border in Thailand and those further afield in the west – however broadly speaking the border has been in opposition to the regime. Some campaign groups have been leading the opposition to the elections, in part because if these are accepted as legitimate, their funding and raison d’être is likely to decline. This has meant that instead of supporting civil society groups inside the country, who have been working towards change, they have preferred to decry anyone who was not towing the NLD line. However in order to remain a stakeholder in the new process these groups will need to work towards convergence with those inside the country in order not lose their voice and legitimacy in the process.

The challenges

Whilst the elections promise to bring change at least at a structural level, the new government and the different stakeholders also face new challenges. The new government’s two biggest challenges will be the Economy and matters of governance. Before the elections, most of Myanmar’s public assets were sold and privatised. This means that the government starts with empty coffers. The economy is in a bad shape and there is little banking infrastructure and increasing economic disparity. Border trade with China and to a degree with Thailand is thriving. However the heartland remains poor with many farmers not owning their land. Governance is also a challenge as institutions need to be built and many of the new politicians have not had access to any form of training. Public administration will suffer from a lack of strategy and leadership and issues of hierarchy could mar decision making. To date Myanmar has only limited institutional capacity, and given that universities were shut for over a decade, education standards are also not what they should be. However in order to make this new structure work, effective governance and leadership are essential.

Civil society organisations will need to make effective use of the new structure and ensure that the political space remains open. Linkages with the private sector are essential, especially since international aid is sparse. But driven by Bamar leaders, there is also an increased need to link up with the ethnic minority groups, especially with those parties who have won seats in the three parliaments. It is these civil society organisations which need sustained support from outside of Myanmar and to this end the only way forwards will be increased convergence with those living on the border or abroad. Change outside of the ethnic states will only come through Myanmar’s civil society initiatives spearheaded by the middle classes who want to see the country change gradually and without political upheaval. There is however also the danger, that the civil society space could become politicised through increased NLD involvement. Since the NLD is no longer a political party, it has vowed to continue its work at a social level. This could result in greater surveillance for the wider local NGO sphere, which would be a real setback.

The ethnic issue is also likely to be a major challenge. Already – just within a day of the elections, fighting resumed in Karen state. As mentioned above, some of the cease fires are close to collapsing and the Kachin and the Wa have been rearming and preparing for conflict. Those ethnic groups who feel they can fight, will resist the pressure to join the border guard force (BFG) and this could lead to conflicts such as was seen between the army and the Kokaung in 2009. It is essential that in those ethnic states, where the ethnic parties have done well, that they are given enough political space. Many ethnic groups were unhappy with the 2008 constitution as they felt it did not grant then enough autonomy. The border and the ethnic states can only remain stable if the new structure is made to work in favour of the populations living there, something both the new government and Bamar civil society leaders will have to take heed of.

Last but not least a challenge for the new government is ‘the border’, encompassing the vast Diaspora, resident in Thailand and further afield as well as the campaign groups who have monopolised western policy decision making. Most of the groups abroad supported an election boycott, as they felt the new structure would simply entrench military rule. They ignored the voices inside the country who have been calling for change – any change. Given the deep divide between these opposing groups, and those who decided to fight for change within the given parameters, the opposition has been split. Already before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release there have been calls for convergence between those working inside and those outside. It will be the country’s greatest challenge to unite the opposition inside the country, including the ethnic minority parties and converge with the views of those living on the outside. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s role could be crucial in making or breaking the way forward. However a divided opposition will always be weaker than a united one.

The future outlook

For the first time in two decades there has been some movement on the political front. How far this will go remains to be seen. However the 2010 elections could be the start of the reconciliation process. Though the process will be slow, the election could create political space for cooperation as the stagnation of the past can be overcome. It will depend on the various stakeholders and how they interact with each other. This includes the military which will need to learn some skills of negotiating within the new political structures. Whilst they will retain control of the government, the new structure will require a semblance of broad consent. This could very well be the first step on a very long road of change.