Myanmar has a decades-long history of brutal ethnic conflicts. In view of this the party of democratic struggle did unexpectedly well in last year’s election.
The stomping victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar’s November 2015 general election was predictable enough. The Myanmar people make no secret of their disdain for military dominance in politics. Even loyal servants of the old dictatorship are usually prepared to concede that the system needed to change.
With almost 60 per cent of Union Assembly seats, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD now has the majority needed to control the key appointments of the president, cabinet, and speakers. Under the 2008 Constitution, it will continue to share some power with the armed forces, which are allocated 25 per cent of seats.
But in the daily grind of legislative debate and executive decision-making, the NLD will be in charge. Importantly, it will shoulder new responsibilities for ethnic affairs.
With Myanmar’s decades-long history of brutal ethnic conflict, the party of democratic struggle did unexpectedly well in ethnic areas during last year’s election. Ethno-nationalist parties fizzled. This result surprised most analysts, including me.
When allowed a free vote, people in ethnic areas put their faith in the NLD, and what they judge is the transformative potential of Aung San Suu Kyi. Their support sees the NLD taking control of politics in five of the seven ethnic states: Mon, Kayin, Kayah, Kachin, and Chin. These are all parts of the country where ethnic armed groups have long opposed central government control.
Those who represent these troubled regions will report to Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD’s high command, which is mostly from the majority Bamar ethnic group. There will be friction as some prominent ethnic minority leaders – excluded from the NLD fray – work out how best to pursue their independent agendas.
In the states of Rakhine and Shan, the situation is different. In these areas, local ethnic parties did somewhat better, picking up enough seats in the state legislatures to demand a say in government. They will be hoping that their numbers also offer leverage to negotiate in Nay Pyi Taw’s Union Assembly. Nonetheless, they will find it hard to persuade the NLD to accept them as equals.
The big trends
The electoral reality is that only one party claimed the mandate to lead change. Such a clear outcome at the ballot box reveals three long-term trends in Myanmar society that will continue to define ethnic politics in the years ahead.
For a start, there is the unmatched democratic standing of the NLD, apparent even in ethnic areas. Although armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Union have built reputations about their defiant resistance to military rule, their democratic credentials are much less apparent. People in areas where support for ethnic resistance was once high have also tired of demands to send their young men into military service. The NLD has never demanded conscripts for its army.
The NLD’s distance from the frontlines proves advantageous in another way. Until recently, its cadres had no chance to indulge corrupt dealing. Most of the NLD candidates presented at the 2015 poll could claim a purity of motivation that is not apparent among ethnic leaders or the old military powerbrokers. It is easy to see why voters in ethnic areas liked the fresh NLD team.
Second, there are Myanmar’s changing demographics. It is apparent that from Myitkyina in the north to Mawlamyine in the south, major towns in ethnic areas are proudly cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic places. Elsewhere, it will take time to adjust to an increasingly jumbled ethnic terrain, with the widespread inter-mixing and inter-marriage of supposedly distinct groups. This multicultural dynamic favours the NLD, which has appeal across ethnic boundaries.
For some ethno-nationalists, the sense that ethnic people are being outnumbered in their own areas is profoundly troubling for other reasons. Since the 1950s, they have decried the encroachment of Bamar culture and language.
Added to that grievance is the movement of their own groups around the country. With greater economic prospects and better flows of useful information, internal migration is increasing all the time. In practical terms, there are no longer such clear distinctions between supposedly ethnic and supposedly Bamar parts of Myanmar.
The third long-term trend is the fragile level of support for ethnic resistance movements. In the past, there has been no ready mechanism for judging the support garnered by the country’s many ethnic armed groups. We have relied on crude proxies to help measure their appeal.
The mix of incentives and anxieties that go with life in ethnic areas muddies such measurement. People who have drawn direct benefits from the war economies may have reason to get behind ethnic movements, as do those who fear local blowback if they are perceived to harbour mixed loyalties.
At the 2015 election, only two ethno-nationalist political parties performed creditably: the Arakan National Party in the state of Rakhine and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy in the state of Shan. These parties are not, unlike some others, simply proxies for ethnic armed groups.
With its bumper majority, the major test for the NLD’s approach to ethnic affairs will therefore be the peace process, in which dozens of ethnic armed groups will want a seat at the table, pushing their case for greater recognition.
During his term from 2011 to early 2016, President Thein Sein sought a long-term solution to ethnic conflict, while his ministers supported the Myanmar Peace Center and worked hard to build the trust needed for a comprehensive ceasefire pact. In the end, they managed a partial agreement that failed to bring key armed groups under its umbrella. That frustrated outcome was partly the result of reluctance to do a deal on the eve of the anticipated NLD victory.
This means powerful armed groups, some of which claim more than 10,000 fighters, have been waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi to negotiate on behalf of the central government. Of course it will not be that simple, mostly because the Myanmar armed forces will retain a veto over the terms of any future peace deal. Without the support of the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, currently Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, both the NLD and the ethnic negotiators will struggle to find a stable arrangement.
But if they succeed, a new ethnic political settlement could bolster the economy nationwide. It would certainly help open up previously isolated regions to productive activities and would provide a huge boost to national morale. This peace dividend – both material and emotional – is worth the effort.
What we still do not know is how much patience the NLD has for what would prove to be drawn-out discussions. I often find that among the NLD ranks, there is only limited tolerance for diverging views from the ethnic side. And given the strict discipline the NLD will impose on its rank-and-file elected members, some of its own ethnic representatives will come to resent top-down directives. Failure to balance the needs of the party in Nay Pyi Taw and the hopes of local constituents will not be easy.
In the best-case scenario, a new notion of "union spirit" could be taking root, based on the idea that a democratic federation is attractive to the vast majority of people, including ethno-nationalists. This could mean the 2015 election result sets a robust foundation for unprecedented inter-ethnic negotiations, in which the NLD grows to reflect the concerns of those who have actively fought to end Bamar domination in their areas.
At the same time, without strong representation from ardent ethno-nationalist forces, the new legislatures will need to find ways to work with those who missed out on enough votes to win seats in 2015. The alternative is a growing sense of ethnic alienation from the process at every level.
That would prove costly to the NLD, which still needs to keep in mind the ingredients for victory during any future election. It will require long-term, multi-ethnic support if Myanmar is to end the heartbreaking cycle of violence and recrimination.
For more information visit our dossier on the elections in Myanmar.