BURMA’S ELECTIONS: MAKING SENSE OF THE RESULTS
The results are in: the people have voted for change. Authoritarianism has been cast aside as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) becomes Burma’s first civilian government in over fifty years. But what do the results really mean? As the country treads a delicate path in the transition of power, many hope for rapid progress in democratic, political and economic reform.
For Union Aid Abroad–APHEDA’s partner organisations along the Thai-Burma border and inside Burma, the election results may bring little immediate change and reactions vary. Most are cautiously optimistic and excited about change. The overwhelming victory by the pro-democracy NLD provides a positive platform for organisations seeking to develop and grow the union movement inside Burma. In ethnic regions, things are somewhat different.
Amidst the optimism and post-election euphoria, Burma is still grappling with ongoing conflicts in ethnic areas at the hands of the Burma Army. The situation in Shan State has continued to deteriorate in the days and weeks following the election. Aerial assaults continue as the conflict intensifies. Over 7000 people have now been displaced. Charm Tong, a Shan activist who works for one of APHEDA’s partner organisations, The School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (SSSNY), has said that “the Burma Army has no interest in peace… even on election day, their troops shot and killed civilians” (Irrawaddy News). One of the key things to note is that despite the NLD’s win, the military will still yield significant power over the country. Laws enshrined in the Constitution ensure that the military retains 25 per cent of seats in parliament as well as retains control of three key government ministries which oversee the army, police and border affairs. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD will have a many obstacles ahead of them to bring peace to areas devastated by half a century of war.
In fact, in the lead up to the November 8 election, Aung San Suu Kyi received significant criticism for failing to speak out on behalf of Burma’s ethnic and religious minority groups. However, an NLD-led government is seen as a welcome result and preferable to the previous regime that oversaw large-scale ethnic and religious persecution, suppressed political protests and controlled the media through arresting increasing numbers of journalists.
One of the biggest challenges that is set to test the mettle of the incoming government is how they tackle the rise of the ultranationalist Buddhist movement, Ma Ba Tha. Earlier this year, the movement was influential in seeing the government pass controversial laws on race and religion. These laws will affect religious minority groups, especially the predominantly Muslim ethnic Rohingya. The Rohingya people have been targets of violent campaigns that have denied them citizenship and seen them forced into internally displaced persons camps and escape from Burma by boat only to starve at sea triggering a regionwide crisis. The election was just another blow in the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya. Hundreds of thousands were denied a voice after being struck off the voting register while Members of Parliament were banned from standing for re-election. Many hope an NLD victory will lead to improved treatment of the Rohingya and a promise to put an end to discrimination and persecution, but this is by no means guaranteed’
Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA has supported the work of the Shan State Development Foundation (SSDF) since 2003. A spokesperson for SSDF has told APHEDA that they “welcome the majority winning of NLD as the NLD has expressed their desire for national reconciliation and … building peace in the country”.
As the NLD takes the reins and rolls out reforms, our partner organisations and the communities they work with will no doubt continue to harbour feelings of anxiousness and uncertainty about the future. For now, election results aside, they remain as committed as ever to their projects focusing on labour rights, health, education, capacity building, women’s rights, leadership, human rights, peace building and ethnic media.
Further comments from our partner organisations on the Thai-Burma border
There is a sense of reserved optimism about NLD’s victory. The big question which still remains is “who is in control of the military?” Currently we are seeing a military offensive in Shan State which is displacing people. People are reportedly fleeing the violence and coming into Thailand through the northern part of Chiang Mai at the border. This means they enter as undocumented migrants – not with the protections of refugees. Until there is a real ceasefire in the ethnic states, we will not be satisfied that there is real political change.
Not a lot has changed yet and probably won’t until about March 2016. Meanwhile, the Burma Army and Air force is bombing Shan and Kachin armies and civilians are caught in the middle. The ethnic armed groups are waiting to see what the NLD are prepared to offer, meanwhile the Asia Development Bank are going ahead with road construction in Karen State… Overall having the NLD win is a positive. But the ethnic issue needs to be addressed and if it isn’t then more of the same – armed conflict, but maybe nastier.
“SSDF welcome the majority winning of NLD on general election, as the NLD has expressed their desire for national reconciliation and to build a democratic federal union in the future during their election campaign. We hope that the NLD is able to form government and implement (their plans) according to the NLD campaign which are the keys to national reconciliation and building peace in the country”.
BCMF hopes that the new NLD government will bring stability to the people and that they address the neglected health care system as well as other social services… The new government has big challenges ahead of them… The basic needs of citizens – food, shelter, health care and decent paid jobs – have to be tackled. The ethnic and religious rights have to be protected, understanding the situation facing internally displaced people and refugee repatriation… Refugees need big support from the government and local community groups if they are to be resettled or repatriated.
The new government has its work cut out trying to improve social services and working to improve behaviour change in institutions that have an ingrained corruption, especially in the health care culture system.
BCMF has already set up projects with different community health care groups and hospitals in Burma – Hpa-an, Moulmyaine and Rangoon – we ensure that all groups and institutions who we work with are accountable, transparent and responsible for the work that they are doing in conjunction with us and for the people.