Ava White, JHU:
Note: This article uses the term “Burma” to refer to the country also known as Myanmar. Burma is derived from the Bamar ethnic group, and is a less-inclusive term with roots in the country’s colonial past. However, the government that renamed the country Myanmar was a military junta regarded as illegitimate by many, so activists, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the US government still use the term Burma.
After the excitement of Sunday’s historic election and a long, anxious wait for the results, on Friday the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) secured a parliamentary majority. The party of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is now poised to select the country’s next president and to form a civilian government, ousting the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Former military commander and current President Thein Sein congratulated Suu Kyi and promised to hand over power peacefully – hardly a foregone conclusion when it comes to Burmese politics. International and domestic observers have kept a close eye on the military and the USDP in the run-up to the election, expecting a degree of foul play in a country that has been ruled by a military junta since 1962. Aside from a few irregularities and questionable constituencies the vote proceeded peacefully, and the democratic opposition triumphed under the leadership of a national hero/saint, but the election has merely set the stage for the next iteration of Burma’s military-civilian conflict.
In post-election Burma the NLD might control the government, but the military remains an independent organization controlling 25% of parliament and holding a de-facto veto over any constitutional changes. More importantly, it has an entirely different set of goals than the NLD, putting the two on a collision course with regards to Burma’s diverse ethnic groups. The key to Burma’s future is October’s Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA), which forged a temporary peace between the government and eight of the weakest ethnic rebel groups. The strongest groups – the Kachin Independence Organization, the United Wa State Army, and others – possess approximately 40,000 troops not bound by the ceasefire, and are formidably armed thanks to their alliances with Beijing and the profits of their opium, jade, and teak smuggling. The military wants to resolve Burma’s 67-year civil war by binding the ethnic regions to the rest of the country and maintaining a high degree of unity, fearful of separatism and hoping to exploit the natural riches of the ethnic regions. The NLD, on the other hand, has long advocated a federalist solution which would grant the ethnic regions a high degree of autonomy. The ethnic groups therefore generally support the NLD, as they see no reason to share their resources with the resource-poor regions of the country and would prefer to remain relatively independent.
As the NLD and the military lock horns over the ethnic question, both will turn to the major players of the region for support. China has long been involved in Burma’s ethnic regions, influencing the military junta with the carrot-and-stick approach of economic investment and backing rebel groups in the north and east of the country. In the aftermath of the democratic transition China is poised to back the NLD, having courted Suu Kyi and her rebel allies extensively in the past few years. These rebel groups also control China’s oil and gas pipelines in the country, ensuring Chinese goodwill. Meanwhile, the military may be more willing to seek out a new ally in light of the NLD’s Chinese alliance – namely, India. India has stepped up its trade relations with Burma since the nominal end of the junta in 2011, and invested significantly in Burma and ASEAN in general via the India-Thailand highway. According to the latest electoral results the USDP has made surprising and dubious gains in Shan State, a region crucial for both the country’s economic development and for controlling the highway itself. The military may be able to secure Indian backing if it can guarantee the safety of the highway and position itself as a safeguard against Chinese influence while India hopes to gain influence over ASEAN. In the case of extreme deadlock or even resumed conflict over the ethnic issue, these powerful alliances will be essential for either party to gain effective control over the entire country.
The contentious ethnic question is hardly Burma’s only post-election challenge. The radical Buddhist organization Ma Ba Tha has opposed the NLD in the past, even going so far as to declare Suu Kyi unfit to rule, and stands ready to defend its “Race and Religion Protection Laws” and stir up anti-Muslim sentiments in Rakhine State again at any time. Notably, the anti-Muslim Arakan National Party made significant gains over the NLD in Rakhine State, indicating that radical Buddhist sentiments are still strong there despite months of relative peace. As an international symbol of peace and human rights Suu Kyi is under a degree of pressure to address the segregation and oppression of Burma’s Muslim minority, but domestically any such concession would be unthinkable given the public’s extreme sentiments towards Burmese Muslims. The million-strong Muslim minority – known as the Rohingya – are considered one of the most oppressed peoples in the world. They are not recognized as citizens of Burma, and require special permission to travel, marry, or have more than two children, and are frequently the target of state-sponsored violence. Even Suu Kyi has not opposed Ma Ba Tha’s sermons and campaigns against the Rohingya, because public support for the radical Buddhists is far too strong.
Even the structure of the NLD itself in post-election politics raises concerns. The constitution bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because her children hold foreign citizenship, a restriction enacted specifically with Suu Kyi in mind; but last week she declared that in the event of an NLD win she would be “above the president.” Riding a wave of popularity this might very well be possible, but it raises serious constitutional questions for the country and opens the way for NLD infighting. The NLD also has no governing experience, and taking the reins of an impoverished country rife with internal division will not be an easy task. Up until now the public has placed their nearly unquestioning belief in the NLD as the very incarnation of democracy, and the country could easily face a crisis of faith should Suu Kyi’s party fail to continue Burma’s economic development or preserve the peace.
The election might be over, but it would be incredibly naïve to believe that Burma’s decades of struggle are at an end. Burma is moving forward into a move dangerous age, and it will be up to the NLD and the military to negotiate their own differences and the other challenges the country faces. The struggle is only just beginning.