Myanmar: Parliamentary By-Elections and Easing of Sanctions

Results from Myanmar’s free and fair parliamentary elections resulted in a sweeping victory of Myanmar opposition leader Auung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, challenging the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party which has brutally suppressed pro-democratic ideas and populism for years.

Suu Kyi's NLD Party Defeats USDP in By-Elections

Although only 7% of the legislative seats were up for grabs in the by-elections, the NLD’s win illustrated a hunger for democracy and rejection of the military’s stake in politics after 5 decades of misrule.  Suu Kyi’s NLD party took 43 of the 45 available seats, raising troubling questions for the reuling party and its former generals who had kept Suu Kyi under house arrest until November 2010.  Suu Kyi’s top priorities are to amend a 2008 constitution drafted under the supervision of the then ruling military junta that reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military, and allows the president to hand power to the armed forces chief in an ill-defined emergency.  The country, formerly a British colony known as Burma, has been under 49 years of direct military rule until a rigged election in November 2012 swept into dominance the USDP.  The USDP is merely a front for the military junta and has perpetuated that cult of personality through repression and militarism ever since.  The recent round of by-elections, the USDP had much in its favor: bid spending power, control of 76% of the legislature and powerful allies in the judiciary, civil service, business and military.  Nevertheless, they did not have Suu Kyi, the widely popular pro-democracy champion and daughter of the country’s independence hero.

“Some in the army may see Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as a threat to the nation and want to take matters into their own hands.  But they can also now see quite clearly that the people will not accept a return to military rule and that a peaceful or stage-managed coup by the army is not really feasibly politically any longer” – Trevor Wilson, former Australian ambassador to Myanmar

The round of elections represent an important political transition period that could prove vital to the stability of the region.  Since the establishment of army rule in 1962, after a coup d’etat by New Win, Myanmar has been come to social instability, fiscal poverty and political repression.  Formerly known as Burma until 1989, the socialist state has played a strategic role in the geopolitical situation of the region, mainly due to its firm alliance with China.  Though popular movement existed before, as in 1988, the junta has been able to violently repress and incarcerate any leaders.  Myanmar’s military crushed demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September 2007, jailing hundreds and killing dozens.  Now it seems, however, that democracy has a chance of firmly rooting itself in Myanmar.  Suu Kyi is expected to avoid direct confrontation with the military and to prioritize socio-economic improvement to consolidate support inside and outside of parliament.  As Myanmar pushed for sanctions to be lifted to open a wave of foreign investment, a coalition government after the 2015 election is seen as the best hope for stability.

“This election is an important step in Burma’s democratic transformation, and we hope it is an indication that the government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency and reform.” – White House statement

The apparent thaw in Myanmar’s usually political isolated government has underscored the shift of its dynamics with China and the West.  China has been one of Myanmar’s biggest international backers and has poured billions of dollars in investment into the country to operate mines, extract timber and build oil and gas pipelines.  China has also been a staunch supporter of the country’s politically isolated government.  But ties appear to have cooled recently with China caught off guard by the suspension in September of a $3.6 billion China-funded dam, which was being built by a Chinese company in Myanmar.  The project has drawn protests from ethnic and environmental groups.  Now, China has called for Western countries to immediately lift their punitive sanctions on Myanmar in the wake of the by-elections.  The call by the Foreign Minister, Hong Lei, echoes one made by Southeast Asian leaders after a summit Wednesday.  In the US, President Obama said that the administration would soon nominate an ambassador to Myanmar and ease some travel and financial restrictions on the nation.  Secretary of State Clinton also announced that Washington would allow select senior Myanmar officials to visit the US and ease restriction on the export of financial services.  The US will also open an office of the US Agency for International Development in Myanmar.  Nonetheless, Clinton did state that sanctions against people and institutions in Myanmar that try to thwart democratic progress would remain in place.



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