Myanmar’s Hour of Truth or the Lady’s Last Gamble


Partyforumseasia: Well, the hour of truth and the final results of Sunday’s election will take some time to be announced. Logistically this election is a formidable challenge given the size of the country, the diversity of ethnic groups and ongoing violence, and the deficits in transport and communication infrastructure. What the New York Times called “the country’s first relatively free elections in 25 years” (Link here), will certainly be a milestone in the development of the political and economic latecomer among the ten ASEAN countries. Since last year, though, the military dominance is no longer such an exception. Neighboring Thailand, which used to look down on Myanmar and her military rule, is under a military junta herself. The example of the chaos in Bangkok may be on voters’ minds on Sunday, even if many are tired of the generals and dream of a more open democratic era under Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi
The democracy icon has been pulling huge crowds during her campaign with charisma and her personal history as victim of the generals. The military, sure, has not honored her victory in 1990, but the house arrest in her villa in Rangoon was not as cruel as incarceration could have been, and audiences with her followers over the garden gate were tolerated for many years.
What might psychologically happen to Aung San Suu Kyi is not easy to guess, but there are some telling facts:

1. Aung San Suu Kyi is getting old(er). With 70 most politicians are closer to the end of their service for the country than to the beginning. Exceptions are possible: Konrad Adenauer was 73 when he was elected as first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, and he ruled until 1963. At the ripe age of 87 then, he unsuccessfully tried to become president…

2. Aung San Suu Kyi dominates her National League for Democracy in a way that some see as more authoritarian than liberal democratic. Tactical campaign moves like snubbing the Muslim minority and courting the radical Buddhists of Ma Ba Tha, betray her urge to make it this time even at the price of ignoring the democratic values she embodies for many Myanmar citizens and maybe even more for international observers.

3. The actual gamble of Aung San Suu Kyi to get the votes out for her party and herself is being reported by Reuters and AFP after an interview yesterday, 5th November:
“If we win, and the NLD forms a government, I will be above the president. It’s a very simple message. I will run the government and we will have a president who will work in accordance with the policies of the NLD.”
That would be difficult in a presidential system and is against the constitution which can’t be changed against the will of the generals. So the message for her followers and supporters is: Make sure that we win, then I will take care of the formal questions when I’m in power. But it could produce a backlash from the supporters of the military and their USDP as well because of the potential chaos which may follow an open power struggle. Myanmar voters want stability and economic recovery, the ethnic conflicts going on for much too long already.

4. Coming back to the political psychology: Many victims of oppression and violence against opposition, many in prison for long years, have developed a sense of entitlement to high office. Shih Ming-Teh of Taiwan (25 years in prison) could not even convince his own party that he should be the president. Only Nelson Mandela (27 years in prison) made it to the presidency of South Africa. Partyforumseasia hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi will  approach the election results as sober and level-headed as possible!

Myanmar: What to Expect After the 8 November Election?


Partyforumseasia: Officially launching the NLD election campaign yesterday, 8 September, democracy icon and party leader Aung San Suu Kyi did not sound as confident of a clear victory as most observers predict it to be. Aung peacock
Asking the international community to monitor the election intensely and carefully shows her fears that military and USDP under president Thein Sein will try to manipulate the vote again after NLD’s accusations that the 2010 election was widely rigged. But the NLD had boycotted it anyway. As in other elections in the region before, parachuted international observers will have a limited understanding of the technicalities and equally limited access to remote areas. But an immediate effect of her appeal for international support is the anger of the military which in any outcome will have 25% of the seats in parliament and far reaching veto powers.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s widely criticized silence in the Rohingya issue was followed by a top level decision of her party not to allow Muslim candidates, even in predominantly Muslim areas. This, on the other hand, underlines her fear of antagonizing the Buddhist nationalists and their spearhead organization Ma Ba Tha, or Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.
For a decisive victory the NLD will need support from the parties of the ethnic minorities who may not be too keen to sacrifice their regional interests to the democratic battle cry of the NLD, though they all hate the military. Forging a pro-democracy and anti-military election coalition among the ninety (90) odd parties contesting this election is more than a herculean task for Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many voters are confused anyway, the NLD’s peacockpeacock symbol being used by at least half a dozen other parties as well.

Even with a sweeping victory for the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi will have no chance to sideline the military. Ex-general and president Thein Sein has signaled his interest to run for another term in 2016 and his ouster of USDP party chairman Shwe Mann for being too cozy with Aung San Suu Kyi does not augur well for a viable arrangement between the two big players after the election.
With neighboring Thailand in a potentially explosive limbo between militarily supervised calm and democratic renewal as well as Malaysia with an increasingly shaky UMNO government, a more stable Myanmar would be preferable for the region and the investors.

Radical Buddhism Meddling in Myanmar’s Politics


Partyforumseasia: The international headlines focus predominantly on radical Islam, sometimes on radical Hinduism in India, from time to time on Christian fundamentalism in the US. Buddhism, all in all, has managed to keep an image of peacefulness, except in Myanmar, where Buddhist monks took part in violent attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority. Since mid 2013 they are organized in the “Association for the Protection of Race and Religion”, also known under the acronym Ma Ba Tha or “မဘသ” in Burmese.
Ma Ba Tha pic.The organization is being described as nationalistic, fiercely anti-Islam, and well connected to the military. Though article Article 364 of the Constitution prohibits the “abuse of religion for political purposes”, Ma Ba Tha leaders are openly supporting the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). During its second anniversary conference in June, Bhaddamta Vimala, a senior monk and secretary of Ma Ba Tha, criticized the opposition as too inexperienced to rule the country and urged the monks to drum up support for the USDP in the upcoming elections on 8 November. Monks cannot vote but their influence among the population is considerable.
After independence the U Nu government tried to introduce Buddhism as the state religion, but the law was never passed after resistance in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Nevertheless, Ma Ba Tha has celebrated “state religion day” on 30 August to commemorate the 1961 move toward Buddhism as official religion. The day’s religious importance derives from Buddha teaching the Metta Sutta, or discourse on loving kindness which seems to be rather irreconcilable with the militant and violent sides of Ma Ba Tha.
The organization was also more than supportive in legislation concerning religious conversions and interfaith marriages as well as compulsory monogamy and population-control – it actually drafted them. The last of the four laws was signed by president Thein Sein on 31 August, the whole package being criticized by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi as discriminatory for the minorities. But this may backfire in the elections, because Ma Ba Tha has grown into a very powerful nationalistic force which will certainly use its considerable influence to support the USDP and reduce the chances of the NLD.
Nota bene: Christian groups in the West should not cry foul too easily. The Christian Democratic parties in Europe have enjoyed the churches’ support for many years, and American Evangelicals still wield considerable influence until today.