Over the election period, there has been an obvious focus on Aung San Suu Kyi and her future political role in Burma. Many articles and comments have been very critical of both her style of leadership and her statements, or lack of, on many of the most serious human rights issues facing the country. In particular, she has come in for sustained criticism over her failure to seriously address the persecution of the Rohingya and the decision not to have a single Muslim National League for Democracy candidate.
Some of the criticism is justified. It is deeply disappointing that Aung San Suu Kyi has been largely silent on the biggest human rights crises in Burma, notably the crimes committed against the Rohingya and the abuses committed by the Burmese Army in Kachin and Shan state.
The failure of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership to seriously challenge the rising tide of anti-Muslim prejudice and Buddhist nationalism has allowed Ma Ba Tha and others to relentlessly push their agenda of hatred, and has been a missed opportunity to confront bigotry and offer a principled, alternative vision for an ethnically and religiously diverse country.
On the other hand, is anyone seriously arguing that an NLD government won’t be a big improvement over one led by Thein Sein? Criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi should be kept in perspective and not deflect from the real causes of Burma’s problems.
Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t committed any human rights violations. She is not supporting attacks against Muslims or spreading anti-Muslim hatred. She is not responsible for an army that has used rape and torture as weapons of war and deliberately targeted ethnic civilians. She is not locking up political prisoners for their peaceful activism. She has not presided over the systematic repression of the Rohingya or been implicated in ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and what Yale University’s Human Rights Clinic has deemed a potential genocide.
President Thein Sein, however, is ultimately responsible for all of the above. So it is surprising that we do not hear even a fraction of the criticism that is leveled at Aung San Suu Kyi directed at Thein Sein. In fact, quite the reverse. Despite years of broken promises of reform, and leading a regime responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the world, Thein Sein is given the benefit of the doubt. There may be some criticism of the military-backed government, but Thein Sein seems spared such scrutiny. He is still presented as a reformer trying to keep military hardliners in check, a statesman leading the country through turbulent times.
Yet there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. Thein Sein was at the heart of Burma’s military dictatorship for decades. He presided over the drafting of the 2008 Constitution, which secures military control at every level of government. Thein Sein’s legacy is clear.
It is of course essential to scrutinize political leaders and hold them to account, but in the case of Burma, there seems to be a narrative emerging that blames the victim not the oppressor. Aung San Suu Kyi is herself a victim of the policies of Burma’s military dictators. She won the election in 1990, but was denied power. She spent years under house arrest, often portrayed as being inflexible, hardline and almost responsible for her own detention. She has faced attempts on her life. And she is constitutionally barred from being President, despite the fact that it is clearly, overwhelmingly the will of the people.
Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to have the opportunity to transform the National League for Democracy’s human rights commitments into action. With the NLD’s anticipated landslide election victory, there will be high expectations for fundamental change after so many years of military rule. But under the current Constitution, it will have very limited scope to prevent some of the most serious human rights abuses from continuing.
The military will still be in control of key areas such as the police, security services and justice system. The army will be beyond the control of any civilian government and free to continue attacks against ethnic people, as was the case on the day after the vote, when the Air Force reportedly bombarded the headquarters of the Shan State Army-North in Kyethi. The military will continue to hold a veto over efforts to make the Constitution more democratic.
Yes, an NLD government will need to be held to account for the decisions and policies it makes, but that needs to be balanced with the fact that it will be a government that is severely restricted in what it can achieve.
Will Aung San Suu Kyi be blamed for the political straitjacket created by Thein Sein and the military?
As the new political landscape takes shape, it will be important to remember who is really responsible for the fact that Burma is not yet a genuine democracy that respects human rights.
People are rightly celebrating what looks like a huge victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, in the elections held in Burma on Sunday (8 November). But is this really the end of military rule? Not by a long shot.
Applying Burma’s military drafted constitution and rules of Sundays election to the political scene in the UK reveals the scale of the challenges a new NLD government will face, and why the people of Burma will need our continued support to win genuine freedom for all.
- The election was only for 75% of the seats in the British parliament. After the election, the head of the British Army chooses soldiers for the other 25% of seats.
- The fee for standing as a candidate was more than the average annual income, so smaller parties struggled to field many candidates.
- The head of the main opposition party is banned by law from becoming prime minister even if his or her party wins the election.
- While the election was going on, the British army was attacking civilian villages in Scotland and Wales. British soldiers were raping women, torturing and shooting farmers, bombing and burning villages, and thousands of people were fleeing for their lives. Two civilians were shot and killed by the British army on election day. The British government and British army stopped UN and other aid agencies from giving aid to refugees fleeing the attacks. This was barely mentioned during the election campaign.
- Voting was cancelled in large parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, ostensibly for security reasons, which by co-incidence have voters who don’t tend to vote for the ruling party.
- The old parliament can carry on sitting for almost three months after the election, with MPs who were not re-elected passing laws which the population opposes.
- When the new parliament does finally get to sit, it chooses the prime minister. The prime minister does not have to be an MP. If the person chosen as prime minister is an elected MP, they have to resign from parliament.
- The British soldiers in parliament get to choose one of two deputy prime ministers. This will be serving soldier.
- After parliament chooses the prime minister, the prime minister does not have to go to parliament again. There is no weekly question time. The prime minister doesn’t have to answer questions from MPs.
- The prime minister chooses most government ministers. These ministers do not have to be MPs. If an MP is made a government minister, they have to resign from parliament. The parliament has no power to call on ministers to answer questions on policy.
- Regardless of who wins the election, the head of the army chooses the home secretary, the defence secretary, and the ministers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These are usually serving soldiers. As such, the British government will not have control over the police, justice system, MI5 or MI6, the military, or over key areas of policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- The defence secretary answers to the head of the army, not the other way round.
- The army sets its own budget, not government or parliament. The military budget is far higher than combined spending on the NHS and education.
- The emergency COBRA committee is a permanent body with fixed membership. It is constitutionally more powerful than the British government and parliament. The army chooses six of its eleven members, so they always have a majority.
- The British government and parliament cannot change the way Britain is run in any constitutional way, even if every single elected MP supports the change, unless the army also agrees with it.
- The army controls lots of Britain’s biggest companies, even the biggest brewery, and keeps the profits for themselves. The profits don’t enter the official government budget.
- The army has the constitutional power to take power over all or part of the country if it decides there is a threat to national security or unity.
We would never accept this in the UK, so how can we tell people in Burma that something is better than nothing, that at least this is better than what there was before, that progress is being made, and to be patient? The people of Burma have the right to the same freedoms as we have in the UK. Burma isn’t a democracy yet.
For millions of people in Burma and for supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi around the world, Sunday’s election appears to be the fulfillment of their dreams. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) looks to have won a landslide victory, ending more than fifty years of military rule. Democracy has finally arrived. Or has it?
Burma’s generals didn’t suddenly wake up one day believing in democracy. They wanted to end sanctions and their pariah status, but they didn’t want to give up control of the country. They knew that couldn’t win an election. The NLD are far too popular. Their solution? A shiny new constitution which has the appearance of a democracy, but which still gives them ultimate control.
When the new Parliament sits, the realities are going to start hitting home. Newly elected MPs will be joined by 116 MPs, 25 percent of the total, who are appointed by the head of the army. These MPs will choose one The generals despise and fear Aung San Suu Kyi. They put a special clause in the constitution that a president can’t have children who are citizens of foreign countries, which she does, to prevent her becoming president.
The head of the Burmese army also gets to choose key government ministers. The Defense Minister, Home Affairs Minister and Border Affairs Minister will all be serving soldiers. This puts the armed forces outside of the control of the new government. The government will also not have control over the police, justice system, security services or issues in ethnic sates, critical for ending conflict which has lasted for more than 60 years.
In terms of human rights, this is a disaster. The Burmese Army has been committing horrific human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in the country. Rape is used as a weapon of war, farmers are tortured and executed, and villages are bombed and burned. Legal experts say the abuses taking place meet the legal definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity. An NLD government will be virtually powerless to stop this.
The issue of political prisoners, which has also plagued the country for decades, won’t be going away. During the election campaign, people were thrown into jail for Facebook posts that the army didn’t like. Without control of the police or being able to create a truly independent judiciary, this is another area where the NLD will be hamstrung. People could still be jailed for their political beliefs or actions.
An NLD government can’t even use the military budget to try to reign in the army. The army sets its own budget. The government has to make do with the money left over. No surprise then, than military spending is higher than health and education combined.
Just in case an NLD government still tries to implement policies the military doesn’t like, above both parliament and government is a National Defense and Security Council. Constitutionally, it is the most powerful body in Burma. It has eleven members, six of whom come from the military, so it has a built-in majority. It could overrule decisions made by an NLD government.
As if all these checks on the power of the government were not enough, the military also inserted clauses in the constitution that give it the right to retake power for vague and unspecified “national security” and “national unity” reasons. Basically, any time they like. Every decision an NLD government makes, it will have to keep looking over its shoulder, judging how far it can safely go.Given all this, it’s not surprising that one of the top priorities for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is constitutional reform. The generals realized this as well. That’s where the 25 percent of seats reserved for them in parliament comes in to play. To change the constitution, more than 75 percent of MPs have to vote for it. This means the military have veto power over constitutional reform. No change unless they decide they want it.
Despite all these problems, having an NLD government, however hamstrung, will undoubtedly be better that what came before it. But it isn’t democracy, and it isn’t acceptable. It can’t be described as a step in a transition process, because under the constitution, no further steps towards a genuine democracy are possible.
Burma now has a hybrid system of military rule and democracy. It’s democracy on a leash. It might be good enough for much of the international community, who keep patronizing Burmese people by telling them these things take time and no transition is smooth, but it isn’t good enough for Burmese people. In Western countries, a situation where the military are not under the control of the government and where the military appoint key government ministers, would be considered completely unacceptable. It is just as unacceptable in Burma.
A long slow transition means many more years of human rights abuses. More women raped by the Burmese Army, more political prisoners, more villages burned. The victims of human rights abuses can’t wait for a hoped slow transition. They need genuine democracy, and they need it now. For them it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. It isn’t time to celebrate yet.
As someone forced to flee Burma as a teenager when the Burmese army attacked my village, I haven’t been able to stop watching the news from my country about the elections. As the results started to come through showing a likely landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), I was surprised to find myself having mixed feelings.
Here was the prospect of the first civilian government in more than 50 years. Friends of mine were voting for the first time. Some friends even stood as candidates and were winning seats. They will now be MPs. The love and support people have for Aung San Suu Kyi was being demonstrated by the big majorities NLD candidates were achieving. Isn’t this what we have been working towards for so long?
Part of my sadness is personal. I am not there to be part of it. Despite some reforms, I am still not allowed back into my own country. And I am not the only one excluded. There were at least 10 million people from Burma, mostly from ethnic and religious minorities as I am, who were not able to vote in the election.
I know the NLD government will be able to make many positive changes in my country, and this is really good news. At the same time however, deep down I know the military hasn’t completely handed over power. An NLD government is going to face many challenges because the army has inserted lots of clauses into the constitution to limit its power. This is designed to restrict the freedom of the NLD government to make big changes to the country.
Imagine if in the UK the head of the British Army appointed the defence secretary and home secretary. That is the situation in Burma.
The soldiers haven’t given up control, instead, they will exercise it in a different way. They still have ultimate power according to the constitution.
It’s not just about the 25 per cent of seats reserved for the military in parliament that enables them to block constitutional change. Imagine if in the UK the head of the British Army appointed the defence secretary and home secretary. That is the situation in Burma.
When the NLD forms a government, the head of the army will be appointing the government ministers responsible for border affairs, defence and home affairs. An NLD government won’t control the army, the police or the security services. This means the Burmese army attacks against ethnic minority civilians which drove me from my home, and which increased in the run-up to the election, can carry on. It also means peaceful political activists can still be arrested and jailed.
It makes me sad that for the first time there will be a civilian government which will genuinely want to end conflict, reach a political settlement with ethnic groups, and bring lasting peace to the country, but that it won’t have the constitutional power to actually do so. It won’t control the army and it won’t have the power to change the constitution.
As someone from the ethnic Karen group, I am worried about the positive impression being given by most reports on the election.
To know that children will still be experiencing the terror I did when I was doing my homework and bombs suddenly started landing in my village, but that the outside world is getting the impression that everything is now OK, makes me very worried for the future. This isn’t the end of our long struggle. It’s the start of a new phase of that struggle, and the military are as determined as ever not to give up control. Celebrate an NLD victory today, but tomorrow, we still need your support.
Burma Campaign UK Executive Director Anna Roberts is interviewed about the election on the Today programme, Radio 4.
Our briefing paper on the election is quoted in the Telegraph today:
“The UK Burma Campaign estimates that up to 10 million people – around 20 per cent of the country’s population – may be unable to go to the polls. The electoral commission has cited ethnic conflict as a reason to cancel the election in some areas, and the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority of around one million people have been deliberately disenfranchised, but there could be many others, like those in Hine U, who are simply not on the list.”
Burma Campaign UK is quoted in this article in Al Jazeera:
Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party is expected to win big, but even a landslide may not bring significant change.
“Just like all the previous elections, this election will not address key issues relating to ethnic rights and aspiration such as self-determination,” said Zoya Phan, an ethnic Karen activist and campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK, an advocacy group. “Whoever wins the elections, the military still has ultimate control over Burma, guaranteed by the 2008 constitution. As a result, attacks and discrimination against ethnic minorities will continue.”
Article in Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) by Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK.
November’s election keeps being described as a turning point in Burma’s transition to democracy. But Burma isn’t transitioning to democracy. It is transitioning into a new form of hybrid regime. The first major step in the reform process was the implementation of the undemocratic 2008 Constitution. The elections tomorrow take place under that constitution. Of course the military know the National League for Democracy (NLD) is likely to win the most seats, or even its hoped-for landslide. Of course they know there is a chance of the NLD forming a government, if not at this election, then at some point in the future. After all these years of planning, do people seriously think the military have left anything to chance?
With the 2008 Constitution, the military carefully designed a political structure that preserves their power and influence, even if the NLD or another non-military party is in government. Even if the NLD wins, in parliament the military have 25 percent of the seats and veto power over constitutional change.
In government they appoint key ministers such as defence, home affairs and border affairs. This means an NLD-led government will not have control over the armed forces, the police or justice system, or over the most critical and sensitive political issue in Burma: policy in ethnic states. Under an NLD government, a serving soldier involved in war crimes could still be serving as Home Affairs minister and ordering the arrest and prosecution of peaceful protestors.
Most government departments already contained many staff with military backgrounds, but many new military appointments are being made. How will an NLD minister with no experience or even specific policies stamp their authority and implement policies in military dominated government departments?
Burma has a parliamentary electoral system but a presidential form of government. Parliament has no authority to hold the government to account. Neither parliament nor the government have the authority to hold the military to account. Above both parliament and government is the military-controlled National Defence and Security Council. Constitutionally, this is the most powerful body in the country, and can be used at any time needed.
In the unlikely event all its other fail-safes do fail, as its ultimate security, the military has the legal right to have a coup, taking back direct day-to-day control, for vague and unspecified national security and unity reasons. As if any future NLD or other government weren’t already hamstrung enough, the ever-hanging threat of a coup can also be used to limit what the NLD does.
The military obviously won’t want there to be an NLD landslide at the election. The promotion of Ma-Ba-Tha, unfair election rules, and a hundred other small and large tactics are being used to try to limit their success. Nor do they want Aung San Suu Kyi as president. She is too powerful a political figure to risk allowing to be president. But no other figure in Burma carries the clout she does, and the constitution is designed to allow an NLD victory as long as she isn’t running the government.
An NLD-led government is likely to be a big improvement on one led by Thein Sein. Many hope new political space can be expanded in ways the military neither expect nor planned for, chipping away at their power and securing more rights. This is likely to be a long slow process with human rights violations, poverty, and conflict continuing for many years to come. For these people, the slow pace of change is literally a matter of life or death.
Although it could usher in welcome change for many, tomorrow’s election won’t be a turning point in a transition to democracy as it is being talked up to be. Instead, it is another step in the military’s carefully thought-out plan to transition from direct military rule and pariah status to a new hybrid authoritarian state which is accepted by the international community. The military have as much at stake as anyone in Burma in ensuring November’s elections go smoothly. Regardless of votes cast on the day, they have made sure they’ll be the ultimate winners.
Elections in Burma are scheduled for 8 November. Our new briefing paper looks at what is likely to happen after election day, the process of the elections, and key election statistics.
Key points from the briefing include:
- Regardless of who wins the election, the military has control and/or influence over every level of government and will still have ultimate control over the country.
- An NLD government could be powerless to stop many human rights violations as they will not have control over the armed forces, police, or security services. As a result, attacks against ethnic groups, use of rape as a weapon of war, and the arrest and jailing of critics of the military, could continue under an NLD government.
- For the first time since independence, ethnic Rohingya are largely unable to vote and will not have an MP in Parliament.
- For the first time since independence, Parliament is unlikely to contain a single Muslim MP.
- At least 20% of the population of Burma, more than 10 million people, have been deliberately disenfranchised or are unable to vote for other reasons.
- The elections will not bring Burma closer to addressing key issues relating to ethnic aspirations and rights.
- Neither the NLD or USDP are likely to ensure ethnic Rohingya have the rights and protection they are entitled to under international law, and external pressure will be required whoever forms the next government.
- Even before a single vote was cast, the elections cannot be either free, fair, credible or inclusive.
- The 2008 Constitution is designed for the eventuality of an NLD government without it being a threat to military interests.
- The election results are likely to highlight growing ethnic and religious divides in Burma.
- The election may usher in a government which is chosen by the people and able to implement policies and laws which benefit many people, despite being hamstrung on many issues.
- The election is also a key moment in the transition to a new form of military control and may consolidate continuing military control over the country.
- Victims of ongoing human rights violations cannot wait for a decades-long slow transition to a genuine democracy.