Myanmar elections mute ethnic voices

Burma elections: TNI raises awareness of need to address ethnic grievances
30 June 2010
In the media

Two reports by TNI published earlier this month have raised critical issues surrounding the upcoming elections in Burma, expected sometime later in 2010. Below, a piece from the Asia Times looks at these in the context of the country's complex political situation.

See: Burma’s 2010 Elections: Challenges and Opportunities and Burma in 2010: A Critical Year in Ethnic Politics published by TNI earlier this month.

BANGKOK - Elections slated for later this year in Myanmar seem increasingly unlikely to democratically empower the country's various ethnic minority groups, which combined account for over 30% of the population.

While the ruling generals have touted the inclusiveness of their tightly controlled democratic transition, critics say the new constitution ignores ethnic demands for federalism while junta-drafted election laws prohibit the participation of the largest ethnic parties, some of which are attached to armed insurgent groups who for decades have fought for greater autonomy.

The ruling junta has yet to announce a date for the elections, but many observers believe they will he held sometime in October. They will be the first polls held in Myanmar since 1990, when the opposition led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) swept to victory against military-sponsored parties, only to see the results annulled by the military before they could take power.

The generals have made clear their intention to hold new polls and that the participation of the NLD and ethnic ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups is not essential to their credibility. The NLD announced on March 29 that it would not re-register under the new election laws, which it considered unfair because of regulations that bar Aung San Suu Kyi, the party's detained leader, from contesting the polls.

A number of NLD party leaders and other members have argued that non-participation plays into the regime's hands by not providing an alternative to the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National Unity Party (NUP).

At least 39 other political parties have so far applied for registration with the newly formed election commission. Of those, only 15 are considered national parties, while many of the rest aim specifically to represent the interests of ethnic groups, including the Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Shan.

The question of whether to participate in the elections has been as contentious an issue among ethnic political groups as it was with the NLD. Some see the electoral process as a sham for perpetuating military rule under the guise of democracy and advocate a boycott of the polls. Others believe the elections offer an unique chance to work from within the system and an alternative to the confrontation and armed struggle that has plagued Myanmar politics since independence from the UK in 1948.

The second and third most successful parties in the 1990 elections after the NLD, the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD) and the Arakan League for Democracy, have both supported the NLD's stand and opted not to re-register their parties for the upcoming election. The SNLD's decision was also based on the junta's refusal to free its two top leaders, who were both arrested on political charges in 2005.

Local contests
Significantly, many of the ethnic-based parties are looking to contest seats in local legislatures rather than at the national level. With their relative small sizes, the high cost of party registration and their lack of a national voice, many aspiring ethnic politicians feel that their chances of success and ability to effect change are better on the local level.

Parties representing larger ethnic groups, such as the Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP), are seeking to contest the elections at all levels within their own states. Still other parties representing ethnic groups with much wider geographic coverage, such as the Kayin People's Party (KPP) and the Shan Nationals Democratic Party (SNDP), intend to contest the election for both local legislatures and at the national level across several states and divisions.

Competing for seats on state legislatures may have some real, if limited, advantages for ethnic aspirations. The new legislatures mandated by the 2008 constitution are a departure from the military-dominated "Peace and Development Committees" that currently decide policy in ethnic minority areas and are often a direct arm of the central government.

Ethnic politicians hope that the local legislative bodies will be more representative of local communities and give them more say over affairs that matter to their ethnic constituents. With popular representation, there may be more opportunities for the promotion of local cultures and languages though influence over the media and education. Also important is to gain more influence and scrutiny over the exploitation of natural resources in ethnic minority areas.

According to a recent report on the elections by the Transnational Institute, "Nevertheless, many ethnic leaders point out that they will have a legitimate voice for the first time. This will allow ethnic grievances, in the past too easily dismissed as the seditious rumblings of separatist insurgents, to be openly raised."

Without ethnic participation, the government backed, and largely ethnic Myanmar USDP and NUP will be calling the shots not only nationally, but also in the regional legislatures. While a far cry from the federalism that many ethnic leaders aspire for, the local legislatures offer the first forms of local autonomy since the post 1962 coup government of General Ne Win abolished ethnic councils established under the 1947 constitution.

A post-independence federal system was promised as a result of a conference held at the town of Panglong in northern Myanmar between independence leader General Aung San and representatives of several ethnic groups. Federal principles agreed to at the conference were enshrined in the 1947 constitution, but by the late 1950's many felt they had not been adequately implemented.

Agitation for a more truly federalist system was a major cause of the 1962 military coup, which was carried out in the name of preserving national unity.

Myanmar's 2008 constitution keeps the seven ethnic states and creates seven new self-administered zones for less numerous ethnic groups such as the Pa-O, Kokang and Wa. However, it makes few other concessions to ethnic aspirations for federalism and power sharing between ethnic groups and the majority Myanmar population. During the 1993-2008 National Convention that drafted the constitution, calls by ethnic representatives for a federal union were ignored.

There is growing evidence that the generals are seeking to undermine and split the ethnic vote at the upcoming elections. This is being done largely through the junta's mass organization, the United Solidarity Development Association (USDA), and its newly formed political party, the USDP.

Many members of the USDP are former military officers and current members of government who have resigned their ranks to participate in the polls. They have actively courted ethnic minorities to join the junta-backed USDP. In the case of the disenfranchised Muslim Rohingya in western Myanmar, that has taken the form of offering identity cards granting them formal citizenship in exchange for their votes.

According to the exile-run media group Shan Herald Agency for News, USDP members have used the USDA and local government officials to canvass for votes and to pressure villagers in Shan State to sign their names on the party's rolls. Shan leaders in Mandalay Division, where there are significant Shan populations, were approached in March to run as part of the USDP.

The junta has also effectively blocked several of the major ethnic political players from taking part in the elections due to an impasse over the transformation of armed ceasefire groups into army-controlled border guard units. The regime's seven-step "roadmap to democracy" had originally envisioned that the groups would either hand over their weapons or join the border guard force as a prelude to forming political parties and contesting the election.

Pre-election tension
That step was supposed to be accomplished before an election date was announced. Instead tensions have spiked between the junta and the ethnic militias as several deadlines have passed - the latest on April 28 - and the issue still remains unresolved. Over 20 ethnic insurgent groups have agreed to ceasefires with the junta since 1989 and have since largely run their own affairs. They consider retaining their weapons as a necessary protection until the generals can prove the sincerity of their political promises.

Only a few, mostly small groups have agreed to the junta's terms, including the National Democratic Army - Kachin (NDA-K) and the Kachin Defence Army (KDA). However, their political leaders have resigned and are now seeking to register respectively as the Union Democracy Party (Kachin State) and the Northern Shan State Progressive Party.

The Kokang only agreed after a short offensive by the army drove out the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in August 2009 and brought in new leadership. The new leadership quickly declared its support for the 2010 elections and formed a political party.

Larger groups such as the United Wa State Party (UWSP), Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) have not been allowed to register parties for the election. Instead the regime has threatened to revoke the ceasefire status of groups and declare them illegal. Most recently tensions have increased in Mon State, where the NMSP has refused to meet with the military's intelligence head Lieutenant General Ye Myint to discuss the border guard issue. The junta has threatened to use force if the Mon does not agree to a meeting.

Keeping the ceasefire groups out of the polls may work to the generals' electoral advantage. A June 2010 report by the Transnational Institute on the ethnic political situation described the ethnic ceasefire organizations, "in terms of history, membership, finance, and territorial control, the ceasefire forces far outweigh electoral parties in their ability to operate independently and, with an estimated 40,000 troops under arms, their existence was a continued reminder of the need for conflict resolution."

Both the Wa and the Kachin have said that they would like to support ethnic parties in the polls and negotiate the decommissioning of their armed wings with the new government after the elections. After two decades of unresolved political issues and disappointment in the 2008 constitution, they want to see proof of real political reform before agreeing to hand over their weapons.

Indeed, the election commission has so far refused to accept the registration of three Kachin political parties. While two of the parties represent former ceasefire groups who have now become border guards, the KSPP has several former KIO members, including its leader, former KIO vice chairman Tu Ja. Some observers believe the party's registration has yet to be approved because of these links.

There is also a fear that the government will declare a state of emergency in the ceasefire areas, which would prohibit people standing for elections and voting. Already areas of southern Shan State and Karen State are unlikely to be allowed to vote due to a legal provision that says elections can only be held in areas free of conflict. This would mean that large portions of Myanmar would not be allowed to elect representatives to local or national legislatures.

Border-based ethnic political organizations, many of which are attached to armed insurgent groups still fighting the government, will not be able to take part in the elections. Although they have seemingly declined in strength and influence in recent years, their message of equal rights and justice still resonates with many people who see the newly formed parties as junta stooges.

Peace talks with the government will also have to wait until a new government is formed following the elections. A section of the Political Parties Registration Law prohibits registration to any party that is involved with groups engaged in armed rebellion or involved with groups declared as "unlawful associations".

The generals will be hard-pressed to prove the legitimacy of the elections without the participation of ethnic opposition parties or adequate ethnic representation. Should the ethnic groups continue to feel disempowered and a democratically elected pro-military government maintain the junta's current confrontational policies, further conflict will be almost unavoidable and hinder the country's supposed democratic transition.