Burma (Myanmar) by-elections 2012
By-elections were held in Burma (officially known as Myanmar) on April 1, 2012. These by-elections covered 37 seats (originally scheduled to be 40) in Burma’s lower house, the Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives), 6 seats in the Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities, the upper house) and two seats in two regional Hluttaws (Bago/Pegu and Ayeryarwady/Irrawaddy regions). The Pyithu Hluttaw has 440 seats and the Amyotha Hluttaw has 224 seats.
Burma was ruled by the military between 1962 and 2011 and is only very slowly emerging from decades of being an international pariah state. In 1962, General Ne Win staged a military coup which overthrew a troubled civilian government and replaced it with a military-driven socialist single-party state under the leadership of Ne Win and his “Burmese Way to Socialism”. The Burmese Way to Socialism can more accurately be styled as the Burmese Way to Bankruptcy, because the illogical mix of Marxist dogma and Buddhist astrology bankrupted a country which used to be one of Asia’s wealthiest countries. The autarkic policy resulted in Burma’s quasi-complete isolation on the world stage, economic ruin at home, inflation, debt and a decline in rice exports. This policy took place in a context of internal conflict with Burmese insurgents and ethnic minorities liberation armies, both of which seriously weakened the hold of the Burmese state on its sovereign territory. At the same time, political opposition was violently repressed by the military. Anti-government protests in 1962, 1974 and 1976 were all quashed by the military. However, in 1988, in a context of economic collapse and near-bankruptcy, Ne Win’s regime faced a serious threat from a student-led protest which quickly turned into a full-scale uprising.
In this chaotic context, the military staged a quasi-coup in August 1988, suspended the constitution and instituted martial law. The new military junta, officially known as the rather aptly-named SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), cracked down on civilian opposition, including a new opposition force known as the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, the hero of Burmese independence. Aung San Suu Kyi quickly rose to prominence as the major leader of the Burmese opposition after her role in the 1988 uprising. In 1989, the SLORC placed her under house arrest (which she remained under, save for a few stints, until 2010). However, the SLORC did agree to hold free elections in May 1990. However, after the NLD won 80% of the seats up for grabs, the SLORC refused to acknowledge the results, preferring instead to cement its power and crack down on the NLD. The SLORC did try, very half-heartedly and under heavy foreign pressure, to negotiate or play nice with the NLD, but nothing came out of these talks. This policy came at the price of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, which kept Burma’s military regime isolated. However, the regime could remain solid through close ties with Beijing. Economic, military and political alliance – or rather dependence – on China was not, however, the regime’s preference but rather something it imposed on itself (or was imposed on it) because of its policies.
Burma is a state which has failed to unify its territory since independence. Although successive military rulers since 1962 have attempted to promote the idea of a Burmese nation-state, centered around the dominant Bamar ethnic group and Buddhism (Bamars account for about 70% of the population), in reality Burma is not anything close to a nation-state. Isolation in small, isolated hamlets in remote mountains or valleys of Burma’s periphery and a tradition of indirect rule under the British (especially in Shan State) have contributed to the state’s failure to assert its authority over its entire territory.
The central government and the unity of the country has found itself challenged since the 1960s by armed insurgent groups seeking independence or autonomy for Burma’s peripheral “ethnic states”. The three most prominent insurgent challenges from the periphery are the Karens (a Buddhist and Christian ethnicity in eastern Burma and around Rangoon), the Shans (a Buddhist ethnicity in Shan State) and the Kachins (a predominantly Christian ethnicity in northern Burma).
Since the late 1990s/2003, the regime has been trying to soften its image a bit. The harshly-named SLORC became the SPDC in 1997. In 2003, the regime announced a “roadmap to democracy”. However, in 2007, the regime violently cracked down on the so-called “Saffron revolution”, an uprising led by Buddhist monks. In 2008, the regime got a new constitution approved, which would officially transfer power to civilians but which in practice did not change much. The military’s commitment to any democratic transition is certainly quite debatable, but the military is not a monolithic beast either. It is rather divided, either on the basis of personality squabbles (such as the 2005 fight between the SPDC’s boss General Than Shwe and his then-PM General Khin Nyunt) or on the desirability of reforms. At any rate, the military, in the ongoing transition process, intends on controlling the process as tightly as possible. It reserved a quarter of the seats in all legislatures for military personnel, appointed by the military itself (hence destroying whatever legitimacy these legislatures had). It established its own political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to control the ‘elected’ seats. Elections were held in 2010, but they were badly rigged and had no international legitimacy. The USDP, officially a civilian-led party, in practice a pro-regime party or tool of the SPDC, won nearly 60% of the seats (in addition to the 25% of seats held by the military). The NLD boycotted the vote, leaving only inoffensive tiny ethnic parties or pro-regime outfits such as the vaguely leftist National Union Party (NUP) which had been the creation of Ne Win’s old single-party (the BSPP) for the 1990 election.
Whatever the commitment of the SPDC to any democratic transition, it did hand over power – officially – to the civilians in 2011. In March 2011, Than Shwe, the hardline military boss of the country since 1992, stepped aside in favour of a civilian figure (still very pro-regime and in cahoots with the military), Thein Sein. Whatever we say of him, Thein Sein is far more open-minded and reformist than Than Shwe ever was. In November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and started holding talks with the regime. Political prisoners were released in small waves beginning in 2011. Some political restrictions and regime censorship have progressively been eased or lifted. On the economic front, the government is moving towards economic liberalization to attract more foreign investment. The west has been cautious but generally warm towards the reforms. Of course, much work remains to be done. The electoral process is not yet free, fair and transparent; human rights violations continue in remote ethnic states; political liberties still weak and an independent judiciary still miles away.
For a regime which until only a few years ago was branded as one of the most repressive and backwards in the world, in a country internationally known as a pariah state, the pace of the reforms since 2010 has still been quite staggering. What is at play in this apparently very bizarre turn of events?
Firstly, the regime – since 1962 – has never benefited from a strong base of popular support. The Burmese population as a whole have not experienced democracy much since independence, but they have an old appetite for freedom which was very clear in the 1970s, in 1988 and in 2007. With an international context (Arab Spring, Syrian civil war, Russian protests) not too favourable to autocrats, the military may be protecting itself from a violent overthrow in which it would risk losing all it has gained (although the reforms started before the Arab Spring). The military arguably sees an officially civilian government as a good way to protect itself while still ensuring that it retains political power.
Secondly, the Burmese government has resented its ‘humiliating’ dependence on China, which has become the regime’s top political, economic and military ally. Chinese businessmen have come to invest in the underdeveloped but resource-rich country in droves, China sets the price for and sells the bulk of the military’s weaponry (in return it has access to military bases in Burma) and China (alongside Russia) acts as one of the regime’s sole ally on the international stage. However, in recent years, Rangoon (Yangon) has grown wary of China’s increasing influence over the country. In the long term, the regime feared that its dependence on China would weaken Burmese sovereignty and transform the country into something akin to a Chinese autonomous province. The regime has not marched in lockstep behind Beijing in the past few years. Instead, it has been eager for Western investment and a little competition to China’s economic hegemony in Burma. The regime is quite committed to economic liberalization, which in good part necessitates a lifting of Western sanctions, something quite dependent on political reforms and democratization.
These by-elections covered only about 8% of the total seats in Burma’s legislature, seats which had fallen vacant following the resignation of their sitting (USDP) members to join the government. The opposition NLD, which had boycotted the 2010 elections, was allowed to participate in these by-elections, after their leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010. She herself stood in a Rangoon area constituency in the lower house, covering the dirt poor and ethnically diverse township of Kawhmu. The NLD put up 44 candidates out of 45 seats, one of its candidates was disqualified. The ruling USDP put up candidates in all constituencies, while smaller parties which had run in 2010 including the NUP, the liberal NDF and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP).
Though the NLD alleged irregularities in the registration and voting process, foreign observers generally agreed that, despite falling short of international standards, the elections were generally legitimate, free and fair – quite unlike the sham 2010 elections. The results were:
NLD winning 43 seats (37 PH, 4 AH, 2 RHs)
USDP winning 1 seats (1 AH)
SNDP winning 1 seat (1 AH)
The NLD was widely expected to win these by-elections, but the size of their victory surprised both observers and the military. In 1990, the NLD had won a similarly impressive landslide victory over the tools of the ruling elite, and their victory this year looks just as big if not even bigger than their 1990 victory. Observers had expected and the military had hoped that the USDP would be able to resist the NLD’s ascent a bit, but really to no avail. The USDP’s candidates were trounced in the vast majority of constituencies, and only won a single seat – the Amyotha Hluttaw seat in Sagaing region (constituency 7) where the NLD’s candidate had been disqualified. More shockingly, the NLD won the four vacant seats (for the lower house) in Naypyidaw, the military regime’s new capital since 2006 – and an apparently very boring place filled with military personnel and public servants. The NLD even won Zabuthiri Township in Naypyidaw, which had been Thein Sein’s ‘seat’. If even the public servants of the regime opted to vote for the NLD over the USDP, it clearly indicates the size of the NLD’s victory.
Aung San Suu Kyi will become an elected parliamentarian. She was easily elected with something over 80-90% of the votes in her Kawhmu constituency. Kawhmu is an impoverished rural township in the Irrawaddy delta in Rangoon region, which furthermore has a large Karen population. The NLD has tended to be popular with Burma’s peripheral ethnic minorities, although some ethnic minorities still tend to perceive the NLD as the beast of the Bamar intellectual elite. The NLD’s only clear defeat, indeed, was in Shan State where the SNDP (a Shan minority party which had participated in the 2010 elections) won an upper house seat centered around Lashio, a region where the SNDP is somewhat locally influential. That being said, it is hard to judge the appeal of the NLD to ethnic minorities, though the democratization process has reconciled them somewhat with the Burmese state. Only a few by-elections were held in the ethnic states, and the political and military situation in a lot of these states remain shaky.
The NLD won an overwhelming victory, but it would be wrong to hail these by-elections as groundbreaking. They certainly are in a sense, but these only covered 8% or so of the seats in the legislature, and will only give the NLD a very small rump in the lower house and an even smaller bench in the upper house. The USDP, complemented by the quarter of seats still held by the military, retains a large majority in Burma’s legislature. It still has the final word, obviously, on democratization, though it is hoped that Aung San Suu Kyi’s presence will have an impact on these reforms and on the USDP’s policies. On the other hand, the military might recoil from the prospect of further political reforms after seeing the beating it and their proxies got in free elections. If these results were repeated in the 2015 elections, the USDP would be dealt a huge blow and the NLD and their allies would control a large majority. That prospect might frighten the military’s officer corps, which fear that the process is slipping out of their hands. They might step in to block reforms, reassert their powers or trouble Thein Sein’s reformist leadership.