For anyone who has worked on Burma for any length of time, Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelming election victory is a cause for hope and celebration. A quarter of a century after winning a mandate in Burma’s last freely contested elections, her party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – has shown that no amount of repression could drive it away. The military-backed government and the current President, former general Thein Sein, appear to have finally heard the voice of the people and pledged to honour the result. It would be very easy to think that our work in Burma was done and that all is well.
The entrenched power of the military
In reality, the military remain extremely powerful and the new government will face many grave challenges. The NLD’s election victory is certainly a step forward but, as Aung San Suu Kyi has said, it is just the beginning.
In 2008, the military drove through a new constitution that enshrines protection of its interests. Crucially, they ensured that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be President, through a clause barring anyone with foreign dependents or a foreign spouse from holding this position; although her British husband Michael Aris died in 1999, her sons retain British passports. With its large majority in Parliament, the NLD will have the power to choose the President – but it cannot be their leader.
Furthermore, a quarter of the parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, which will control the appointment of the ministers of defence, home affairs and border affairs and the armed forces’ budget. The military also has the right to retake power in the event of a national emergency – something that would not be difficult to foment in the event of a clash between the NLD government and military interests.
Overcoming intolerance towards freedom of religion or belief
Burma continues to face a growing challenge of religious intolerance. While an NLD government will be more inclined to try to promote inter-religious harmony and religious freedom it will not find it easy.
The ‘Ma Ba Tha’ group of extremist Buddhist nationalist monks will continue to wield influence. Their figurehead, the fiery monk known as Wirathu, has warned the NLD against repealing a controversial package of laws driven through Parliament at their instigation earlier this year. The NLD opposed this legislation, known as the ‘Protection of Race and Religion Laws’ which includes restrictions on religious conversion and inter-faith marriage. The question now is how high a priority will it be for the new government to amend or repeal them?
Until the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi stayed relatively silent on these issues, conscious of the need to avoid angering Buddhists in Burma whose votes she needed. However, after the election, she told the BBC that people in Burma “do not want to live on a diet of hate and fear”, that those preaching hatred would be prosecuted, and that an NLD government would protect the rights of all people. How the new government will counter religious intolerance remains to be seen.
The road ahead
Bringing to an end decades of civil war with Burma’s ethnic nationalities will be the other key challenge facing the new government. The outgoing military-backed government began a ceasefire process, but war continues in northern Burma against the Kachin and Shan peoples. There is good reason to believe that Aung San Suu Kyi, who has long pledged her support for a federal structure, will be better placed than the military to find a political settlement, guaranteeing the ethnic nationalities autonomy and equal rights. However, with the military in control of defence and border affairs she will need to find a way to secure their support.
While the elections in Burma give cause for hope after 25 years of struggle. Burma will continue to face serious human rights challenges, not least in regard to freedom of religion or belief and the plight of ethnic minorities. Burma will continue to need the support of organisations like CSW – through our advocacy, through training workshops to build capacity within the country – and through our prayers – for some time to come.
By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader