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Myanmar’s general elections: The people have spoken, will the military listen

dlaminiThe results of Myanmar’s general elections that took place on the 8th of November 2015, promise a new era in a country that has been dominated by military rule for the past decades. However, this will only be judged by the willingness of the military to pave way for a more inclusive and democratic government.

These historic elections resulted in a land slide victory by the country’s opposition party; the National League for Democracy (NLD), a pro-democracy movement under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. The elections’ outcome also received international praises, commending it as a step closer to a democratic Myanmar, what the UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon regard as ‘momentous polls’ as he urged all stakeholders in Myanmar to maintain the dignified spirit, calm and respect throughout the completion of the electoral process.

Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar has been ruled by the military since 1962 after the army seized control from the civilian government; this has crippled the country’s international image both politically and economically, from issues of human rights abuse to the lack of democratic systems that led to the imposition of longstanding sanctions by the international community.

The historic democratic reforms began in 2010 when military rule was replaced by a new military-backed civilian government, this led to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and the NLD re-joining the political process in 2011. This was regarded as a turning point for the country political and economic environment. In 2012, the NLD took part in parliamentary by-elections for the first time since 1990, winning 43 out of 45 seats, with Aung San Suu Kyi as one of the 43 NLD members to secure a seat in parliament. This also led to the suspension of most of the sanctions by the United States (US) and the European Union (EU), paving ways for more economic transformation.

While the 2012 parliament by-elections tested the ground for Myanmar’s democratic reform, the outcome of the 2015 general election poses a great test to the role of the military. This was the case in the 1990 elections where NLD won elections decisively - only for the result to be nullified and Ms Suu Kyi placed under long-term house arrest. Although the outgoing military-backed government under President Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) promises a peaceful transfer of power, there are still uncertainties about the candidness of the military in acknowledging the victory of the country’s democracy movement.This is attributed to the controversial constitution of 2008 which is considered undemocratic by the NLD.

According to the constitution, the military is allocated an uncontested 25 percent in parliament; this gives the military power to veto constitutional changes, as any proposed amendments to be approved require more than 75 percent of lawmakers to vote in favour of the amendments. Unfortunately this was also the case in June this year when a proposal to lower the threshold of amending the constitution from 75 to 70 percent was rejected by the military. A change of constitution would mean a limit of military power, and it could also allow Aung San Suu Kyi to become a president since chapter 3 of the constitution prohibits her from becoming president.

So while the people of Myanmar anticipate a smooth transition of power, one of the questions that remain is about the intentions of the military going forward. It would be too soon to expect a meaningful re-writing of the country’s history if the military continues with the same attitude towards the transition of power as it did with the constitutional amendment. This is the most significant period that would either build or break Myanmar’s hopes for a democratic nation. So while the power of the military is unchecked, it would be necessary that the military adhere to the voices of the people and allow the new democratically elected government to take charge without posing too many challenges. This will be another step into the right direction.

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