Michael Lwin, a research fellow at Georgetown University, recently traveled to Myanmar to research Burmese law, culture and religion. In this second post from his trip, he writes about next year’s elections.
I was sitting in a taxi with a middle-aged Burmese man, driving through central Yangon. We were discussing Burmese history from the Thirty Comrades to the protests of 1988. Then, when I mentioned the recent high-profile meetings between U.S. officials and the Burmese government, he summarized present-day issues for the Burmese people.
“The people…we just want to be free. Young boys, young girls, they have to work two or three jobs just to have enough to eat. They work jobs they don’t want to work…the girls have to work at karaoke bars [where they have to feign interest in male customers] just to get some spending money.”
To say that Myanmar is a troubled country is to make a gross understatement. Myanmar ranked third to last in Transparency International’s most recent annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), just ahead of Afghanistan and Somalia but behind Sudan and Iraq. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that at least 451,000 people are internally displaced in Myanmar.
The State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Myanmar listed multiple violations by the government, including indefinite detention without charges, attacks on ethnic minorities and infringements on civil liberties.
Last year, the ruling junta published a new constitution which creates a bicameral national legislative body along with state and local legislatures. Elections will be held for these seats next year. Many dismiss this as mere window-dressing to further legitimize the junta. Still, some of the provisions of the new constitution appear to provide, at least on paper, significant opportunities for civilian participation in government.
The new national legislature has the potential to allow popularly elected civilians to have unprecedented control over policy. For example, according to Section 96 of the new constitution, the legislature has the power to regulate commerce, labor organizations, taxation, and civil and criminal laws. The President has the ability to make comments and suggest amendments to the bill, though the constitution appears to be silent on whether the President has veto power.
Even though at least 25 percent of the total seats in the legislature must be occupied by military personnel, this still opens up legislative participation significantly.
Yet the Commander-in-Chief of the military retains significant powers, including the ability to declare a state of emergency and with it attain full executive, legislative, and judicial powers and the ability to suspend fundamental rights. The constitution does not mention the possibility of removal of the Commander-in-Chief.
According to the 2008 constitution, there can only be three presidential candidates in a given election; each house of the bicameral legislature selects one candidate, and the military (Tatmadaw) selects a third. But there are several limitations on who can run for president. Persons who are serving time in prison cannot be candidates, which disqualifies many political dissidents.
Also, Buddhist monks are not allowed to run for legislative office. Some commentators have argued that this is malicious disenfranchisement stemming from the monks’ participation in the Saffron Revolution of 2007 — although many Buddhist intellectuals believe that monks should not be political.
Notably, persons cannot run for president or vice-president if they have a parent, spouse or child who owes allegiance to a foreign power, are subject to a foreign power or have citizenship with a foreign country. This impacts Burma’s most famous dissident, Aung Sun Suu Kyi. While some commentators assert that Nobel laureate Suu Kyi’s marriage to British academic Michael Aris excludes her from the elections, this is probably inaccurate.
Michael Aris died in 1999, meaning that currently Suu Kyi has no spouse. However, if Myanmar adheres to the 2008 constitution, she would be disqualified for another reason. Suu Kyi has two sons (Kim and Alexander) who reside in the United Kingdom and are British citizens.
Suu Kyi, who has been in detention for most of the last two decades, will still be under house arrest at the time of the elections, although the Burmese Supreme Court has agreed to her an appeal.
In support of Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), — which scored a runaway victory in the 1990 general election but was not allowed to take office — the U.S. government has isolated the military junta for two decades with little result.
The Obama administration now is trying out a different tack: engagement with the junta — spearheaded by U.S. Senator Jim Webb. Recently Suu Kyi changed her position on sanctions as well, in a sign she too may be modifying her strategy.
Meanwhile in the newly-built capital of Naypyidaw the Parliament building looks like it will be completed in time for the 2010 elections. Last month, I saw workers scrambling to lay down asphalt from the public street to the Parliament, on long roads that are now only adumbrated dirt paths.
Only time will tell what – if anything — Parliament’s new civilian representatives will be able to accomplish after next year’s elections – and whether the citizens of Burma will be any better off.
– Michael Lwin