Historic Parliament Session Begins In Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi
NEW DELHI: In a historic development, hundreds of MPs have begun a parliamentary session in Myanmar, marking the first democratically elected government in the country in more than 50 years.
The new parliament is dominated by MPs from Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 80 percent of elected seats in November's poll. This is a huge victory given that 25 percent of the seats in Parliament are reserved for the military, despite which the NLD still have a majority.
One of its first key tasks is to elect a new President -- a post that Suu Kyi is disqualified from. The new parliament will also be choosing its new chairman, as well as the speakers and deputy speakers of both the lower and upper houses. Whilst the identity of the President remains a closely guarded secret, Suu Kyi confirmed last week that Win Myint is to be appointed speaker of the lower house and Win Khaing Than will take on the role of upper house speaker.
Myanmar President Thein Sein will step down end March, with the new government set to be sworn in in April. The army overthrew the last democratically-elected parliament in 1962.
This election was especially important given the fact that even after the formal end of military rule in Myanmar, the army continues to hold sway in politics. 25 percent of the seats in Hluttaw are reserved for the army, which also holds a veto charge.
The NLD needed a massive victory to be able to stop an anti-NLD coalition, which would have needed only a third of the elected seats to form the government given that quarter of the seats are reserved for the army. The NLD managed this historic feat as it swept the polls.
Despite the result categorically in favour of Suu Kyi, challenges remain. For one, the constitution stipulates that no one with foreign children can be President, effectively ruling out Suu Kyi who has two. Suu Kyi has said that a civilian from the party will be up for the post, indicating that she will lead Parliament from behind the scenes.
More significantly, although the elected President and government are important, key security ministries (defence, home affairs and border affairs) are selected by the head of the army, not the president, and there can be no change to the constitution without military approval.
Other problems with the elections included woefully inadequate election campaign voter lists that were published, with dead people listed and many alive not included. Most significantly, as fighting continues across large parts of Myanmar, with President Thein Sein’s landmark ceasefire falling short of expectations, large numbers of the country’s ethnically diverse population was unable to vote. In fact, one of the first challenges faced by the new government will relate to the armed ethnic groups -- How will the NLD negotiate peace deals with armed rebel groups active in the country? And will the groups that signed President Thein’s nationwide ceasefire in October abide by it?
Although the signing of the nationwide ceasefire on October 15 was an important milestone, only eight of the 15 regional militant groups have signed up for the ceasefire. Further, the eight groups that signed the ceasefire had already entered into some sort of agreement with the government that acted as a framework for the permanent deal.
The deal therefore took into account only eight of the fifteen regional groups, and there are at least a total of 21 armed groups in the country, if not more. Most notably, the Kanchin Independence Army (KIA) -- one of the biggest armed groups -- did not sign the deal.
The KIA, in fact, can serve as an example to elucidate the crisis in Myanmar. The Kachin Independence Movement was started in colonial Burma, with the purpose to address questions of minority representation in the predominantly Bamar country of Burma. The KIA was formed in the 1960s, when Kachin forces withdrew from the Burmese army, organising under the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). The region functioned autonomously till 1994, when a Myanmar offensive seized jade mines from the KIO, culminating in an agreement between the government of Myanmar and the KIA leading to a ceasefire that lasted till June 2011, when government forces violated it.
In the three years since the resumption of fighting, thousands have died and been displaced, with reports of torture, child soldiers and systematic rape emerging from the ground. A report released last year by the Bangkok-based Fortify Rights group has alleged that the Myanmar military “systematically” tortures civilians in the conflict-ridden Kachin state. The Fortify Rights group’s report details the victims being stabbed, beaten and having wire tied around their necks, hands and feet. It alleges that many victims were told to dig their own graves, whilst others were forced to lick their own blood off the ground following severe beatings. "We've documented such consistent practices across many different areas that would indicate that it is certainly a systematic practice and a widespread practice,” the report notes.
The report further comments on the ethnic dimensions of the conflict, with victims’ ethnicity and Christian faith being highlighted. "You are Kachin, and we will kill all the Kachin," one victim claimed to have been told.
Another notable group absent from the deal is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), an armed group that is fighting for the Wa people.
The question remains -- how will the NLD negotiate the framework for talks with the country’s most active ethnic rebel groups? The answer remains to be seen.
Further, minorities like the Rohingya Muslims are not included in the ballot, as the Myanmar government continues denying the Rohingya citizenship and other basic rights. Even Aung Saan Suu Kyi and her NLD party, which have positioned themselves as the champions of democratic and human rights, have been dismally silent on the Rohingya issue, indicating that for the country’s most vulnerable minority, a change in government isn’t going to change much in their lives.
The question therefore remains: what next?