Myanmar is set for the national polls on November 8, the elections that will easily be the country’s first inclusive ones in 25 years. But they do not promise a return to democracy, simply because they will be held within the framework of the 2008 constitution, which guarantees military control.
And to scuttle the democracy issue, which has been the running theme of Myanmar’s politics since the 1988 student-youth uprising, the ruling military elite has effectively played the ‘religious card’, which is surely vitiating the country’s political atmosphere and raising a big question mark on reforms.
For practical considerations, Myanmar’s most popular party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, is contesting the polls. This is the first time since 1990 that the NLD is contesting all the seats on offer, when its huge victory was negated by the ruling military junta and the NLD’s iconic leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, was unceremoniously put under house arrest.
The NLD had boycotted the 2010 national elections because it found the 2008 constitution unacceptable. That helped the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by retired generals like President Thein Sein, win the elections by rigging them. But the NLD decided to contest the 2012 bypolls and its sweeping victories (43 of the 44 seats) left the USDP and the military establishment worried.
The quasi-civilian and military-run USDP has successfully blocked all constitutional amendments suggested by the NLD, most significantly the provisions (Article 59F) which effectively prevent Suu Kyi from contesting for president and which give the military one-fourth of the seats in both houses of parliament (Article 436).
The USDP even purged parliament speaker Thura Shwe Mann (a former general like Sein) from the party and constitutional positions after it was speculated he had got too close to Suu Kyi and could run as a compromise candidate for president.
With the USDP having blocked all changes to the constitution, its next objective was to ensure damage limitation by preventing a NLD sweep a la 1990, when it won 80% of the seats on offer.
Myanmar’s 2008 constitution requires a 75% vote for any change to constitutional provisions. With 25% of the seats reserved for the military, all that it has to do is to deny any party a clear run at the polls. If the USDP fails to win, which it is almost certain to do, the least it can achieve is to deny the NLD a huge majority.
Short of a victory, what suits the USDP and the military is a fractured mandate with the NLD losing some seats in regions populated by ethnic minorities and in the Burman heartland to vociferous, religious parties like the National Development Party. And that’s exactly why the ruling military elite (which includes the generals running the ruling USDP) has played the ‘religious card’ so effectively.
Suu Kyi and other NLD politicians have repeatedly called for vigilance against possible electoral fraud and rigging. Responding to their concerns, the UN joined other countries to call on the Myanmar government and its election commission to ensure ‘free and fair polls’.
The 2012 riots, targeting the Muslim Rohingyas in the Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh, started the politics of intolerance and religious hatred. The Ma Ba Tha (literally the Patriotic Association of Myanmar) has hogged the limelight with a fierce campaign to deny voting rights for the Muslim Rohingyas on the grounds that they are ‘illegal Bengali migrants’.
The Ma Ba Tha’s main icon, Ashin Wirathu, is now described as the ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’. His followers are now celebrating the four controversial ‘religious protection’ Bills passed in parliament, restricting inter-faith marriage and discriminating against women and religious minorities.
This is playing out both ways. The Bills gave a boost to the Ma Ba Tha and similar religious groups and they came out in open support of Sein and his USDP party. Ma Ba Tha leaders project the NLD and Suu Kyi as ‘pro-western’ and ‘pro-minorities’ and ask voters not to elect Suu Kyi’s party, despite her relative silence on the Rohingya issue. Interestingly, the National Development Party, formed by former presidential adviser Nay Zin Latt, is contesting the fourth-largest number of seats. It appears flush with resources though it was floated only in July.
While the Ma Ba Tha is directly campaigning for Sein’s USDP on a strident religious platform, boosted by the four controversial pieces of legislation, the NDP too is backed by the aggressive Buddhist clergy. The shrill anti-Muslim campaign is a not too subtle attempt by the military ruling elite to sweep under the carpet the democracy agenda by feeding on religious paranoia.
The Ma Ba Tha is even enforcing a ban on beef eating to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments, as in post-Dadri India. But much of it is part of political manoeuvring, not just religious conviction.
Sein’s attempt to work out a nationwide ceasefire was aimed as much at initiating a reconciliation process with ethnic rebel armies as to prop them up in a move to keep the NLD out of the non-Burman heartland. It did not quite work because the powerful rebel groups representing the Kachins and the Was did not join in.
While there is doubt over whether the NLD can sweep the polls, there is little doubt that given free and fair polling, the party will emerge as the single-largest party in parliament.
That may set the stage for a fresh struggle on the legislative premises and outside it between the NLD and the military elite, which is always willing to play the ‘religious card’ to derail the process of democratic reforms.