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An Aspirational Democracy

“It’s amazing how much has changed. It is a huge deal that there is even a choice in who to elect,” said Myanmar native Phyu Lwin ’18. “I don’t know what will happen. I have an equal amount of optimism and cynicism. But there is always hope.” To understand the implications of the upcoming elections in Myanmar, Lwin implied that looking back is just as important as looking forward.

In 1989, officials in Myanmar declared martial law. The economy was in shambles and pro-democracy riots overtook the country. In that same year, Aung San Suu Kyi began her house arrest. Her father led the rebellion that founded the nation. Her mother served as ambassador to India. Educated at Oxford, employed by the U.N., winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and revolutionary in her own right, Suu Kyi is beloved by her people. In 1990, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 85% percent of the popular vote. But those results were ignored. In protest of the military junta that denied her people sovereignty, economic prosperity and a voice, she spent 15 of the next 21 years in custody. November 8 will mark the first general election in which she is free. She leads the opposition, yet she cannot seek the presidency.

A country slightly smaller than Texas, located at the vital intersection between China, India and the Indian Ocean, the British colonized what was then Burma in the late 1800s. After decades of oppression, Suu Kyi’s father launched a campaign for independence during World War II, which succeeded in 1948. However, peace was not so easily reached. Divisions within the ruling political party led the military to stage a socialist coup in 1962.

So began the decades of seclusion and conflict. After nearly half a century in isolation, however, the military government announced its desire to reenter the world economy. In 2010, elections to establish a democratic system would be held. But the NLD refused to participate in what were widely seen as sham elections, since Suu Kyi remained captive. So the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a newly created political party composed of former generals and junta government officials, claimed victory. One week later, the USDP released Suu Kyi. They had the power, and she was not a threat. The technical reign of the military junta had ceased, but make no mistake – the “democratically elected” government was merely the same military power under a new title.

Over the next two years, the USDP government made strides toward reform. As evidence of increasing openness to change, the NLD won all but one of the contested parliamentary seats in the 2012 bi-elections, with Suu Kyi claiming a seat in the lower house. The people began to hope that the 2015 elections would bring a peaceful transition to a coalition government between the NLD and USDP. “I am frustratingly optimistic,” said Professor David Steinberg, Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and author of numerous books on Myanmar, at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace panel on the elections this past June.

But in the dark hours of August 12th, 2015, on what seemed to be a typical Wednesday night, a group of trucks pulled up to the headquarters of the USDP. Without warning, soldiers and police officers stormed out of their vehicles and took control of the compound. By 2:30 a.m.,  the security forces had left. Their job was complete. Shwe Mann was out.

As the former third most powerful man in the junta government and USDP party chairman, Thura Shwe Mann may not appear to be the typical ally of democratic change. Yet in the past few years, his efforts to remove power from the military spurred an informal alliance with Suu Kyi and thrust his name forth into the conversation for president. He became a symbol of reform, made more powerful by his substantial military history. He also became a threat to the USDP establishment. Dividing the USDP between liberal and conservative, and endangering current President Thein Sein’s rule, Shwe Mann was removed from the party leadership by a combined military-USDP force. The official story? He was “too busy” to remain in power.

For many, Shwe Mann’s removal cast a shadow of doubt over formerly optimistic predictions for the elections. “The government has shown for over a century how little they care for the people’s will. This is a reflection of that,” Lwin told The Politic. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel echoed these feelings, claiming that the ousting had a “chilling effect on the political climate.”

Yet Shwe Mann is still running for reelection on the USDP ticket and remains Speaker of the Lower House, as his allies stand with him against threats of impeachment. Priscilla Clapp, former Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Myanmar, believes that Shwe Mann’s ousting is of slight consequence to the overall outcome of the upcoming elections.

“Many people are overreacting to Shwe Mann’s removal. We can’t expect the elections to be entirely free and fair because the government doesn’t know how to do that,” Clapp told The Politic. “Shwe Mann liberalized the USDP. It’s not just good guys versus bad guys anymore. The uniformed military of parliament and ex-military of the USDP are different things. Parts of the party will gravitate towards the NLD.”

Vikram Nehru, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and leader of the Carnegie events series Myanmar Votes 2015, sees the leadership change more as a reflection of how removed the military is.

“I don’t think the current leadership has necessarily internalized what democratic elections mean,” he told The Politic. “Even if the military wanted to change candidates, they must still stand for election. They are dealing with a different sort of politics from before.”

While it may be a different sort of politics, relics of the old regime are present throughout the system. Myanmar’s elections are two-fold. On November 8, the offices of local representatives and national members of parliament will be selected. One quarter of the parliament, however, will not be decided upon by the people. Because of a controversial provision in the constitution, 25 percent of parliament seats are reserved for military appointments. And without somehow achieving 75 percent support in parliament and winning a national referendum, that will not change.

Once elected, committees of representatives from the upper and lower houses and the military forces in parliament each nominate a candidate for president. All members of parliament vote between the three, and the candidate who receives the most votes takes office while the other two serve as vice presidents. In what is seen as a targeted addition to the 2008 constitution, it is forbidden for anyone whose spouse or children are foreign citizens to hold the office. Unsurprisingly, Suu Kyi’s husband and two sons hold British passports.

Strong ties with Myanmar are key to advancing U.S. interests in Asia, especially given its strategic location. In preparation for and in support of the elections, the U.S. is funding numerous development initiatives.

Assistant Secretary of State Russel stated, “We are providing more than $18 million to strengthen Burma’s democratic institutions, to support the development of civil society, political parties and the media, and to assist the government in conducting the elections.”

Jonathan Stonestreet, associate director in the Carter Center’s democracy program, is managing their Myanmar mission. Funded in part by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the mission is focused on monitoring the political transition and election process, from examining the role of ethnic minorities and gender to the registration of candidates and voter education. They will deploy between 30 and 40 short-term international observers on Election Day to collect data on the integrity of various polling locations. Stonestreet told The Politic how impressed he was by the “unprecedented and unexpected access the observers have had so far,” and sees this as an indicator of the government’s efforts to uphold its promise of fair elections.

Yet Liza Prendergast, director of business development at Democracy International, emphasized caution. “The international community has very high expectations. The U.S. should go in with an understanding that the elections themselves are a huge step, and they may or may not live up to international standards,” she told The Politic.

Clapp explained to The Politic the importance of the elections to U.S. policy. “If the NLD wins by a significant amount, we will see a major impact on US policy. We will need to free our own hands by removing legislative restrictions and be more active in helping develop institutions.” However, if the NLD is not seen as successful in challenging the USDP, Clapp claims that U.S. policy will not change significantly. “Maybe some restrictions will be put back on. But as long as the opposition is alive, the US will not pull back far.”

A country with a dark history still emerging from intense civil war, Myanmar is taking its first of many steps toward increasing transparency, building trust and maintaining peace. The results of these elections will set its course within the international community. But for now, as Clapp put it, Myanmar remains an aspirational democracy.