Myanmar’s Road to Democracy
Myanmar’s Road to Democracy
The transition from a military rule to democracy will be a long process but the government with President Thein Sein at the helm shows that Myanmar is moving in the right direction.
Myanmar is slowly but strongly undergoing major changes. Having been ruled by a military regime that was established in 1962 after a coup d'état, the current civilian government was formed after a controversial general election held in November 2010 and is now led by former Prime Minister Thein Sein (now President). With him, several other generals stepped down from their military positions before the election to take part in the elections through the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a political party that was formed to succeed the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which was an organization that supported the military junta and was known for its radical stance and violent political acts.
The 2010 election has been strongly condemned by the international community. Many regarded the newly elected civilian government as only serving as a legitimate instrument for the military’s actions. Thein Sein’s deep-rooted affiliation with the military and the fact that the government is staffed with many former generals loyal to the junta only made it more difficult to believe that Myanmar would be moving towards democratization any time soon. The military junta reserved 25% of the seats in Burma’s new parliament for itself and released unjust election laws that made it almost impossible for leading oppositional figures to take part. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, had previously won the 1990 election by a high majority but was never able to take power as the military junta under Senior General Than Shwe refused to accept their victory. The NLD’s decision to not even register for the 2010 elections because of the electoral laws, made the election seem even more questionable.
Now, it seems like President Thein Sein, the same man who supported a military regime that ruled Myanmar until now, will be the one to constitute the new face of Myanmar by ending an authoritarian rule that has occupied the country for almost 50 years.
Why is the by-election relevant?
On the day of the by-election on April 1, the NLD experienced an overwhelming electoral victory by winning 42 of the 45 seats to be taken. Even though there will not be a change in the balance of power (as we are only talking about 43 out of 1160 parliamentary seats), the symbolic value of this by-election and the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD is immense.
Not only does it mean that the NLD will be able to establish a greater voice in the parliament, but this election was also a crucial test for the country and an opportunity to show the world the seriousness of the government’s democratization process. President Thein Sein has demonstrated that he is willing to make amends: Several hundred political prisoners were released, the government signed a cease-fire with the ethnic Karen rebels with the intention to continue talks, and new reforms are said to be in motion soon.
These developments have been recognized by Western countries but viewed with some mistrust and cautiousness. The relationship between Myanmar and the Western world has been strained for decades as sanctions and political disputes initiated by the EU and the US have created mistrust of Western countries. The international community has tied further political and economic steps to the fairness of the by-election. International observers were content and some US sanctions have already been eased, which is especially vital for the country’s further economic development. Rich in natural resources, Myanmar has huge potential for economic growth. Yet, the country requires the support of the international community on its slow but promising way to democracy.