Myanmar, the U.N.’s new democratic darling

By Kai Yang Shiao
Photos by Mark Burnham
Where vote or die isn’t a glamorous campaign slogan

As Canadians, we take it for granted on a daily basis that we live in a liberal democracy. Unfortunately this luxury continues to elude the people of Myanmar. News headlines have expressed excitement at the ongoing political liberalization in Myanmar, from the widespread coverage of the release of political prisoners to the participation by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in the by-elections held earlier this year. While it is necessary to recognize and support such historic changes, the world must also accept that there remain various elements that may well undermine the current status of democracy in the country.

In order to better understand such concerns, it is necessary to take a step back and examine the constitution proposed by the then-ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council. A constitutional referendum was held in 2008, and the proposal was subsequently approved in the same year. The military junta’s success may be largely due to widespread electoral manipulation and fraud: there were many eyewitness reports of eligible voters forced and bribed to vote in favour of the proposed constitution, and of ballots accepted even after the polling stations had already closed. Such events likely indicate a widespread opposition among Myanmar’s citizens, which can be easily understood by taking a closer look at what is inside the document that now forms the basis for Myanmar’s present-day political system.

At first glance, the document presents genuine intentions of building a political future in Myanmar based on democracy, outlining plans for a civilian-led government in the presence of a multi-party political system. However, elsewhere in the document are remnants from the country’s military past and hurdles in the country’s drive towards democratization. Under the 2008 constitution, one quarter of the seats in the both houses of the national bicameral legislature, Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, are appointed by the Myanmar Armed Forces. Another major sign of the military’s continued presence in politics is the provision that the Ministry of Home Affairs would fall exclusively under military control.

Though this constitution has many features of a democracy, the presence of the aforementioned provisions fails to uphold many core principles of thriving democratic political systems around the world.

One such relevant principle is that the armed forces, composed of public servants, should be subservient to a civilian-led government. Permitting the Myanmar Armed Forces to retain some involvement in both the executive and legislative branches of government effectively undermines this principle as well as the legitimacy of the country’s national legislative body.

[author_link]Username[/author_link]Another major compelling principle is that citizens of representative democracies should have the right to elect all seats in all houses of the national legislature. Though there are exceptions to this phenomenon, the overwhelming trend in most democracies is for citizens to directly elect all seats in the legislative branch. On the contrary, by allocating 25 per cent of its total seats in both houses of legislature to the Myanmar Armed Forces, the current constitution is giving approval for the continued role of the military in national politics.

The events surrounding the 2008 constitutional referendum and the current constitution should be a reminder to display vigilance against continued military involvement, which threatens to undermine an emerging democratic political system. As Canadians, we should constantly be thankful to have our voices reflected in our flourishing political system.

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