By Vikas Khanna
New Delhi, Nov. 8 (ANI): Myanmar votes today in an election, hailed as the most fairest to date, but it is far from perfect. The quasi civilian government, which took over after the junta withdrew in 2011, has already rigged the election partially even before the vote.
The junta has meticulously circumvented the constitution to its advantage. No matter what is the outcome of election, the military will continue to have 25 percent of seats in both houses of Parliament.
If that is not enough, the powerful ministries like home, defence and border affairs will be reserved for the men in uniform. Alarmed by the surging popularity of former political prisoner and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was getting enthusiastic response during her election meetings, the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) effected a controversial change in the statute. The MPs recently struck down a proposal which could remove the military’s veto power on constitutional amendments. This raises a serious question whether the junta will allow Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party to bring about necessary constitutional amendments which could empower democracy and dilute the control of the military if it wins the polls?
Suu Kyi, who is tipped to win the elections, has another major road block ahead. Prime Minister Thein Sein, a former general, and others have drafted the constitution in such a way that she will be denied the top post of President even if she wins the polls. According to a controversial constitutional provision, those with foreign children are barred from the office of the country’s top post. Suu Kyi has two British sons from her late husband. This is likely to set up confrontation between Suu Kyi and the junta which has ruled the country with an iron fist so far.
Even the process of electing a President is very complex. The President is not elected directly by the people. The election of President will be delayed till February-March next year even though the votes will be counted within a week, leaving room for political maneuvering.
The new MPs will vote to elect the head of the nation. Three candidates will vie for the top post with two appointed by the Hluttaw, the Parliament, and one by the military. The candidate getting the maximum votes is elected the President while two others will become Vice-Presidents. Here again, the military has ensured a role for itself in managing the legislature.
The new government, which initiated the so-called political reforms to get the western sanctions lifted, made a mockery of democracy when it systematically disenfranchised 650,000 Rohingya Muslims. Muslims make up five percent of 55 million population of Buddhist-majority Myanmar. There are lakhs of Rohingya, who are settled in nine camps in western region of Myanmar bordering Thailand, leading to an unparalleled tide of despair.
The Election Commission, which is slanted toward the ruling elite, also debarred dozens of Muslim candidates from contesting. A brazen attempt has been made to exclude Muslims from the election process.
In the last widely condemned elections in 2010, which was boycotted by Suu Kyi’s party, the government had allowed voting rights to the Rohingya, who had assured their support to the USDP. In fact, there are three Rohingya lawmakers in the present legislature. But this year, the Rohingya have been robbed of their voting rights, raising eyebrows about the fair election process. Rohingya continue to be treated as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though they have been living in Myanmar for centuries.
The present government is also accused of pandering to the majority Buddhists by passing four religion-based bills recently which are biased against Muslims. The laws make it difficult for citizens to convert to a different religion and propose stringent punishment for having more than a spouse. Human rights activists have expressed concern that the new laws, which discriminate against Muslims, could foment religious strife.
There was a sinister design in passing the bills in a hurry. Using its brute parliamentary majority, the government pushed through the laws hoping to win the support of the ultra nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha, which was pushing for four religious bills.
Founded in 2013, the group is not contesting the election, but has been spearheading the campaign in support of the present dispensation. Ma Ba Tha, which has considerable influence in the rural areas, can cut into the votes of Suu Kyi’s party. Their influence can be gauged from the fact that even Suu Kyi has not fielded a single Muslim candidate, not to antagonise Ma Ba Tha. In recent years, religious violence has killed hundreds of people, mostly Muslims.
It’s a lose-lose election for the people of Myanmar as the election process is nothing but opaque and discriminatory. It is certainly not inclusive polls for which Suu Kyi struggled for decades and had to endure house arrest. The people of Myanmar can change their destiny if they vote decisively and overwhelmingly for Suu Kyi’s party. It is the biggest test for the country to embark on a genuine democracy.
(Vikas Khanna is a senior journalist and the views expressed in this article are personal) (ANI)