On November 8, voters in Burma will go to the polls for the first free national elections in 25 years.
For an entire generation of Burmese citizens, representing over one-third of the country’s population, it will be their first opportunity to participate in general elections contested by all major parties.
For older voters, the elections will revive memories of the 1990 polls, when the military refused to honor the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, imprisoning several opposition parliamentarians, sending others into exile, and installing a military junta instead.
For the leaders of the nominally civilian government in Naypyidaw today, the election presents an opportunity to uphold its promises of democratic reform.
Amid signs that leaders are wavering in their commitments, however, many members of the international community will be looking towards the election for proof that Burma is truly ready to rejoin the community of nations.
Causes for Concern
It is concerning, therefore, that the credibility of the electoral campaign, which began on September 8, is already being called into question.
Of note is a September 25 report by the U.S.-based Carter Center, highlighting the Union Election Commission’s decision to disqualify over 100 candidates. The report identifies a majority of those disqualified as Muslims or members of ethnic parties. This is in contrast to the approval of all 1,134 candidates from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
“Although the number of disqualified candidates is relatively small, restrictive requirements, selective enforcement, and a lack of procedural safeguards call in the question the credibility of the process,” states the report.
The findings appear to reinforce earlier concerns – for example, over the continued reservation of 25 percent of all seats in parliament for the military, and the decision to preserve constitutional provisions barring opposition frontrunner Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president – and bode poorly for elections held up as a milestone in Burma’s political evolution.
The 2010 election of President Thein Sein marked an important turning point in Burma’s international relations.
Within his first year in office, the president released political prisoners, rolled back press censorship, floated the national currency, released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and cancelled a $3.6 billion Chinese dam project in northern Burma.
In doing so, he signaled that he was seeking to pursue a more independent foreign policy, to introduce a genuinely accountable and rights-respecting democracy.
Internationally, governments were quick to respond.
Canada responded by easing sanctions and by opening a new embassy in the economic capital Rangoon.
The European Union reinstated duty-free and quota-free access for Burma’s products to the European market.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made Burma its chair for 2014.
High-level foreign officials, including Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and Ambassador of Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett, visited the country to offer support and encourage continued progress.
Development assistance programs and foreign direct investment flowed in, aimed at rebuilding institutions, strengthening human rights, and boosting a capital-poor but resource-rich economy.
But the enthusiasm was soon tempered, as worrying signs resurfaced.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch documented worsening of human rights violations against the Rohingya, causing thousands to flee as refugees.
Civil society organizations decried the impunity of state security forces allegedly involved in widespread sexual violence against ethnic minorities.
Renewed hostilities threatened to undermine negotiations towards a nationwide ceasefire agreement with several armed groups.
As Foreign Policy Magazine noted in March 2014, “the promise of a free and democratic Myanmar is rapidly receding as sectarian violence escalates and the government backslides on a number of past reforms.”
An Opportunity to Be Seized
A June 2015 report by the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade includes a case study on the opportunities and challenges facing Canadian foreign policy in Burma.
It notes the importance of balancing Canadian trade and investment interests in the country with “technical cooperation and capacity building in areas such as governance, resource management, health and education” and emphasizes the importance of “ensuring that Canada’s initiatives are inclusive of [Burma’s] diverse ethnic groups.”
Like many others who have commented on recent developments in Burma, the report recognizes that it would be unrealistic to expect the country to emerge from 50 years of authoritarian rule seamlessly or without occasional delays.
“The political reform in Myanmar [should] not yet be called a democratic revolution,” the Council on Foreign Relations’ Joshua Kurlantzick told the Committee. “We are on the cusp of serious change, but it’s unclear what direction that change will go.”
The conduct of the upcoming elections, as well as the outcome, will provide an important confirmation of the future direction of Burma’s long-awaited democratic development.
They present a rare opportunity for Burma’s leaders to rekindle the warm welcome given Burma when it opened a window to the international community just five years ago, and to confirm the sincerity of their intentions to bring about a more inclusive, accountable and rights-respecting democracy.
The Honourable Raynell Andreychuk is a senator from Saskatchewan, Canada. A lawyer, former judge, chancellor of the University of Regina, Canadian ambassador and representative of Canada to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Senator Andreychuk was instrumental in setting up the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, which she chaired from 2001 to 2009, undertaking major studies on International Human Rights machinery, laws and treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since 2009, Senator Andreychuk has also served as chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.