Sunday’s elections are an important opportunity for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities to attain meaningful political empowerment. After the elections, minorities could become “kingmakers” whose support will enable the larger factions to gain legislative advantages. Myanmar’s ethnic minorities can learn how to leverage their newfound position, by looking to the parallel case of the Kurds in Turkey.
In the last decade, during a shift to civilian rule, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) courted the votes of Kurds, Turkey’s long-marginalized ethnic minority. The need for votes forced the AKP to meet the demands of the sizeable Kurdish population. Other major parties in Turkey have followed suit, and Kurds are now recognized as a valuable voting demographic. Myanmar’s major political factions will likewise begin to recognize the importance of ethnic minority parties as allies in the country’s newly civilianized political system.
Similar to the case of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, before the advent of civilian-controlled government, Kurds were frequently repressed by Turkey’s military since the country’s founding. The Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant organization, has waged an intermittent insurgency against Turkish authorities since the 1970s. This interminable conflict is reminiscent of the constant low-level warfare between the Myanmar government and ethnic militias that has plagued the country since World War II.
In the newly civilianized political system at the end of military rule in Turkey, the PKK and the government entered into a ceasefire. Now Kurds can openly proclaim their heritage, something that was previously an offense worthy of imprisonment. It is possible that in Myanmar, like in Turkey, the need for ethnic minority votes will lead to such ceasefire and cultural empowerment.
In Turkey, the Kurds’ advances in civilian-dominated politics have not been without their setbacks, and this will likely be the case for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Violent clashes with the Turkish government resumed in recent months, after Kurds formed a party that won enough votes to take away the parliamentary majority that the AKP had enjoyed since 2003. In response, the AKP reinitiated the military campaign against the PKK as a way to bring the Kurds to heel. Essentially, the ceasefire with the PKK was a tool used by the AKP to ensure Kurdish support in elections. When the Kurds stopped voting for the AKP, the AKP ended the ceasefire. Major political factions in Myanmar may likewise try to manipulate ceasefires to ensure ethnic minority support in elections.
Keeping in mind Turkey’s experience, Washington can leverage its burgeoning relationship with Myanmar to promote the development of civilian politics that empowers ethnic minorities. It should cultivate relationships with all of Myanmar’s major political factions and encourage them to reach out to ethnic groups. As has been the case for Turkey’s Kurds, the major parties will seek to form alliances with ethnic minorities in order to build voting blocs in Parliament. Washington should also indiscriminately provide political party training and election monitoring support. The American Embassy in Rangoon already hosts international elections experts and communicates with Myanmar’s electoral commission. Washington should continue to promote voter education and political party training, coordinating its efforts with the plethora of international development and non-governmental organizations in Myanmar.
There will be great pressure in the United States to maintain strong ties with the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung San Suu Kyi, favored in Washington as a promoter of human rights and democratic values. The United States should not, however, lose lines of communication with the current majority Union Solidarity Party and Development Party (USDP). Despite its origins in the previous military junta, the USDP is instrumental in the success of the country’s peaceful, democratic transition.
Ironically, although Myanmar’s military has long feared territorial fragmentation along ethnic lines, the USDP may be at the forefront of reaching out to minorities. Because the NLD appears set to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the upcoming November election, the USDP will likely need to consider new ways to strengthen its influence. One of its key strategies may be to reach out to ethnic political parties in the next Parliament. Outreach will be especially critical to voting on a new president. Myanmar’s Parliament nominates two presidential candidates, while the military nominates one, and the combined legislature votes for the president and two vice presidents.
As in Turkey, ethnic minorities may eventually become more than just “kingmakers.” The United States should also be ready to help prepare Myanmar for the potential emergence of ethnic minorities as an independent political force. Although Myanmar’s various minorities are more fragmented than Turkey’s Kurds, they may someday learn to consolidate their agendas and act as a unified political force to be reckoned with. The emergence of a strong ethnic minority political force, as has occurred in Turkey, could lead to a backlash by the major parties, causing them to break ceasefires in an attempt to reestablish control. Myanmar could learn from Turkey to avoid such instability: ethnic empowerment should not lead to the ending of ceasefires. This will only aggravate underlying tensions and force ethnic groups to seek other means outside of politics, such as militias, to express their will.
The Turkish example illustrates how not to implement a ceasefire. In Turkey, the ceasefire was a tool used by the AKP to ensure Kurdish political support. When this arrangement floundered, the conflict against the PKK resumed. In Myanmar, ceasefires must be broad-based enough so that they are not mere instruments of any political faction to ensure minority votes. It is a tough task, but the United States should try to promote the inclusion of as many segments of society in peace talks as possible. This will make ceasefires more durable – although admittedly more difficult to negotiate – and less prone to fall prey to politics.
In Myanmar, as in Turkey, underlying ethnic tension is a deep-rooted problem that is difficult to weed out. There is no simple cure for eliminating ethnic strife in Myanmar, but the United States can try to improve the situation by encouraging inter-ethnic dialogue whenever possible. Poverty and inequality have also exacerbated ethnic tensions, so the U.S. should try to promote inclusive economic growth. In these efforts, Washington must make efforts to not show favoritism toward any ethnic group.
Although there will certainly be bumps along the road, the upcoming election has the potential to set the stage for a more pluralistic future that will benefit all of Myanmar’s ethnic groups. Policymakers and political leaders there should look to lessons from Turkey to ensure the same mistakes are not made while taking inspiration from the instances of success. The U.S. should actively support these efforts, but remain cautious about perceptions of its role.
Nicholas Borroz is a Washington, D.C.-based strategic intelligence consultant, specializing in geopolitics, the energy sector, and investment strategies. Hunter Marston is a D.C.-based political analyst who focuses on Southeast Asia; he previously worked in the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon.