Election Aftermath: Myanmar’s Emerging Democracy


 

With the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory and the Burmese military conceding their defeat in the recent elections, it would appear that challenges to Myanmar’s democratic transition are a thing of the past. Since the results have been broadcast, Western news outlets already carry triumphant headlines discussing how the re-emergence of democracy in Myanmar will help to spearhead democratic developments elsewhere in Southeast Asia.[1]

However, the problems are far from over. In a country where one third of the population identify as ethnic minorities and the peace is barely stitched together by ceasefire agreements, how these issues are dealt with will define the nascent Burmese democracy. The victory of Aung San Su Kyi will also affect how Myanmar’s relationship changes with its neighbors, especially with its major economic partner China. It is worth noting that Myanmar’s new democracy remains fragile and the country’s economy remains in shambles. Missteps and overconfidence by the current regime can set Myanmar back, and the fight for democracy is far from over.

It is important to remember that Myanmar’s problems will not immediately go away, especially when it comes to the treatment of its ethnic population. The long tradition of monastic participation in Burmese politics and the constant wars waged by the military against the various ethnic minorities have caused Burma to be one of the most unstable countries in the world. Thus, the N.L.D. is already caught in a dilemma regarding its ethnic policy. On the one hand, as a liberal democratic party, it has spoken out in favor of pluralism. This announcement has made the party a target for the country’s ethnic extremists who accuse the N.L.D. of capitulating to the country’s various minorities, including building an Islamic state (even though Muslims comprised only 4% of the population). Therefore, on the other hand, the accusations made by these ethnic extremists have already forced the N.L.D. to keep silent on the plight of the country’s minorities. Indicative of this, the candidate list was far from representative of the country’s population.[2] Ethnic hatred is deep seated in Myanmar, and the military regime has handed the responsibility of managing it to the N.L.D. If democracy cannot effectively tackle Myanmar’s problems, it opens up possibilities for a new round of civil wars and once again gives the military the opportunity to expand its power at the expertise of the civilian government.

As mentioned, the new government will also need to carefully balance its foreign relations. The old military regime had become over-dependent on Chinese investment and trade. Myanmar is a country rich in natural resources, but decades of mismanagement has left its economy in desperate need of investment.[3] Another emerging issue has become: how to balance this relationship with China– who shares a border with Myanmar– while forging new relationships with its other more democratic neighbors and the countries of the western world, will continue to plague the new administration. This delicate process is especially laden, as angering any of its trade partners can result in depriving the Burmese economy of much-needed foreign capital to modernize and build infrastructure. The problem of foreign relations is compounded by Myanmar’s strategic value, which facilitated China’s expanding naval ambitions by providing ports that allow the flow of goods to China to bypass the strategic Malacca Strait. Walking the tight-rope between the regional rivals will be crucial for the development of Myanmar in the coming decades,[4] and the economy needs to improve for democracy to truly take root in Burma.

 

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[1] Trung Nguyen, “Vietnamese Activists Inspired by Myanmar Vote,” Voice of America, sec. 2015, 10 Nov. 2015, 2015.

[2] “Why Burmese Monks Accuse Aung San Suu Kyi of being an Islamist.” The Economist Explains Thu, 05 Nov, 2015.

[3] Min Zin and Brian Joseph, “THE DEMOCRATS’ OPPORTUNITY,” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4 (Oct 2012, 2012), 104-119.

[4]  Jane Perlez, “With Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rise, China and Myanmar Face New Relationship,” The New York Times12 Nov 2015, 2015.

Hanyu Huang