Heads Up World, Democratization in Progress.

Heads Up World, Democratization in Progress.

Alexis ChapmanTuesday,17 November 2015

On November 8, Myanmar, formerly Burma, held elections for 75% of it’s Parliamentary seats. The people of Myanmar have been working for over 5 decades to exercise their right to self-governance. These elections are an amazing achievement and huge step towards democracy. In the months and years to come we should support the people of Myanmar however we can. We should also be paying close attention to whether and how they overcome the challenges of democratization. The U.S. government often touts “democracy building” as a reason we get involved in other countries’ domestic affairs and we have an obligation to know as much as we can about how to do that successfully. So far, Myanmar has met some of the necessary conditions for democracy, yet in other areas they are still facing some pretty massive roadblocks.

Government elected by citizens
You may have noticed above that only 75% of the seats in parliament were up for grabs in this election. That’s because 25% of the seats will continue be controlled by non-elected military members. The Generals in charge refer to this as “disciplined democracy.” Creating a “just plain old democracy” is going to depend in large part on whether, how, and when the new government can get the military completely out and turn those seats over to the people.

Voting rights for all adults
Just let everyone vote, how hard is that? Apparently very hard. Historically, the U.S. and other countries transitioning to democracy created illogical requirements for citizenship and voting, things like owning land, being a certain color, or having a penis. Myanmar has gone a different route. Prior to the elections, the Rohingya Muslims of Rahkine were summarily stripped of their citizenship and their right to vote. This is a bad way to start off your democracy and it’s also a harbinger of potential genocide. In addition to having their citizenship stolen, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have ended up in camps or fled the country as refugees due to violent persecution in their native state Rahkine. Fixing this, and addressing other ethic tensions around the country, must be a top priority for the new government. No matter what else happens in Myanmar, if the Rohingya, or any other group, are deprived of their rights then it is no democracy.

Free and fair regularly occurring elections
President Obama and others have called the elections “free and fair.” Yeah, no. The treatment of the Rohingya disqualifies these elections from that category and there were some other issues as well, like dead people being on voter lists and some living people being left off. Still, these elections were a lot closer to being free and fair than anything that’s happened previously and a lot of the problems seem fixable. Also positive is that elections were held in 2010 (though they were widely considered a sham to allow the Military Junta to stay in power), and by-elections were held in 2012. So things seem to be going in the right(ish) direction on the regularly occurring front as well.

Political Parties
The opposition party in Myanmar, the NLD, has endured decades of frequently violent oppression, assassinations, imprisonments, and house arrests. Through it all they have stayed organized, connected to the people, and consistent in their goals and leadership. This is a monumental achievement and it’s paid off with them winning a majority in both houses of Parliament. The trick now will be finding a way to create at least two functional parties and transition the military back to being an organization that just does military things like protect the country, and doesn’t do things like be a political party or take over as an authoritarian regime.

Freedom to hold office
Like the right to vote, this seems pretty simple. Just let anyone run for office. But what if there is a particular person who you really, really don’t want to hold office. Like for example, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD? Well, if you’re the Military Junta what you do is you put a clause in the constitution that’s specifically designed to prevent this person from holding office. What it says is that a person can’t hold office if a member of their immediate family is a citizen of a foreign country. By a total non-coincidence Suu Kyi’s sons are British citizens. The democratic solution to this is for the new government to lawfully remove this from Myanmar’s constitution. But if the non-elected military members of parliament are able to block this option, then the NLD will probably appoint a puppet president, and Suu Kyi will functionally run the government from behind the scenes in the short term. Fixing this weirdness in the constitution is one of those things that can serve as an indicator of how democratization is progressing.

Rule of law and freedom (speech, religion, press)
These things and democracy can seem like a catch 22; without freedom and rule of law how can you create democracy, but without democracy how can you have freedom and rule of law? Fortunately these are not absolute terms and a little of one helps promote the other two and creates a positive feedback loop that strengthens all three. Myanmar is not currently doing well in terms of rule of law or freedom. The World Justice Project gives them a score of .42 out of 1 in the 2015 rankings of rule of law. They’re 92 out of the 102 countries ranked, just above Bangladesh and below Ethiopia. For freedom they get a score of 6 (1 being the best and 7 being the worst) from Freedom House. We’ve already looked at some of the dark spots in these areas, and there are more, but there has been progress too. Prepublication censorship of the press ended in 2012 and state monopoly on newspapers ended in 2013. As democracy gets stronger we should see more improvements in freedom and rule of law as well, but if these areas fail to advance it could mean that democratization has stalled as well.

There are also other factors that we should make an effort to understand as this unfolds. Why is this happening now? Did foreign involvement like sanctions or Chinese sponsored peace talks positively influence the process? The U.S. likes to think that we’re experts at democracy, but it took us almost 150 years to democratize (women got the vote in 1920) and we still don’t get it right all time. The people of Myanmar will probably learn from our mistakes and successes, and if we’re serious about promoting democracy, here or anywhere else, we need to pay attention and learn from Myanmar too.

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Image Credit: See Li on Flickr

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