2015 seems like it’s primed to be a new turning point in Myanmar’s history.
Last week, officials announced that Myanmar is slated to go to the ballot box on November 8 for what will be the country’s first open general election in 25 years. In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s darling of peaceful resistance to state oppression, overwhelmingly won at the polls – but the ruling military junta tossed out the results. Because of her efforts to stimulate democracy, Suu Kyi spent the better part of two decades under house arrest. She was released in 2010 as part of the state’s transition to a quasi-civilian government.
Myanmar has witnessed far-flung political changes since then, and hopes are indeed running high that the election will position the country to take critical steps toward full-fledged democracy. How significant the election will prove to be, however, is still an open question.
Understanding the election’s political stakes requires a look back at the past few years, which have seen some promising developments. In 2011, the state released some dozens of political prisoners as part of a national pardon. In 2012, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept a special election, speaking to a popular hunger for reform, and in that same year, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit what had long been one of the world’s most isolated countries. In 2013, the E.U. followed suit and loosened some of its sanctions on Myanmar. And in her 2014 bestseller Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton lauded the country’s pivot away from authoritarianism as one of the jewels in her diplomatic crown as the U.S. Secretary of State.
But these flashes of hope obscure darker stories of oppression and impending crisis that lie just beneath the surface.
Despite the above, many pundits are treating this year’s general election with a healthy dose of skepticism. They caution against careless optimism over a multi-party election in the face of the overall dwindling pace of reform in Myanmar’s burgeoning democracy.
Myanmar has recently been gripped by student demonstrations and violent crackdowns on them. A few months ago, in March, baton-wielding police officers arrested over 100 students calling for academic freedom at rallies in Letpadan, a city on the fringes of the old capital, Yangon. International actors confined their responses merely to doubts about the state’s willingness to usher in reform, despite history’s lessons that student movements have often signaled important political change in Myanmar, as was the case with the 8888 Uprising in 1988.
Another reason the national election may not be a barometer of progress is the fact that the most severe crisis confronting Myanmar is playing out beyond its borders. Since 2012, swells of violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, sprawled along Myanmar’s west coast, have killed nearly 200 people and left several thousands more homeless. Anti-Muslim violence is hardly new in the country – rather, it’s stitched into its colonial roots – but oppression has, predictably, increased after several years of internal détente. This unrest has prompted thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims to trek between countries across the region, seeing who will let them in, which has in turn triggered a migrant crisis in Southeast Asia.
Ethnic tensions have ricocheted across other parts of Myanmar as well. In the northern mountains, neighboring China, the army is locked in a war with ethnic Kachins. Recent moves by radical Buddhist groups to push the parliament to restrict interfaith marriage have also inflamed ethno-religious conflict.
These various clashes threaten to limit the positive impact of November’s election. Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a news magazine focusing on Myanmar, recently told CNN that the “aspirations of these diverse ethnic groups, each represented by political parties, are likely to play a big role in the election and ensuing political negotiations.” (Full disclosure: I’m currently working for The Irrawaddy.)
Most attempts to inch forward are snagged on an unyielding power structure built around the centrality of the military. In an interview, Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert whom the country had blacklisted for almost 30 years, said to me that “foreign diplomats and assorted academics keep talking about a ‘reform process,’ but there’s an entirely different reality on the ground,” especially for the military, which, as the country’s most powerful institution, has always held the trump card in the political game.
A 2008 constitutional referendum spells out that the military must “participate in the national political leadership role of the state.” But that’s not all: 25 percent of the 664 parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, and making constitutional changes requires the say-so of more than 75 percent of the parliament. What’s more, even though Suu Kyi’s NLD has said that it will contest the election, the Nobel laureate herself is barred from vying for the presidency because her two sons hold foreign passports. Put another way, “there are enough safeguards in the 2008 constitution to prevent changes that would or could undermine the military,” Lintner explained.
This isn’t to suggest that Myanmar’s stab at shedding its decades-long status as a global pariah over the past five years is somehow trivial. But rather than being the forerunner of a new Myanmar, 2015 ought to be a year for taking stock of what ethnic tensions and structural issues might mean for the much-heralded election – and the country’s supposed return to democracy.
“The election may be free and fair, but that’s unlikely to change the basic power structure,” Lintner told me. “Once the smoke has cleared, it might just be business as usual.”
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel.