A historic shift in Myanmar

November 12th, 2015

Dominating the international news headlines this week are the parliamentary elections in Myanmar (also called Burma). Though the vote counting procedure is just finishing up, the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is claiming that they have secured a majority in the national parliament, signaling a historic shift in Burmese politics.


Now, pdds are that, instead of getting pumped about the Burmese news, you spent your weekend watching College and NFL football, the NBA and Donald Trump as he hosted SNL and decided to boycott Starbucks (it’s okay, I did too).


But this election is far more important than what the majority of us realize, and I feel like we all ought to know a little bit about what happened—the good and the bad—and why it matters to the United States.


So, we will start with the good. This is a landmark election for Myanmar. The country, for over five decades, was ruled by a dictatorial military regime that afforded the Burmese (or Myanmarese, if you prefer) little political freedom. Positive steps were made in 2011, though, as the military announced that it would start a five-year transition to a civilian-run government (at least partially), and the regime has so far kept its promise.


Another plus is that the face of the democratic movement is a very positive figure in the realm of global politics—the West-friendly Nobel Laureate and leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi. If her name doesn’t ring a bell, her story should—she gained international notoriety (and a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991) because she was kept under house arrest as a political prisoner for 15 years, according to CNN. Since 2010 she has been free and campaigning for her party throughout Burma.


The Nov. 8 elections showed some real promise, and had many convinced that Suu Kyi’s struggles had finally come to fruition. And in many regards, they have.  Aljazeera reports that 80% of the eligible Burmese population made their way to voting booths, and that for the most part, the procedures have seemed to run smoothly, freely and fairly. Sounds pretty good so far, right?


Well, not so fast. There have been a couple of bumps in the road so far as well. First, there has been some outcry over the government’s botching of its voter list publications, excluding significant numbers of eligible voters and being so outdated that thousands of now-deceased are still listed, according to the BBC.


Furthermore, the elections are completely overshadowing the major ethnic divide between the country’s large Muslim minority populations. According to Aljazeera, there are around 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims that were excluded from voting, though Western news sources pin the number closer to around 800,000. Regardless, for a country whose demographic makeup is 5% Muslim, this presents a rather serious issue. The final issue with the elections is that, even though Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD suspects that it has managed to secure the parliamentary majority that it needs, she cannot constitutionally assume the office of the President. Under the current governmental system, Burmese citizens cannot serve as president if they have foreign-born children or relatives (Suu Kyi’s children have British passports, thus disqualifying her). The BBC reports a number of rumors suggesting who will take the executive position should the NLD emerge on top, but such a decision will not be made until sometime in the spring of 2016. More than likely, Suu Kyi will have to run the government through a proxy executive.


The election had its bad points, but its good ones far outshined them. And now, to get to how it matters to us, American college students–the Burmese elections and the suspected NLD victory are a cause for excitement all over West and the greater democratic world (and that includes us). The Burmese transition to a democratic regime is notable simply because it comes in a part of the world that is generally not too amenable to civilian-led governments such as neighboring Laos, China, and Vietnam all sport communist regimes. It is a region where we do not have the best of friends, and with Suu Kyi calling the shots (albeit from behind the scenes), the United States has a potential ally that could come in handy in future international affairs. So, while the news may not grab your attention like Trump dancing in a Hot Line Bling parody, it is still something that is worth following.