Sunday, December 12, 2010

The future of Myanmar and ASEAN after the elections

By Bambang Hartadi Nugroho, Jakarta

The Nov. 7 general election in Myanmar has become a cause for concern for many, with critics calling it undemocratic, because it prohibited the leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), from contesting.

The military junta went farther by keeping NLD leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, together with many of her colleagues in custody. The only significant opposition party allowed to put up its candidates was the National Democratic Force (NDF) with only 164 candidates, compared to the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National Unity Party (NUP) with 1,112 and 995 candidates respectively. Moreover, the Constitution of 2008 mandates that 25 percent of the seats in the parliament should go to military appointees in any case.

The outcome of the election announced Wednesday saw the USDP win by landslide, with around 80 percent of the available seats in the parliament. This result, however, was not unpredictable given the composition of the parties allowed to stand.

From the beginning, the junta had designed the poll to maintain the status quo and hold on power regardless of mounting criticism from across the world. Thus, it is hard to imagine there will be a significant change in the domestic situation in Myanmar.

The question now is how this election result will impact on the future of Myanmar and its people, including the opposition and ethnic minorities, and on the future of ASEAN as the main regional actor that has constantly been defending Myanmar from external pressure, although lately ASEAN also has shown signs of impatience towards the slowness of change in its youngest member.

The Burmese government finally released Suu Kyi on Nov. 13 as planned, around a week after the election. However, based on previous experiences, there is no real guarantee that the junta will keep its promise. And even if she really is freed, there are doubts she can do much under the current situation and in the future.

Some believe Suu Kyi still has a chance to gain support from Burmese people as she did soon after her release in 2002, when she held rallies all around the country and made speeches in front of her supporters. However, in terms of political movement, it is unwise to rely solely on charisma and influence, because it is going to take a lot more than that to push for political reforms.

This effort will even be tougher assuming that the junta will not be kind enough to simply let Suu Kyi and her colleagues to stage anti-government rallies, especially now that the junta can claim to have secured a mandate from the people.

For the ethnic minorities that account for approximately 30 percent of Myanmar population, there is a little hope the election will bring any changes to their fate. Historically, the military regime has always been discriminatory against ethnic minorities such as the Karen and Rohingya.

In a wider context, the result of this poll can affect the development of ASEAN cooperation. It would be exaggerating to say that the future of ASEAN will be determined by what happens in Myanmar, but we must admit that problems in the Indochinese sub-region could probably impact negatively on ASEAN.

From the beginning, ASEAN has always rejected the western approach towards these issues, which focus on pushing agendas through political and economic sanctions.

Through its “constructive engagement” approach, ASEAN has tried to engage Myanmar since the early 1990s by building economic cooperation, while at the same time trying to counter pressures from the US and Europe. SEAN believed that by engaging Myanmar, it would be able to exercise influence to persuade the junta to adopt political reform. However, recent developments indicated that this belief did not hold true.

Of course ASEAN’s future development does not depend solely on the issue of Myanmar, but Myanmar has become and will remain an unsolved matter for ASEAN if it insists on the principle of non-interference, which has justified its non-action against Myanmar.

Some ASEAN members have, to some extent, violated this principle, including Indonesia which recently suggested that the junta should have allowed media coverage on the election process to ensure its fairness and impartiality. Yet, that was the most they could do: They commented only on individual basis, unable to use a stronger and more formal institutional mechanism to put pressure on Myanmar.

Evidently, ASEAN has lost very precious momentum to push Myanmar to reform itself.

Finally, the issue of democratization in Myanmar is vital for ASEAN not only to rebuild its reputation — after being heavily criticized for protecting the military regime — but more than that, it is also important in order to strengthen political and regional security cooperation.

ASEAN states have set the common goal of creating a Political and Security Community by 2015, in which one of the strong points is to promote democracy and the protection of human rights within the region.

That is why the need to encourage Myanmar to carry out political reform is vital to ASEAN.

Nevertheless, the group has failed to do so, and they will have to wait — if unable to create—new momentum in the future to mount pressure on Myanmar.

Hopefully, when the new momentum comes, ASEAN will be able to maximize it, for the sake of Burmese citizens, and for the sake of ASEAN’s institutional development.

The writer is assistant lecturer at the Department of International Relations, University of Indonesia.