After years of rule by a repressive military junta, Myanmar has transitioned into democratic rule following a Presidential election. Unlike in other Presidential systems like France or the United States, the President of Myanmar is elected by members of the country’s bicameral parliament. The new President, Htin Kyaw, shall be sworn in on 30th March and will be the first president in over fifty years that is not affiliated with the military. Democracy is continuing to spread and the fact that it has been done so peacefully is the most uplifting part of the story.
When most people think of the politics of Myanmar they think of veteran peace and democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, however she is ineligible to become the President due to the fact that her late husband and her children are foreign citizens. Personally I think is a stupid but irrespective of this rule her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has elected the next Head of State.
Without diminishing the achievements of Burmese peace campaigners over the last fifty years it is worth pointing out that this election result was not surprising. As I mentioned above the members of the country’s parliament elect the President and in the 2015 general election the NLD won majorities in both houses of parliament: 135 out of 224 in the Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House) and 255 out of 440 in the Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House). An unexpected result would be if the NLD didn’t win the presidential vote.
The presidential vote itself was not even close. The NLD’s candidate Htin Kyaw, a long time friend and political ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 360 out of the 652 ballots cast whereas the military’s candidate Myint Swe received 213 votes and Henry Van Tio, another NLD candidate, took 79 votes. As a consequence of the vote Kyaw will be named President whereas Swe and Van Tio will be named First and Second Vice President respectively.
With the machinery of the state in the control of the NLD the work to dismantle the military’s old regime can now begin. Myanmar has for many years had a restricted and censored media, which the party seeks to make into a free press. Furthermore the country’s governments have been accused of systematic human rights violations and arbitrary imprisonment of political opponents. The NLD seeks to establish a judiciary that is separate from the government and the military as well as increasing social benefits like legal aid to ensure that people receive fair trials. Suu Kyi has also suggested that the country embark on a process of national reconciliation, much as was the case in post-Apartheid South Africa, in order to heal the divisions of the past and transition into a strong democratic state.
As well as these societal reforms that need to be conducted, there are significant problems with the Burmese political system. Other than amending the constitution to remove the strange rule about foreign children disqualifying potential presidential candidates, the parliamentary system of the nation needs significant reform. At the moment 25% of the seats in both houses of parliament are reserved for members of the military, which is obviously incredibly undemocratic, and this would require another constitutional amendment. Furthermore I would like to see Myanmar transition away from its present electoral system, first-past-the-post, to a more representative system that more accurately reflects the will of the people.
To conclude, Myanmar has made an historic move by electing a head of state that supports democracy. Whilst the activism of those who fought oppression and injustice for many years should be commended, the practical work of changing Burmese society is just beginning. We need to encourage people around the world to read about the progress of the new government in Myanmar so that if there is any rumblings of a military coup we can stand in solidarity with the Burmese people and with the NLD. The philosopher Francis Bacon said that “knowledge is power” and we need to make sure that those of us that don’t live in Myanmar are informed about what is going on so we can call out our own political leaders if they turn a blind eye.