RANGOON — Burma’s Nov. 8 election will do little to further the political aspirations of ethnic minority groups, a new report posits, downplaying the significance of the historic vote for long-oppressed minorities within a system of governance that will continue to centralize authority and afford powerful political prerogatives to the military, regardless of the poll’s outcome.
That sobering assessment came from the Thailand-based Burma Partnership on Friday with the release of its 66-page report “Elections for Ethnic Equality?”
While not revelatory for those familiar with Burma’s electoral landscape, the report, released just one month ahead of the general election, serves as a reminder of how far the country—and particularly its ethnic minorities—still must go to see its democratic transition through to some form of completion.
Research involving interviews with 34 ethnic political parties, civil society organizations (CSOs) and focus groups revealed that political parties representing Burma’s diverse ethnic electorate largely agree on the need for a durable peace and major overhauls to governance structure before substantial improvements are likely to be seen for livelihoods and the education, health care and economic sectors decimated by 50 years of military rule.
According to the report, those changes include ethnic equality and self-determination within a federal system of government, all of which would require amending the country’s controversial 2008 Constitution. An effort earlier this year to make some changes to the charter fell short of achieving the necessary approval of more than 75 percent of lawmakers, with a 25 percent constitutionally guaranteed bloc of military-appointed MPs stymying the pro-reform camp.
That privileged allotment of seats in regional legislatures and the Union Parliament, along with military control of three key ministries and Burma’s sprawling administrative apparatus, was also cited by respondents as key obstacles to meaningful change in line with ethnic minorities’ objectives. The military is dominated by the country’s ethnic Burman majority and has spent more than 60 years in conflict of varying intensities with more than a dozen ethnic armed groups fighting for greater autonomy from the central government.
The report also presented the country’s ongoing peace process as a political forum inextricably linked to the realization of ethnic minorities’ aspirations and as important, if not more, than any gains made on Nov. 8 and in Parliament thereafter.
In this regard, Burma’s ethnic armed organizations—many of which have informal ties to ethnic political parties—are seen as better positioned to win gains for ethnic minorities than their ethnic brethren inside Parliament.
“Although neither the political parties nor the EAOs [ethnic armed organizations] have managed to effect structural and institutional change, the EAOs at this point do have a certain amount of bargaining power and are involved in a process which could fundamentally change the landscape of ethnic politics for generations, much more than the 2015 elections,” the report states.
Impotence, the NLD and Apathy
The report highlighted the institutional weakness of the country’s regional legislatures, where up to 673 seats are up for grabs on Nov. 8. Though the majority of parliamentary hopefuls—more than 3,400 candidates—are vying for these seats instead of the Union Parliament, the report finds that “the State and Region level parliaments simply do not have power to make essential changes in the lives of ethnic communities.”
Further diluting the power of regional governments, state and divisional chief ministers are appointed by the president, effectively allowing Naypyidaw to dictate the composition of executive branches of regional governments because chief ministers go on to form their own cabinets. A proposed amendment to the military-drafted Constitution that would have transferred this authority to regional legislatures was voted down by Parliament in July.
While largely asserting the insignificance of the looming poll for ethnic minorities relative to more structural shortcomings in Burma, the report does not entirely dismiss the exercise, which is being billed by the international community and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a major benchmark for the country’s political transition.
“[Elections] will serve to develop the political maturity of ethnic political parties that are either very young or have been operating in exile for many years,” it states. “But amid the hype and optimism surrounding this historic event, the aspirations of many ethnic communities will remain unfulfilled unless fundamental, structural, institutional changes in governance take place.”
For her part, Suu Kyi on the campaign trail in ethnic constituencies has sought to portray her National League for Democracy (NLD) party as sharing to the concerns of ethnic minorities and committed to federalism.
Those claims, however, do not appear to have resonated with members of ethnic minorities interviewed by Burma Partnership, who expressed concern that federalism was not a priority for the party, and lingering resentment at the NLD’s decision to contest races in constituencies heavily populated by ethnic minorities.
“If NLD sincerely want to support ethnic political parties, they should not come to ethnic areas and compete with ethnic political parties,” an unnamed member of an ethnic political party was quoted as saying.
Part of the concern stems from a failure of most of the country’s main ethnic minority groups to consolidate under a single banner, leaving voters in Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin, Karen and Karenni states with at least two parties claiming to represent these states’ eponymous ethnic groups. Only in Arakan State have two major ethnic Arakanese parties successfully merged, leaving a very real possibility that in other ethnic regions votes will be split between ethnic parties, to the benefit of the NLD or ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
All this has contributed to apathy among the ethnic electorate, according to the report.
“In these communities, they don’t care, they are not interested, whatever comes out,” one Karen CSO worker was quoted as saying.
Nonetheless, the report stated that ethnic minority parties could win as much as one-third of all elected seats in November, in part owing to strong strains of nationalism among ethnic voters, though previous elections would suggest that 15-20 percent of seats is the more likely outcome.
Researchers interviewed 19 political parties and nine CSOs, and conducted six focus groups involving members of 15 ethnic minorities in four ethnic minority states and Rangoon. Interviews were conducted in June and July of this year.