Please, General, Keep Your Promise

By The Irrawaddy 22 July 2015

Following months of equivocation, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has firmly ruled itself in for the November election. After struggling to survive decades of political repression, the unlawful detention of its leaders and the extrajudicial killing of its members, the party can reasonably expect the year’s end to mark their finest hour—should the poll be conducted in a free and fair manner.

It has been heartening to see so many prominent and respected members of Burmese society rally behind the party. Outspoken Rangoon Division lawmaker Nyo Nyo Thin, 88 Generation leader Ko Ko Gyi, author Nay Phone Latt, Karen women’s rights activist Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, labor rights activist Win Cho, Rangoon University Rector Dr Aung Thu and businesswoman Thet Thet Khaing have all put themselves forward as NLD candidates in the landmark vote.

The failure of the recent constitutional reform push would have made an easy pretext for the party to boycott the election. It is fortunate that the NLD’s central executive committee decided to participate. Had it been otherwise, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that other parties would have quickly filled the vacuum, leaving the NLD in the dust. Though Aung San Suu Kyi remains barred from the presidency, and the military’s parliamentary and executive prerogatives have been left intact, at this stage of the game the opposition has no other option than to tacitly endorse the Constitution by participating in a general election and work for reform from inside the tent.

By committing to the election, the NLD now puts the onus on the incumbent government and the military to honor their own commitments. After all, for all the optimism of the last few years, we must remember that Burma is far from free. The military is still very much in control. Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing remains in charge of a quarter of the votes of every parliament in the country, sits on the influential National Defense Security Council with President Thein Sein, appoints the head of the exceedingly powerful Home Affairs Ministry and has a decisive say on the progress of Burma’s ceasefire negotiations.

Min Aung Hlaing told the BBC in a rare interview that the military’s oversight of government would remain for some time to come.

“It could be five years or 10 years—I couldn’t say,” he said of when the military would permit measures to scale down its presence in the country’s legislatures.

Once again, the commander-in-chief failed to rule out any presidential ambitions, and a parliamentary compromise to install him as head of state cannot be ruled out. When it comes to the next leader of the nation, the will of the people is going to remain subordinate to political expediency as long as the presidency is determined by backroom negotiations in Naypyidaw.

In the same interview, Min Aung Hlaing promised that the military would respect the results of the election. Leaving aside that this presupposes an election free of ballot stuffing or bribery, the general has made a commendable pact with the people of Burma. But will the military honor the general’s words? The old regime was shocked by the extent of the NLD’s victory in 1990, and no doubt the results of the 2012 by-elections—in which the party won all but one of the seats it contested—were enough to put the hardliners of the former junta on edge.

Despite a history of subjugation, repression and imprisonment, the NLD has placed its faith in the coming election. The people of this country, the victims of more tumult and suffering than words could ever express, have now been invited to place its faith in the words of the military. The commander’s words were commendable, certainly, but Burma cannot afford this pledge to be broken. Please, general: keep your promise.