Last week in Yangon, there was an air of wearied resignation from a number of opposition MPs and ethnic leaders as Myanmar President Thein Sein’s government made the surprise announcement that foreign nationals holding work visas — or “white cards” — could vote in a planned referendum to change the country’s constitution.
So seriously did the National League for Democracy view the issue that its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, called a five-hour emergency meeting of the party last Friday, three days later.
“It’s a blatant grab for votes,” one NLD MP told Crikey after the meeting. “There are more than 1 million white card holders, as many as 800,000 in Rakhine [mainly stateless Muslim Rohingyas], 200,000-300,000 Chinese in the north, and more than 100,000 in camps in Kayin State.”
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It’s also a wedge, as most of the cardholders are Rohingyas, Chinese or Christians in Kayin (formerly Karen) State, and the government likes to paint the NLD as pandering to the Buddhist majority. As well, NLD’s constituency tends to listen to the radical monks who have helped to foment the sectarian violence that has displaced hundreds of thousands Rohingyas, as well as to the spasmodic religious-based attacks elsewhere in the country.
“This is just the first of their tricks, we are expecting many of them in the lead-up to the election,” a different veteran NLD leader and MP told Crikey on Monday morning in a Yangon coffee shop.
But on Wednesday, suddenly — only two days ahead the eve of her the 100th anniversary of her father’s birth on February 13, 1915 — Myanmar’s Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi could not have asked for a better present. The country’s increasingly peripatetic government performed a remarkable about face, saying it would cancel the white cards after unexpectedly widespread protests erupted among nationalists around the country. The move had backfired on the government.
But more significantly for Suu Kyi — known to all simply as The Lady — there is now the faintest sliver of hope that she may be president. As well as backing down on the controversial issues of granting white-card voting rights (they had been permitted to vote in the 2010 election), the military-controlled government had offered up the promise of a referendum.
There are two clauses in the controversial 2008 constitution the NLD is most keen to have changed.
The NLD submitted a petition with nearly 5 million signatures last year calling for changes to a clause that requires more than 75% house support to amend the charter, which amounts to a veto for the military, which has a 25% quota of legislative seats for military personnel in both houses of Parliament. But they also want removed the clause that prevents Suu Kyi, or anyone with a foreign spouse or children, becoming leader. Her deceased husband and two sons are British.
In one fell swoop, it seems the government had wiped out two of serial political issues plaguing Myanmar right now — although, in Myanmar, nothing is ever quite as it seems. The others are education reforms, new religious laws and ongoing violence in a number of states as well as a full-scale civil war in parts of Kachin State.
Although noises have been made about a May referendum, it is up to the government to decide precisely what voters will cast ballots on, and when. As well, many observers believe to organise two polls in one year would be beyond the capacity of the country, that it would be costly and logistically problematic due to ongoing unrest in an increasing number of states.
As US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, it remains unclear whether the vote would occur and what subjects it would cover.
“We believe constitutional reform should reflect the will of the people in Burma [Myanmar] while respecting the right of all people living in Burma to participate in the country’s democratic process,” she said.
All this aside, the consensus among various opposition figures in Yangon is that the election will be held as planned in October or November, but it’s hard to see the government pushing forward with a referendum ahead of the poll to remove the two clauses the NLD so dearly wants cut — especially amid several other ongoing controversies.
A bungled education reform bill has put a fire under the Myanmar student movement, although according to NLD MPs — many of whom were involved with the student protests of the late 1980s — there are very real questions as to who is stoking it.
And then there is the bizarre, repressive religious bill before the Parliament designed to appeal to Buddhist nationalists and another attempt at a wedge; the NLD hates it but can’t speak out. Of the four sections, the one legislating the requirement that people of certain faiths seek the permission of the authorities for interfaith marriage — effectively religious apartheid — is regressive enough. But then, on top of that, there’s the “population control” clause, aimed squarely at Muslims, whom radical monks say are deliberately having more children. It’s the stuff of the dark ages — or Communist China.
But, as ever, it is ethnic violence that remains the biggest barrier to lasting peace and reform in Myanmar. The ongoing civil war in Kachin Sate is said by many to be funded by China, whose government has little interest in a strong, cohesive more self-sufficient Myanmar.
In neighbouring Shan State, outbursts of violence are becoming more common, once again. This week, the military ran air strikes over the Kokang Army in the far north. The reasons are complex and varied across ethnic lines, but essentially the government is demanding peace first, talk detail later. The ethnic groups want the opposite and there is now no chance the election deadline for a proper national peace accord will be reached as they dig in.
If Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San — who fought against two oppressive regimes for the right to proper self-determination for a federated Burma, as it was known then — were still around, you get the feeling he would approve.
At this stage, the NLD seems likely to contest the election, and it will be the first time that the party has contested a national election since 1990. NLD won that poll in a landslide but, in time-honoured fashion, the military annulled the election, plunging the nation back into decades of ultra-repressive rule whose single hope rested with Suu Kyi’s steely resolve to push for a more democratic nation and refusal to leave the country, resulting in decades under house arrest.