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Yes, Myanmar Is A Democracy With An Asterisk

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By John Feffer:

On November 8, voters went to the polls in Myanmar to elect a new parliament. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD)—Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party—scored an impressive victory. According to the early returns, the NLD is on track to win over 80% of the vote and capture a sizeable majority in parliament.

Aung saan suu kyi
Image source: YouTube

And yet the election carries with it an asterisk—just like the New England Patriots’ 2015 Super Bowl victory (deflated footballs) or Barry Bonds’ home run record (steroids). In Myanmar’s case, the asterisk involves the 25% of seats set aside for representatives of the military. This bloc also holds veto power over any constitutional changes. And, according to the constitution, Suu Kyi can’t be president.

Because of these asterisks, The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl used Myanmar as Exhibit A in his criticism this week of the Obama administration’s coddling of dictatorships:

It nevertheless is becoming clear that the regimes on which Obama has lavished attention have greeted his overtures with a counter-strategy. It’s possible, they calculate, to use the economic benefits of better relations to entrench their authoritarian systems for the long term, while screening out any liberalizing influence. Rather than being subverted by U.S. dollars, they would be saved by them.

Tell that to all the people celebrating in the streets of Myanmar’s capital and throughout the country. The ruling party may well believe that it’s created the façade of democracy in order to secure foreign investments and maintain its hold on power. But that doesn’t mean that its perception jives with reality. Nor does it follow that the Obama administration’s gambit is a faulty one. Diehl thinks that he’s as cunning as the Burmese junta in identifying the weaknesses of President Barack Obama’s strategy. More likely, Diehl is as intellectually torpid and politically blinkered as the junta is.

Also, democracy with asterisks is more the rule than the exception. And when it comes to tricky transitions, such asterisks can be a useful compromise. Just ask the Poles.

The Case Of 1989

The Polish opposition negotiated a compromise in 1989 very similar to the one embraced by the Burmese dissidents. And, at the time, plenty of critics responded with the same kind of hostility as Jackson Diehl. The Solidarity trade union, the skeptics lamented, had made a lousy deal with the devil.

In spring 1989, Solidarity activists sat down with government representatives in the legendary Round Table talks. Out of those discussions, the two sides agreed to parliamentary elections on June 4. All of the seats of a newly created Senate would be up for grabs. But the Communist Party and its satellite parties retained two-thirds of the seats in the more important chamber known as the Sejm (considerably more than what the Burmese junta demanded).

The election results were a surprise. Very few people expected that Solidarity would win virtually every seat it contested (it lost a single Senate seat to an independent). Since they formed a parliamentary majority in the Sejm, the government-affiliated parties selected the president—the architect of Martial Law, Wojciech Jaruzelski—who then proposed his right-hand man, Czeslaw Kiszczak, as the prime minister. But, in another surprise, Solidarity managed to woo away several of the satellite parties to create a ruling coalition and undermine support for Kiszczak.

In other words, what had started out as a major democratic asterisk turned into one of the most exhilarating exercises of democracy in modern history. In September 1989, Solidarity formed the first non-communist government under Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. It was just a matter of a month or two before the rest of the region followed suit in spectacular fashion.

Other Asterisks

All democracies, at some level, deserve an asterisk or two. It’s in the very definition of democracy that they are works in progress.

Consider democracy in the United States. At most, an estimated 25% of the population in the 18th century was eligible to vote. After all, women, slaves and white men without property were all barred from the polling booths. And that situation lasted many decades. Formally, African Americans received the right to vote in 1865 with the 14th amendment, but in fact many African Americans would only begin to vote with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Women, meanwhile, had to wait for suffrage until 1920 and the passage of the 19thamendment. Felons remain disenfranchised to this day.

Virtually all democracies created in the 18th and 19th centuries had a restricted franchise. In the 1780s, for instance, approximately 3% of the population of England and Wales formed the electorate. Of course, many asterisks continued into the 20th and 21st centuries as well. Women won the right to vote in Iraq in 1980, the Central African Republic in 1986, in Qatar in 1999 and just this year in Saudi Arabia.

Democracies are also subject to more structural problems. The inordinate influence of money on American elections, exacerbated by the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court in 2010, has reinforced the sad reality that only the wealthiest citizens, or those capable of attracting the support of the wealthy, can successfully run for office in the United States. Government restrictions on the media—as is the case in Russia, among other places—also produce questionable election results. The prior approval of candidates by unelected officials—in Iran, for instance—has also limited the full exercise of political freedoms.

Democracy is about learning from mistakes. Even in our “advanced democracies,” we continue to commit unpardonable errors that our wiser heirs will identify and correct (or not).

Back To Burma

The military junta in Myanmar, as Diehl argues, has made what it considers a careful calculation. When it comes to investment, the gamble has proven a profitable one. Writes David Browne in Equal Times:

From 1988 to 2012 only 477 foreign companies invested in Myanmar, with a total Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) of US$4.1 billion.

In the last fiscal year, this figure has doubled to over US$8 billion and 895 companies from 38 countries have invested in the country, according to a new report from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Foreign Direct Investment In Myanmar: What Impact On Human Rights?

Real estate prices in downtown Yangon now rival those of Manhattan. And the Asian Development Bank expects Myanmar to have one of the region’s fastest growth rates of seven to eight per cent per year in the coming decade.

Diehl makes a fundamental mistake in connecting this foreign investment to the continued political fortunes of the ruling elite. Rather, as in every other country in transition over the last 25 years, the elite is trading its political status for economic enrichment, using insider knowledge and contacts to find a secure place in the new order. If I were an unscrupulous ruling party official in Myanmar, I would welcome the opportunity to hand over all of the country’s most challenging problems of governance to the opposition and focus instead on making boatloads of money in the oil or lumber industries.

Our USDP lost completely,” one member of the ruling party, Kyi Win, said. “The NLD has won. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has to take responsibility now.” That means that Suu Kyi and the NLD must take responsibility for myriad armed conflicts, an antiquated economy, rampant corruption, drug problems galore, a challenging relationship with China and much, much more.

The victory of the NLD will not, after all, magically pull Myanmar together. If anything, it may well accentuate the divisions in the country, as democracy often does. Suu Kyi has barely said anything on behalf of the Rohingya, the dispossessed Muslim minority living in the Rakhine state that abuts Bangladesh. The NLD also refused to allow any Muslim candidates onto their election list. Even so, the extremist Buddhist party Ma Ba Tha—and you thought all Buddhists were peace-loving meditators?—tried to portray the NLD as a party of Islamists.

Image source: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
Image source: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

The Muslim-Buddhist conflict is but one of many in Myanmar. There are eight main armed factions, largely structured along ethnic lines: the Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and Wa. And there are just as many breakaway groups from these major groups.

In October, the government signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight paramilitary groups, effectively ending armed conflict throughout much of the country. It’s the first time any armed faction representing the Karen people has participated in a peace agreement since 1947. That’s the good news. The bad news is that seven armed factions—including the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army—refused to sign the agreement.

It’s not clear whether the NLD will bring any greater credibility to the negotiating table, particularly when dealing with the issues underlying the insurgencies. For instance, Suu Kyi was put in charge of a commission looking into a controversial mining project responsible for confiscating thousands of acres from farmers, relocating 66 villages, providing little in the way of compensation and polluting the environment. The commission endorsed the project, and local protests continued.

Ignoring the Rohingya, keeping Muslims off the NLD election list, backing a controversial mining project: Suu Kyi has indicated in so many ways that she’s not interested in remaining an icon dressed in saintly white. She fully intends to be a politician and wrestle around in the mud.

So, though she can’t become president for now, she won’t hesitate to wield as much power as she can manage.

If I’m required to field a president who meets the requirements of section F of the constitution, alright then we’ll find one, but that won’t stop me making all the decisions as the leader of the winning party

she told the BBC after the preliminary results were in. Maybe Hillary Clinton, who met with Suu Kyi in 2011, has had more influence over the Burmese leader than she ever anticipated.

The NLD has to be careful. The party also won back in 1990, but the government at that time refused to acknowledge the results. The military could decide to hit the replay button. But the government already respected the semi-democratic by-elections in 2012. And, as Suu Kyi has said: “The times are different, the people are different.” The military has a number of incentives to let the current election results stand. It’s not just the influx of foreign investment. The military also finds it useful to have the support of the United States and Europe to counterbalance the giants in the neighborhood, China and India. And, unlike in Egypt, the military can’t portray the opposition as a threat to Western interests.

Aung San Suu Kyi is not just whistling in the dark. She can count on people power from below and superpowers from abroad. The next task is to expand her maneuvering room. Gradually eliminating the most prominent asterisk attached to Myanmar’s democracy—and proving Jackson Diehl wrong about the country’s political future—is no doubt on the top of her agenda. But given all the other challenges facing Myanmar today, that’s probably the least of her problems.

John Feffer is Co-Director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

This article was originally published on Fair Observer.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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