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UN Hails Myanmar’s Historic New Parliament

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 2 2016 (IPS) - When U.Thant of Burma (now Myanmar) was elected UN Secretary-General back in November 1962, he was the first Asian to hold that post after Trygve Lie of Norway and Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden.

The appointment was also a historic moment for Asia, which waited for 45 long years for the second Asian to hold that position: Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, the current UN Secretary-General, who was elected in January 2007.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar in November 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar in November 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

An equally important event took place in Myanmar last November when it held nation-wide elections, the first after decades of military rule, which were hailed by the United Nations as “a significant achievement in Myanmar’s democratic transition.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, who was forced to spend nearly 15 years under house arrest by a military government, emerged the leader of the largest political party: the National League for Democracy (NLDP) party.

On Tuesday, Myanmar’s first freely-elected parliament in decades met in the capital of Naypyidaw — and at least over 110 of the NLDP’s 390 members in the new parliament are former political prisoners.

But constitutionally, Aung San Suu Kyi, is barred from holding the post of President, despite the NLD’s parliamentary majority, primarily because her children who were born in UK are treated as foreigners. Her late husband was a British scholar.

Asked about the historic opening of parliament, UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said: “It’s another extremely important step in the restoration of democracy in Myanmar.”

Dr Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations, told IPS the gradual transition to democracy in Myanmar must be welcomed.

But the transition has to occur through a measured process, he said.

“Myanmar has not enjoyed a UK style (or an Indian style) democracy for a long time. It will take a while for a successful transition to be consolidated.’

“We know from recent experience that a Western style democracy cannot be superimposed on a country inexperienced in democracy. It is to be remembered that its territorial integrity will be a priority for Myanmar while divisive ethnic tensions will need to be carefully managed as it slowly absorbs the new political experience,” said Kohona.

Ban said the United Nations “has long been involved in Myanmar’s transition after more than 50 years of military rule”, appointing a Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the issue.

In 2007, he set up the “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar,” a consultative forum of 14 countries to assist him in his efforts to spur change in the South-East Asian nation.

Over the years, he has welcomed the release of political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself. In 2010 he voiced concern over the decision to dissolve 10 political parties, including the NLD, ahead of the previous elections that November.

The United States, which imposed rigid economic and military sanctions on Myanmar for lack of a democratically elected government, for its treatment of political prisoners and its human rights violations, has begun easing some of these restrictions.

Since 2012, the US has provided over $500 million in support of Myanmar’s reform process, including implementation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and efforts to increase the participation of civil society and women in the peace process.

At a press conference in the Naypyitaw last month, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the US welcomes the positive statements from President Thein Sein and from the leadership of the military congratulating the NLD and pledging to respect the result of the elections.

It is also encouraging that Aung San Suu Kyi has met with President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to discuss the upcoming political transition.

“We know there are still many challenges ahead,” Blinken said.

“Broad-based economic growth must be nurtured and it must be sustained. The national reconciliation process must continue.”

He also said that remaining political prisoners must be released and human rights protected for all, no matter their ethnicity or religion.

Reforms need to continue until an elected civilian government is truly sovereign and all the country’s institutions answer to the people.

“The United States will work in close partnership with the new government to support its efforts to achieve these goals,” he declared.

He said the US has also discussed Myanmar’s economic challenges, including the incoming government’s focus on improving conditions for those who live and work off the land.

“The United States will continue to promote responsible investment by our companies in Myanmar, which we believe is strengthening new local businesses and industries and building human capital, not just extracting resources.”

“We talked about the peace process and political dialogue between the government and ethnic nationalities. The United States will do whatever the stakeholders in this historic effort believe will be helpful to aid in its success. Meanwhile, we urge an end to offensive military operations and unfettered humanitarian access to civilians in need,” he added.

The US is particularly concerned about discrimination and violence experienced by ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya population in Rakhine State.

Ban said he is regretfully aware that a large number of voters from minority communities, in particular the Rohingya, were denied the right to vote and some were disqualified as candidates,” the statement noted.

Encouraged by the statements of political and military leaders and other relevant actors, as Myanmar begins the process of forming its next government, the UN chief has urged all national stakeholders to maintain a calm atmosphere and uphold human rights and the rule of law.

“There is much hard work that remains ahead on Myanmar’s democratic journey and towards making future elections truly inclusive,” he said, underscoring that the people and leaders of Myanmar have it within their power to come together to build a better future for their country, “a future where peace and development take firm root on the foundations of inclusivity, respect and tolerance, where the human rights of all are protected regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender, and where no one is marginalized, vulnerable, and discriminated against.”

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  • alan johnstone

    I’m not so sure that this event is as big a change as it is being portrayed.

    The generals didn’t suddenly wake up one day believing in democracy. They wanted to end sanctions and their pariah status, but they didn’t want to give up control of the country. They knew that couldn’t win an election. The NLD are far too popular. Their solution? A constitution which has the appearance of a democracy, but which still gives them ultimate control.

    Newly elected MPs will be joined by 116 MPs, 25 percent of the total, who are appointed by the head of the army. These MPs will choose one of the two vice presidents, who will, like them, be a soldier. The head of the Burmese army also gets to choose key government ministers. The Defense Minister, Home Affairs Minister and Border Affairs Minister will all be serving soldiers. This puts the armed forces outside of the control of the new government. The new NLD government will also not have control over the police, justice system, security services or issues in ethnic states. Without control of the police or being able to create a truly independent judiciary, this is another area where the NLD will be hamstrung. People could still be jailed for their political beliefs or actions. The military has been committing horrific human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in the country. Rape is used as a weapon of war, farmers are tortured and executed, and villages are bombed and burned. Legal experts say the abuses taking place meet the legal definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity. An NLD government will be virtually powerless to stop this.

    An NLD government can’t even use the military budget to try to rein in the army. The army sets its own budget. The government has to make do with the money left over. No surprise then, than military spending is higher than health and education combined. Just in case an NLD government still tries to implement policies the military doesn’t like, above both parliament and government is a National Defense and Security Council. Constitutionally, it is the most powerful body in Burma. It has eleven members, six of whom come from the military, so it has a built-in majority. It could overrule decisions made by an NLD government. As if all these checks on the power of the government were not enough, the military also inserted clauses in the constitution that give it the right to retake power for vague and unspecified “national security” and “national unity” reasons. Basically, any time they like.

    Given all this, it’s not surprising that one of the top priorities for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is constitutional reform. The generals realized this as well. That’s where the 25 percent of seats reserved for them in parliament comes in to play. To change the constitution, more than 75 percent of MPs have to vote for it. This means the military have veto power over constitutional reform. No change unless they decide they want it.

    Despite all these problems, having an NLD government, however hamstrung, will undoubtedly be better that what came before it. But it isn’t democracy, and it isn’t acceptable. It can’t be described as a step in a transition process, because under the constitution, no further steps towards a genuine democracy are possible. Myanmar now has a hybrid system of military rule and democracy. It’s democracy on a leash, good enough for much of the international community who seek to strengthen their commercial ties with the country. But a situation where the military are not under the control of the government and where the military appoint key government ministers, would be considered completely unacceptable in any Western country.