A First Step on a Long Road to Democracy
Eva Kusuma Sundari
Myanmar has been in the spotlight these days as a small fraction of voters went to the polls there on Sunday, in what many hoped would be free and fair parliamentary by-elections that could make opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a legitimate voice in Parliament.
And, if things continue to go smoothly, we can expect a gradual rolling back of international sanctions as the country opens itself up to the world.
While this is good news, this first election in two decades in which Suu Kyi is involved should still be observed with caution. As the newest democracy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nation, our Myanmarese neighbors should take stock and learn from our past mistakes. We would be doing them a disservice if we did not voice that warning to them.
Unfortunately, so far it seems that the by-elections are aimed more at winning international approval and a lifting of sanctions than at giving Myanmarese citizens their right to vote as a matter of principle. The elections undoubtedly offer a great opportunity for the government of President Thein Sein to showcase the transformation that is taking place in his country while posing no real risk to the absolute dominance enjoyed by the military-backed leaders in Naypyidaw.
The by-elections are thus a small but nevertheless important step on a long road to democracy. As the rest of us within Asean know all too well, elections do not necessarily mean freedom. The hard work is still to come for Myanmar.
Indonesia, along with other Asean nations, sent a small team of “election observers” at the invitation of Naypyidaw. They were joined by observers from the West, including representatives of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute from the United States. Yet many questions still hang over the fairness of the vote, such as allegations of voter-list irregularities. It is clear that the closely chaperoned official observers will not be able to make any informed judgements on the election process after just a couple of days.
Let this be clear: these elections fall far short of international norms. The election laws are riddled with rules that hamper free speech and curtail the rights of political parties, as well as the right of voters to lodge complaints. There are well-founded concerns, which include allegations of vote-buying, intimidation, ballot-paper irregularities and other less-than-democratic impediments.
In Indonesia we know all too well the consequences of a badly planned election causing doubt and mistrust. And manipulation can happen at all stages. Here, the manipulation of voter lists, vote counting and seat allocations in the 2009 national elections undermined the democratic process.
The bickering and distrust that has emerged from that has shaken the House of Representatives and hampered the ruling coalition’s ability to run the country. Rather than passing legislation and persevering on the road to political, social and economic development, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been bogged down in his attempts to mend internal frictions within a House under constant pressure, mainly from members of the ruling coalition. The seriousness of the failures, particularly regarding the voter lists, which left up to 40 percent of eligible voters disenfranchised, not only threatens the reputation of the government and ruling party but also — and far more seriously — brings into question the legitimacy of the entire political process.
Our responsibility is not just to support our fellow Asean member state on the international stage, nor is it to simply prop up the regime in Naypyidaw. We have a responsibility to Myanmar’s people, not just its rulers. We should support and assist Myanmar on its road to reform, but we must also ensure that support is not offered to the detriment of the legitimate voice of the opposition and the Myanmarese people. We must clearly state what is now expected of the ruling government in Myanmar — and we should expect a lot.
Do we sit on our high, but not-so-steady horse and point fingers, or do we look at this election rationally? Indonesia stepped out from the shadows of dictatorship and showed that together, we can make great strides toward democracy while building a nation we can all be proud of.
Apart from the motivation of the Thein Sein government, this election is a step to inject further reform and strengthen democratization in Myanmar and Asean in general. This is a step in the right direction, but we must also remind Myanmar that there is a long road ahead and that we are there to help.
Perhaps many are expecting too much too quickly. But we must be clear: the reform process cannot stop. It is true that many of the reforms so far have been cosmetic, and that there are serious concerns with the Constitution and the military’s continued role in politics. But change in Myanmar will be incremental.
We expect people to vote freely, and that their votes will be counted fairly and accurately. We also expect those who do win seats to be given the right to voice the concerns of their constituents. We expect Myanmar’s Parliament to listen to these voices, and move forward with the constitutional amendments we all know are necessary.
This election may not give the government legitimacy, but it has given Myanmar and its people a taste of freedom. It raises the benchmark that the military-backed government must continue to improve upon.
Asean and the rest of the world must encourage and promote the necessary reforms, but we must also not be afraid to speak out against elements of illegitimate rule. The people of Myanmar have been promised that they will get their voices back. On Sunday, we heard a small section of that voice.
Eva Kusuma Sundari is the president of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus and a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.