Originally Published 2010-11-10 00:00:00 Published on Nov 10, 2010
A day after the Myanmar elections, conflict started between the army and a faction of the Karen ethnic armed group, pushing thousands of Karen villagers into Thailand. This incident does not suggest smooth beginning for the country's political transition and the possibility of more such conflicts cannot be ruled out
Elections and Myanmar's political future
On November 7, Myanmar held its first national elections in two decades as part of the country's "roadmap to democracy." While the elections mark a significant development in country's recent political history, doubts remain on the question of what it holds for country's political future. There are both challenges and opportunities for the new government which will come to power in Myanmar. Even as the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is set to sweep the elections, questions remain whether the opposition parties will accept the results of the election as they have alleged the government of manipulation in vote counting.

Rejection of the results by the opposition parties would mean the likely continuation of political stalemate between the military and the pro-democracy supporters which has characterized the country's politics for decades. Remember that Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest, and her party - the National League for Democracy - did not participate in the elections and has called upon the opposition parties to reject the election results on the ground that the votes were manipulated.

A day after the polls, conflict started between the Myanmar army and a faction of the Karen ethnic armed group, pushing thousands of Karen villagers into Thailand. This incident does not suggest smooth beginning for the country's political transition and the possibility of more such conflicts cannot be ruled out. Consider that many of the major ethnic armed groups including the Kachin, the Wa, the Karen, the Shan, the Chin, the Mon, etc, which have not only stayed out of the elections but also have rejected the government's Border Guard Force (BGF) plan that envisaged the transformation of the ethnic militias into BGF under the military command. The ethnic nationalities have fought with the military for decades and will not give up easily unless they reach a reasonable political settlement on the question of autonomy.

The unsettled ethnic issue and the possibility of major conflict involving the ethnic armed groups will throw the country back to the days of civil war. Such likelihood cannot be ignored in the backdrop of the ethnic groups' determination not to change their position and that they have been preparing for any military offensive.

In such a scenario, the political divide inside the country will make certain the split on Myanmar among the international community as has been the situation for years. With some of the opposition parties planning to reject the elections results and the ethnic offensive that started a day after the elections, the political divide is not going away soon in Myanmar.

The other scenario, which looked more certain just before the elections (but appears less sure post-elections) is, what many had hoped, the country's political transition, however flawed it may be, would make a more or less smooth transition and the coming of a new "quasi-civilian" government that would make small openings which could be effected for reforms ? both political and economic. This scenario is possible but on the condition that the current conflict with the ethnic armed group does not spread to other areas involving other major ethnic armed groups. If conflict spreads, the hope that Myanmar will move gradually towards stability and reforms will grow thinner. A major challenge for the new government would be on how it effectively deals with the ethnic issue in finding a resolution without creating any major turmoil.

Myanmar's elections have done little to change the country's image among the international community. Despite the flawed elections, the regional powers including China, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping have supported Myanmar with the hope that the elections will form the first step towards political reforms. ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, has welcomed the Myanmar elections. This is known given the fact the ASEAN?s policy has been to push Myanmar through persuasion unlike the western countries that have taken a harsh policy towards Myanmar including isolation and sanctions.

The US has condemned the Myanmar elections and continues to impose sanctions on the junta. The European Union (EU) also maintains its policy of sanctions and the election did not seem to have sent any sign for the US and the EU to change their policies towards Myanmar if initial reactions are any indication. The UN has long tried to push for reforms in Myanmar. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called on the junta to make the elections a new beginning towards democracy.

This is a challenge for the new government that comes to power in Myanmar. The task to set a path towards this goal will provide long-term peace and stability inside Myanmar and win the international community's support. However, this is easier said than done. While there is a window of opportunity, opened through the elections, the challenges that confront the new government are tricky and any miscalculations could make the country look even more uncertain.

(K Yhome is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: Tehelka magazine
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