Burma needs more than just democracy

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Jamie Parker MP, Member for Balmain, writes from Yangon, Burma. Published November 8, 2015

As the sun rises today across Burma, hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns walk in single file, the eldest in the lead, carrying their alms bowls to receive food from lay-people. 

This daily practice connects people with the most powerful civil movement in the country. Monks played a key role in the national uprisings in 1988 that set the scene for the last general election in Burma 25 years ago.

Image: "I'm so proud to have voted" says this Yangon local. Photo: Jamie Parker

[this post has been updated to refer to Burma (rather than Myanmar)]

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The military failed to recognise the historic win by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi. 

A repressive crackdown followed, which filled jails with political prisoners, and "The Lady" was placed under house arrest for the next 15 years. 

Politics was deadlocked between the NLD and the military, with many ethnic groups maintaining armed opposition. A political stalemate ensued for over two decades. 

In 2011, after years of international sanctions and economic stagnation, the impasse was broken when Aung San Suu Kyi was released and successfully contested the 2012  byelections. The quasi-civilian government also committed to this year's November 8 election as part of its road map to "democracy".

Tensions are running high, with observers such a Human Rights Watch  already declaring the election "fundamentally flawed" and the NLD lodging more than 100 claims of election irregularities.

Despite the military drafted constitution reserving 25 per cent of the seats for the military, it's likely the NLD will emerge as the largest party in the 664-seat parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been keen to highlight that any future government should focus on "national reconciliation". At her final conference before the polls she said: "Even if we win 100 per cent, we would like to make a government of national reconciliation in order to set a good precedent for our country. It shouldn't be a zero-sum game where winner takes all and loser loses everything,"

Yet there is a real risk the country could descend into interreligious and racial conflict after the election. The current constitution allows for the military to declare a state of emergency at the slightest threat to "national unity".

These conflicts are not entirely manufactured but tap into economic insecurity, as well as deep-seated cultural and historical rivalries.

With a population of more than 50 million and vast reserves of natural wealth, Burma is one of the poorest countries in the region. Its people have endured repression, economic mismanagement and ethnic strife for decades. 

The elections are a critical step forward but the real challenge for Burma isn't just this poll but about the urgent need for pluralism. 

Buddhist nationalism is at an all-time high with the military-aligned political party, the USDP, both stoking and exploiting divisions.

While the NLD has stood against proposed anti-Muslim laws, it is not fielding a single Muslim candidate, and Aung San Suu Kyi's muted response to the plight of the Muslim minority Rohingya people doesn't seem accidental.

The ultra-nationalist 969 Buddhist movement has flourished under the military's control of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Sangha), which oversees Buddhist clergy. 

After the 2007 uprising of monks against military rule, the democratic characteristics of the Sangha were dismantled, with the military government exerting direct control over the organisation.

Monks are a revered institution in Burma and have historically played a key role in social change with a powerful network of over 45,000 registered monasteries and up to 400,000 monks. 

Monks have also played an important role reducing religious tensions and promoting pluralism most notably in the township of Kawthoung in the southern state of Taninthayi, where widespread violence was avoided.


In Yangon, monk Shwenyawa Sayadaw, a recent visitor to Australia, was outspoken against the 2013 anti Muslim riots. His criticisms of the Sangha led to his forcible expulsion from his monastery, highlighting the authoritarian and partisan make-up of the current Sangha.

A truly diverse and independent Sangha is a critical step towards a stable and unified Burma. 

The new parliament must end government controlled appointments and allow religious groups to elect their own leaders and engage freely in "non-religious" affairs. 

There is also an opportunity to broaden the ethnic and regional membership of the Sangha to better represent the breadth and depth of the Buddhist clergy.

A legitimate Sangha will have the moral authority and nationwide presence to promote inclusion and calm tensions. 

Without reforms to the Sangha and a focus on pluralism, the ushering in of democracy may not be enough to secure a peaceful future for the people of Myanmar.

Jamie Parker is the Greens member for Balmain in the NSW Parliament. He is a founding member of the Australian Coalition for Democracy in Burma and is in Burma as an unofficial election monitor.


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