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Myanmar’s Election Dreams

The much awaited elections in Myanmar, the largest in the country’s history, are just round the corner, and the whole world, not just the country’s 51 million, await its outcome. Expectations and hopes run high, combined with uncertain apprehension about this historic political event. The multifaceted race for seats involves 93 political parties and 6189 candidates in 1171 constituencies in regional and national parliament. A nationwide ballot taking place for the first time in 25 years, after 1990, this election is far more significant since the pace of change, and the future course of the country, will depend on its outcome. The newspapers and the media are full of news, party alliances, election agenda and contestant speeches. Seldom has an election caught so much international attention amidst fears about transparency, fairness and the outcomes.

Myanmar has been at the crossroads of change even since the quasi-civilian government took over, ending decades of military rule. There has been more hype along with change and reform, as foreign investments began to pour in and international interest that has been cautiously rising. The government’s reform initiatives have been applauded and the ‘managed transition to democracy’ should bear better fruit than the failed attempts towards a natural democratic transition seen in other countries, some of which now struggle with crippling instability. The election is one step forward, in the democratic process, with the mandate given to the new government sufficient to change laws and put the country on the fast track of growth and development.

The country offers developed economies a vast market, and investments have been pouring in for development of infrastructure and industry. However, much of 2015 has seen a cautious waiting approach, and new projects kept in abeyance largely due to the uncertainty linked to the elections, their outcome, the policies adopted subsequently and perhaps skepticism about the pace of reform in the new political power structure.

Public Expectations

The elections are expected to have a direct impact on the common man in the country, its international image and its relations with other countries, many of which have already invested huge sums in Myanmar’s development.

Talking to the locals reveals excitement and apprehension, and though 93 political parties are contesting the elections, nearly all those spoken to, felt the competition is between Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling USDP, perhaps because these are the only two parties that are contesting parliamentary seats nationwide. There are 59 political parties linked to ethnic minority and religious groups and one all-women’s party in Mon State, but their reach and popularity confined to their local area of operation. Concerns are mainly for a free and transparent election process, and that the next government is formed by a party that can promise and work towards peace, democracy and economic reform that will benefit the common man.

But what does the election mean for the small farmer or the masses who form the backbone of the country? There is widespread poverty, and Myanmar is one of the very few countries whose urban poor are worse off than their rural counterparts. For them and their limited world view, it’s the small things that count, an opportunity to improve their earning capability, better access to education for their children, a better infrastructure, greater comfort in living conditions, availability of goods and services, and some protection from disruption of normal life due to natural disasters. Their small world is oblivious to the macroeconomic issues being discussed as part of party manifestos, and all that they seek is a chance to live a better life.

For the common man GDP growth rates, development, international awards, tourism etc are commonly heard terms that do not translate into a better life for them. Growth that leads to inflation, making their basic necessities unaffordable, is meaningless. Already, many talk of the days of military rule when they had enough to eat and did not face hunger.

Perhaps, the following would fit into every common man’s election dreams:

• Free and fair elections – Of all the election related news, this is the biggest concern locally and internationally. There is widespread concern over the political processes ending up favoring the current government. All that people want is a chance to vote freely, using their own judgment about who should lead the next government and their country. There should be no pressure to vote for specific candidates and parties, coercion or threats. The Chief of the Election Commission, U Tin Aye has promised free and fair elections. The onus is on the Commission to conduct the elections impartially without taking sides and ensure the safety of voters, prevent rigging and carry out proper counting of votes.

A big concern is that for a large number of people ‘democracy’ is a new term, alien and unfamiliar. They do not understand it, and certainly not their role in the democratic process, where their vote is important and its impact on the winner of the elections. The process of change is slow, and with rules being changed, fairness in an election process could make a huge difference in boosting public confidence, and prevent boycott of elections and bring a healthy opposition to Parliament.

• Protect and promote the lives of those living in poverty, providing opportunities for employment and income channels – Political transitions are not smooth, and while larger, macroeconomic issues are being resolved, and regulations put in place, the poor need protection and a chance of moving out of their pitiable state, without money to meet their bare subsistence needs. New laws and regulations will take months to be implemented, and it will be years before their impact trickles down to the poorest. It is important that the winning party hits the ground running, and addressing the basic needs of the poor first, by setting up government bodies that can find ways to generate employment for them, which in turn, will yield income.

• Education – a big lacuna has been found in the education sector, which explains the absence of skilled labor desperately needed for the industrialization of the country. As of now, raw materials are exported and the foreign exchange earned is minimal, when compared to the earnings possible when value added exports take place. This necessitates the setting up of factories and industrial houses where skilled labor is a basic essential. An entire generation has lost out on education except for the elite who crossed borders to study and acquire skills. The education system needs to be revamped to ensure that every child is sent to school. As of now, only 30% of all children attend primary school, with a high dropout rate for secondary school. Finding qualified teachers, investing in their training will help thousands of young learners. Who can consider coming out of their local cocoon and join the global workforce, and get a chance to live a better life. Improving the resources available for education, drawing up a new curriculum at all levels to meet international standards, is urgently required.

• Health services – The state of health care, availability of medicines and finding capable and qualified doctors, are all wishful dreams in Myanmar. Government hospitals are overcrowded and unable to cope, given the limited resources available. Private hospitals are exorbitant and beyond the reach of the common man. Dependence on international health organizations is high but the country needs to invest huge sums in building hospitals and training doctors to ensure better health for the masses.

• Infrastructure and facilities – the common man in Myanmar has learnt to survive without basic necessities which are taken for granted in most other countries. Most villages are plunged in darkness with rural electrification standing at 16%, compared to 75% in urban areas. Access to water is from wells and pumps, and few have the luxury of water taps in homes. Road networks, railways and bridges need to be expanded to improve connectivity, as much as a transport and communication network. Sanitation facilities in rural areas will help disease prevention and improve hygiene standards of living. This would be a dream come true for the common Myanmar folk.

• Peace – Myanmar is located in a relatively peaceful part of South East Asia, uninvolved in regional conflicts. Yet, within its borders ethnic conflicts have been disrupting the peace, even though its masses follow the peace inspiring religion of Buddhism. Inability to resolve these conflicts among ethnic groups tarnish the image of the country, but even more so, affect day–to-day security of the common man, especially those in the conflict-prone areas. The election must help in bringing to power, a political party that can persuade the armed ethnic groups to follow the peace process and find ways to resolve their concerns about their rights, shared resources and equality. Its 135 national races, each with its own distinct characteristics need to be part of a process of amicable national reconsolidation so that peace prevails within the country’s borders. Peace is imperative for the country trying to build the right climate for investment. The road ahead for Myanmar is long and winding, an end goal in sight, but the path is yet unclear. Political experts feel that the poll is not going to resolve much, but only set forth a phase of uncertainty as new alliances are forged and a path of compromise sought. According to leading political analysts, the process of transition will continue, reforms will not stall and international involvement and investments will proceed as before, after the elections, continuing from where they had left off, a few months before the elections. For the present, one can only hope, that the election leads to economic and political stability, and communal harmony ensues, to end violence and marginalization as the country progresses on the path of development.