Myanmar's development progress at stake as historic polls conclude

Voters head to a polling station during the 2015 general elections in Myanmar. The country held its first democratic elections in almost two and a half decades on Nov. 8. Photo by: / CC BY

Myanmar looks set for a historic moment as the Southeast Asian nation concludes its first democratic elections in almost two and a half decades — considered by many as a vital component in the country’s bid to achieve genuine democracy and sustainable development.

While official results are yet to be announced by the country’s Union Election Commission later today, early reports suggest a landslide victory for the opposition’s National League for Democracy led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Some members of the incumbent group’s Union Solidarity and Development Party have also reportedly conceded defeats in their own districts.

Erin Murphy, founder of Inle Advisory Group, told Devex that while the election is an important milestone in Myanmar’s development and political trajectory, it represents only an “initial step in a long process” of true change that could take months — or even years — to bear fruit.

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“Myanmar has come a long way in four years, and how the election goes will be the most visible sign of progress, or a sign that little has changed,” Murphy said. “The day is a test, but the following five months will be critical … we will truly begin to see where Myanmar’s political trajectory is heading late next year.”

The country’s election commission reported high voter turnout, with over 70 percent of registered voters casting their ballots in some 47,000 polling stations. But some local and international observers and stakeholders have cast doubts on whether these elections can really be considered free, fair and inclusive.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that while the lead up to the elections has been an encouraging signal for Myanmar’s transition to genuine democracy, he reiterated that the polls were “far from perfect.” Human Rights Watch further described the country’s polls as “fundamentally flawed,” due to several issues including military intervention in the polls and rights discrimination against certain ethnic groups.

This is echoed by local civil society leaders, some of whom fear that the elections may become an empty charade of democratic processes if concrete changes to sustain the country’s appetite for positive change are not also adopted.

“The first thing to remember is that the military still has control,” Khin Ohmar, coordinator of democracy and human rights group Burma Partnership, told Devex. The constitution, she said, ratified “through a deeply flawed and fraudulent referendum” in 2008, allocates 25 percent of seats in both houses of parliament to military personnel, gives the ruling party a constitutional veto that renders any “efforts to make substantive [constitutional] changes” moot.

Development priorities

So what are the development issues that election winners should focus on to sustain the development momentum of Southeast Asia’s “donor darling”?

“The new government must address the drastic inequality between the center and the periphery,” Ohmar said, explaining that this should not only focus on the gap between rich and poor, but more importantly, the discrimination that minority groups like the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people face in terms of human rights.

Despite the issue gaining international attention due to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, in addition to reports that some minorities were barred from running and participating in the polls, former and current government officials have taken a firm stance on the issue. Nyunt Maung Shein, chairman of the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said these issues are based on a series of misconceptions.

“Those [who] have citizenship are eligible to vote and stand for elections,” Shein, who also served as the country’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva until 2008, told Devex, but he clarified that government policy stipulates that Rohingya people are deemed “illegal immigrants,” thus depriving them of their right to participate in electoral processes.

Burma Partnership’s Ohmar added that while sentiments have been very polarizing despite a joint — if not disjointed — cease-fire agreement between ethnic groups some months ago, a decentralization of power could prove to be a sustainable and inclusive solution.

“By devolving power, there is greater transparency and accountability,” said Ohmar. “Local leaders elected by local people will be able to take responsibility for development, and ideally, will be sensitive to the needs and aspirations of local communities.”

In the past year alone, organizations including Médecins Sans Frontières and the United Nations were forced to flee violence in the country, particularly among Rohingya communities. Failure to address the issue could, ultimately, negatively affect the country’s relationships with donors and stakeholders.

Inle Advisory Group’s Murphy shared that this “deep-seated issue of intolerance, akin to racism” will take a long time to address. “Donor agencies will have to be very aware of how their work will be perceived, so that they can continue to serve these populations and maintain presence in the country.”

Other development priorities that should be on the agenda of the new government, according to experts approached by Devex, include the need for continuity of reforms to achieve middle income status by 2030, more robust infrastructure, improved disaster mitigation and management efforts, and human rights and inclusion measures, among others.

Looking ahead

As Myanmar enters an era of transition and change, what will the future of development cooperation look like?

“Donor coordination is a must — there are too many issues to tackle and to have donors all run to the ‘shiny object’ or engage in separate efforts on the same issue,” Murphy said.

Ohmar suggested that there should be recognition and understanding of the needs and strengths of local communities for sustainability, while also avoiding risk of the aid manipulation allegedly exercised by the central government.

There should also be an attempt from the government and donors to communicate and learn from each other, said Murphy, including capacity building so that development programs could become more effective and efficient. The Inle Advisory Group founder shared that development is about “working together and designing programs that work.”

“[It is] also informing communities about what the donor does, how it does it, why it does it, and why they think their projects work for a particular community,” Murphy concluded. “It’s a learning curve on both sides.”

What should the winners of the Myanmar elections prioritize to sustain the country's development momentum? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.