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International Crisis Group: The Myanmar Elections

May 27, 2010

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Ahead of the approaching Myanmar elections, this International Crisis Group briefing updates recent developments in Myanmar, examines the critical impact of ethnic conflict, and concludes that renewed fighting in areas where ceasefires currently hold should be of concern but remains on balance unlikely.

Myanmar will shortly hold its first elections in twenty years. Given the restrictive provisions of the 2010 Political Parties Registration Law that bar anyone serving a prison term from membership in a political party, many imprisoned dissidents will be excluded from the process, unless they are released in the near future. Aung San Suu Kyi – whose suspended sentence and house arrest possibly exclude her also – has condemned the legislation, and her National League for Democracy (NLD) has decided not to participate and has, therefore, lost its status as a legally-registered party. There has rightly been much international criticism of the new constitution and of the fact that the elections will not be inclusive, but the political and generational shift that they will bring about may represent the best opportunity in a generation to influence the future direction of the country.

The balloting will take place in the framework of the new constitution, adopted under highly questionable circumstances in 2008. That document, which will come into force following the elections, will entrench the military’s power. It gives the institution significant autonomy, as well as considerable political influence, by reserving a quarter of the seats in national and regional legislatures for it and creating a powerful new national defence and security council controlled by the commander-in-chief, who also receives control of key security ministries and other extraordinary powers.

It seems very likely that the vote will go ahead without any moves by the regime to address concerns. At the same time, the problematic nature of the process should not lead observers to underestimate its significance. The elections and the constitution they will bring into force will define the political landscape for years to come and will influence what opportunities there are to push for long-overdue social, economic and political reforms in Myanmar. An understanding of the political dynamics they will create is, therefore, vital.

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