Sunday, September 27, 2015

Are elections enough to bring about a true democracy?

Francis with San Suu Kyi in the Vatican on 28 October 2013

On 8 November, Myanmar is due to hold a general election. Cardinal Charles Bo raises questions regarding key issues such as human rights, economic inequalities and social and religious discrimination


Everyone agrees that it will be a decisive step in the country’s history: the general election in Myanmar, which have just been announced for November 8th, will be the first since the country moved from military dictatorship to civil government in March 2011. 

This coming autumn’s election represents an important step along the country’s journey towards democracy and could definitively do away with the “generals in civilian clothes” who, as capable transformists, have stayed in power until now.

There are a total of 1,100 seats that need to be filled, including those of the two-chamber National Parliament and those of the provincial assemblies. The new Parliament will have the task of electing the President of the nation. 

There are two main contending parties: the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which is currently in power and full of former members of the military and the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. The two parties are the same ones that came head to head in the last democratic elections the country held in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi won with an overwhelming majority but the military junta nullified the election result.

The Catholic Church shares in the view that this is a “historic moment” for the Burmese people. In a majority Buddhist country, there is a small approximately 500,000-strong community of Catholics who form 1% of Myanmar’s population.

The Church asks one fundamental question: are elections sufficient in defining a democracy and determining how democratic a country is? It answers by highlighting how essential the following principles are amongst others: human rights, religious freedom, inter-denominational harmony, respect and peaceful co-existence with ethnic minorities, equal opportunities and fighting against poverty and economic and social inequalities.

On behalf of the Catholic Church, Burmese cardinal Charles Maung Bo, esteemed Archbishop of Yangon and an influential public figure who speaks frankly, raised doubts and offered hints for collective reflection and the common good of the country.

In a shrewd analysis of the situation, Bo mentioned “seven swords that pierce the nation’s heart”: a nepotistic capitalism, where a few families possess most of the wealth; a refusal to resolve conflicts through dialogue, opting for violence instead; unfair laws that continue to deprive farmers of their land; a criminal economy of drugs and human trafficking; discrimination against ethnic minorities; the destruction of natural resources and scarce educational and occupational opportunities for the poor.

With this in mind, the cardinal sent out a heartfelt appeal to political leaders, inviting them to be “good parents to the whole nation”. “In accordance with our traditions, as ‘parents of the people’, our political leaders have the right and duty to promote the wellbeing of everyone,” he said in a message published by Vatican news agency Fides.

The Archbishop of Yangon recalled the expectations of the Burmese people, with 50 years of dictatorship at an end and a democratic transition in full swing. Bo pointed to the hair-raising figures of the latest census: 40% of the Burmese population lives under the poverty line and in some states, such as Chin and Rakine, poverty levels reach 70%. And poverty generates the migration phenomenon: there are over 200,000 displaced people within the country and thousands more Burmese refugees in neighbouring countries.

The cardinal clearly stated that “political leaders did not fulfil our expectations: they have become the guardians of a nepotistic capitalism in an economy that is purely motivated by profit,” putting the interests of the √©lites above all else.

Another sore spot: leaders have been unable to control widespread acts of hatred and intolerance committed by extremist religious groups, for example, the violent “ethnic cleansing” campaign promoted by the nationalist Buddhist fringe against Rohingya Muslims. The conflict with ethnic minorities - given the nation’s mosaic of ethnicities - is another key question that has led to the hypothesis of a federal state being considered as a solution.

Bo raised some serious questions: “Will political leaders manage to avoid discriminating against citizens on the basis of ethnicity or religion? Will they be able to accept equality and build a united nation?”

Principles such as respect for the human rights of everyone, unity and equality are at the root of democracy. This is the message that the Church is trying to get across ahead of an electoral competition that could mark the start of a new era in Myanmar.