Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why Myanmar elections are important to Thailand

BANGKOK: — THE NOVEMBER 8 election is not only important for Myanmar but also for Thailand, as political changes in this neighbouring country have always had an impact on this part of the region.

This election is important and crucial because this is the first time in 25 years that Myanmar’s two major rival political parties – the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) – will contest against each other.

Electoral competition is good because it will give Myanmar people a choice when it comes to votes, unless history repeats itself and the NLD and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi are once again not handed power if they win.

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Suu Kyi was not handed power in 1990 despite winning by a landslide, a move that is seen as a repercussion of the 1988 crackdown on an uprising, that eventually brought on economic difficulties and forced millions of people to leave and seek better lives overseas. Unfortunately though, most of these asylum seekers ended up in Thailand’s refugee camps as well as factories, construction sites, fishing trawlers and other places in the Kingdom.

The 2010 election, which the NLD was prohibited from, put President Thein Sein in power and made the military-backed USDP the ruling party. Thein Sein, however, has introduced many reforms and worked on developing the political system by allowing the NLD to participate in the 2012 by-election. Now, the much-loved Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has some space in the field of politics and is able to play a role. Myanmar is also relaxing some of its laws, and many dissidents are able to return home.

However, Thein Sein has either intentionally or unintentionally not completed his reform task and might just be leaving behind a lot of time bombs to explode after the polls. Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution still prohibits people who are married to a foreigner, like Suu Kyi, to lead the country, and the military will still maintain a 25-per-cent quota in parliament.

So, what happens if the NLD wins, but the USDP insists on allying with the military and other minor parties to form the government? There is a high possibility that the NLD will defeat the USDP, but it will still have less than half the total seats in parliament required to form a government – though the two sides may come up with a deal to solve this problem.

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Then there’s the peace process. Thein Sein still hasn’t completed that job, as only eight out of the initially announced 15 armed ethnic groups agreed to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement on October 15. This means armed conflict is still continuing in many areas, notably along the border with Thailand.

People in war-torn areas will have little or no chance to cast their ballots on November 8 due to security issues. It is still unclear when the remaining groups will agree to a truce so people in conflict-ridden areas have a chance to participate in politics.

Peace in Myanmar is really important for Thailand, as hundreds of thousands of people have been waiting in border camps for more than two decades. Previous Thai governments had sent many signals to Nay Pyi Taw, seeking to settle the problem with refugees, but there has been no sign of readiness.

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Unless the new election brings political stability and peace to Myanmar, the ethnic groups will keep fighting, and people will keep leaving to seek asylum elsewhere. The Myanmar-Thai borders will never be clear and safe, while economic development, special economic zone, Asean connectivity and many other projects between the two countries will never become a reality.