Interview with PRI’s The World on the ‘Luk Thep’ (Child Angel) phenomena in Thailand
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First published in Mashable April 19, 2016
Mananya Boonmi scrolls through the thousands of photos on her phone with the mile-wide smile of a proud mother. Every now and again she stops scrolling to show off a photo with one of her “children.”
“This was when he was 4,” she says as she hands over a picture of her holding Nong Pet (Diamond). “I’ve put a new body on him since then.” Motionless in her lap, Nong Pet sits bejeweled in a fine white dress, Boonmi happily caressing his arms.
Nong Pet is 5 years old, 2 feet tall and a ‘Luk Thep’ — literally, Child Angel — doll. He’s also just one doll of thousands in the latest Thai craze that recently enraptured, and then exasperated, large swathes of Thai people.
Believed to bring about good luck if pampered by their doting owners, the popularity in Luk Thep dolls seemingly reached its zenith in January. Stories abounded of airlines offering seats, and restaurants offering menus, specifically for the dolls. The oddity of seeing men and women carrying lifelike dolls soon caught the eye of the wider Thai community.
The ensuing media frenzy attracted a backlash of ridicule and warnings from people and government alike. In response, much of the Luk Thep community retreated away from the unforgiving public eye and closed ranks around others like themselves, many of whom are linked in some way to Mananya Boonmi.
The peak of the luk thep craze blanketed local newspapers in January 2016.
Boonmi, whom everyone simply calls Mama Ning, considers herself one of the earliest adopters of Luk Thep dolls.
She bought her first, Nong Ploy, 14 years ago at a nearby market for just 350 baht ($10). She explained that around five years ago while selling souvenirs and trinkets, she “sensed” Nong Ploy offering to help. Shocked by the experience, she stopped treating Ploy like a simple doll and instead like a real child, holding conversations, sharing food and buying new clothing. Shortly thereafter, her business boomed.
Since then, Mama Ning has grown and developed to the point where she has now created scores if not hundreds of her own Luk Thep, which she passes on to others in search of happiness, good fortune or stability.
Today they can fetch anywhere from 1,500 baht ($42) to tens of thousands of baht. “Look at those eyes, they cost 1,500 baht alone.” She says as she gestures to the hypnotic, preternatural features of one of her dolls. “From America.”
While Mama Ning’s setup sounds like a simple private business, money is the last thing on her mind when it comes to her Luk Thep.
“If I wanted, I could sell [them] on Facebook without any questions or any problems and become very rich.” Instead, she explains, she insists on meeting up with prospective “parents” to judge which Luk Thep is most suited to them and whether they are even worthy.
Around her house, dozens of Luk Thep dolls sit pristinely dressed along her sofas. While they are the most obviously striking adornments in her house, Mama Ning’s bright pink home exhibits much of what makes Thailand’s religious situation hard to pin down.
Ostensibly a majority Buddhist country, many of the rituals practiced, and trinkets owned, by Thailand’s Buddhist community have roots in Taoism, Hinduism and Animism. No hard and fast lines can be drawn between them, and superstitions and spirits are a major part of everyday life.
Above her front door dangles the 8-sided ‘Bagua’ mirror of Taoist cosmology. In one corner of her garden sit two lavish spirit houses common around homes and businesses alike in Thailand but with roots in Animism and Hinduism. Amulets, another religious fusion and also hugely popular in Thailand, adorn both herself and a number of her prized Luk Thep dolls.
A few days later we are invited to observe her annual ‘Wai Khru’ ceremony, a well-established tradition in Thailand whereby students can pay respect and show gratitude to their teachers. Wai Khru is typically a staple in the martial or performing arts, but on this day, the teacher is Mama Ning and the subject matter is Luk Thep.
Starting in the early morning, an outwardly Hindu affair stretches on under a blazing sun. In the morning, amber-robed Buddhist Monks pass into the building and briefly hold prayers for Mama Ning, her home and her students.
Once downstairs, Mama Ning is transformed, wearing a glorious salwar kameez and apparently possessed by Parvati — the Hindu goddess of fertility, love and devotion. About 40 students have arrived, all with at least one Luk Thep in hand.
Pita, a 41 year-old relative newcomer to Luk Thep, watches the service from the shade of an awning along with her Luk Thep, Natalie. For Pita, the idea of owning a Luk Thep was never in doubt.
“I’ve wanted one for a long time and finally adopted Natalie in December,” she said.
Reasons for why people come to invest in a Luk Thep range from the economic to the social. Some, like Pita, say it helps to fill some void — she has a son but “has always wanted a daughter.”
Others, like 33 year-old Gade, say “some people think I’ve lost a child and my Luk Thep is a replacement, but it is simply not true.” Moreover, she adds with a tone of unequivocal sincerity, it was “not for good luck or anything like that, just to increase my family’s happiness.”
Gade holds Yuri, her family’s luk thep, while her father Karun holds her hand.
As proof, she points to her father, Karun, who sits quietly beside his daughter and speaks softly every now and again to his “granddaughter” Yuri.
“I used to drink and argue with my wife a lot,” Karun says. “But Yuri makes me feel happy. Since she has [entered my life], I’ve found she helps me deal with any issues I have.”
He remarks on Yuri’s love of the outdoors, which also forces him to leave the house more. “She loves to go to the temple and that’s great for me, for karma, and for merit.”
Gade nods respectfully as her father speaks.
“Some people think, ‘oh you should look after your real family before a Luk Thep,’ but I think you will find that those with Luk Thep treat their families far better.”
First published in Vice News February 6, 2016
Bangkok has a serious student violence problem.
In Thai media, barely a week passes without some mention of bloody brawls between students from the city’s numerous vocational colleges. In 2015, more than 1,000 cases were reported in Bangkok by mid-year, many of them resulting in serious injury and even death.
As the violence has intensified, the issue is now considered a significant public health issue.
Late last month, just a week ahead of the 83rd anniversary of the founding of Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok Uthentawai (simply known as Uthentawai), Bangkok’s metropolitan police preemptively raided its campus and that of the school’s archrival, the Pathumwan Institute of Technology, located a short walk away. The bust produced two handguns and ammunition, 55 knives, six bulletproof vests, and materials for making nail bombs.
On Monday, the day of the anniversary, an incongruously heavy security presence at Uthentawai testified to this darker side of Thailand’s vocational and technical education system. Police officers and military personnel milled about, sniffer dogs patrolled the periphery, and two explosive ordnance disposal technicians stood by the front gate, which was ringed by metal detectors.
Online videos show students from a number of different colleges either ambushing or facing off with one another. They are usually armed with blunt weapons like clubs, but can also have knives and guns. A common setting is along public transportation routes, where students from opposing colleges are most likely to run into one another.
Students have been killed in drive-by assassinations, shot in cold blood on train stations, as well as routinely beaten and chased through the streets of Bangkok. While such a level of violence might seem crazy to outsiders, for those involved, rational thought plays little part in how rival students view one another.
“For me, it was never a question,” explained a former Uthentawai student who left school nine years ago, who asked to be identified as “Gan.”
“If I see someone from Pathumwan, we must fight. And they feel the same towards me.”
Just how the vocational interschool animosity originally started remains a mystery to students and researchers alike.
Nualnong Wongtongkam, a Thai lecturer and researcher in public health at Charles Sturt University, led a team that interviewed 32 students who had been involved in clashes in order to quantify their motivations. Though vengeance figured prominently, it was rarely clear what the students were trying to avenge.
“They don’t know why they have to engage in fighting with other schools,” said Nualnong. “When I ask them why they do it, considering they know there is a good chance they will be injured or maybe even killed, they say, ‘I know that, but if I don’t fight they will chase me anyway, so better to stand and fight.’ ”
Gan recalled his initiation into Uthentawai in 2005.
“This started on day one for me,” he said. “The seniors teach you how to carry a gun, how to conceal a knife from the police, how to love your brothers and how to hate your rivals — especially for us, Pathumwan.”
Once the student is within the fold, he’s among peers whose philosophy is to do almost anything for each other.
“If someone cannot afford tuition, we will all give a little money to help him pay,” Gan offered as an example. “Of course we would also help to pay [bail] if one of our class enforcers is arrested for doing a hit.”
In this culture, it doesn’t take long for the students to build a strong sense of brotherhood. Nualnong thinks this sense of belonging and self-worth is crucial to understanding why vocational and technical colleges have for so long been plagued with hyper-masculine reactive violence.
The perception of vocational colleges in Thailand has long been held as far inferior to that of established universities. The result, she says, is that some students themselves feel inferior and form a strong bond with their classmates, with whom they can readily identify. The resulting insularity is exacerbated by the fact only an estimated 10 percent of vocational and technical college students are female.
But this school spirit in the Bangkok vocational student scene can have an almost tribal effect, with an unquestioning adoption of animosity against rival institutions. This led Gan to regularly change his route when returning home from college, often taking multiple buses even though a direct option was available.
“They [Pathumwan] will watch you for your routes, to know where you live and how you travel after class in case they want to attack,” he said, adding simply, “We would do the same to them.”
An art graduate of Silpakorn University who asked to be identified as “Por” recalled experiencing this menace years ago.
He was having a late lunch after class at a spot near Victory Monument, one of Bangkok’s busiest traffic intersections and a major public transportation hub, when he was kicked to the floor from behind. A student from Indara Construction School placed a gun on the table, asking, “Do you want to eat your food, or my bullet?”
“I didn’t know him,” Por remarked with a shake of the head. “But it turned out someone from my school put some graffiti on something of theirs. He saw my uniform and so he picked on me.”
Nualnong’s research has emphasized that the wearing of distinctive uniforms in this hostile atmosphere, as vocational students are required to do, precipitates what would otherwise be easily avoidable fights, particularly on public transport. As a result, there’s a prevalence of anxiety among students traveling alone or in uniform.
Several measures have been considered in an attempt to address the bloodshed, from no longer accepting students with tattoos or piercings, to considering universalizing uniforms or abolishing them altogether, sending rival students to army-run boot camps — even introducing a free student auto repair service, launched by police last month, to occupy their time and keep them out of trouble. But no formal studies have assessed the effectiveness of such provisions.
This should soon change, as the increasing severity of attacks forces officials to respond to the issue more thoroughly and preemptively, beyond the conducting of police raids for weapons. Innocent bystanders and commuters find themselves caught in the fray and risking injury, and the belligerence can also target teachers. “It takes courage and determination to be in our shoes,” remarked a hairstylist instructor at Samut Prakan Vocational College not long ago.
“Now anyone on the streets can be injured from their fighting,” said Nualnong. “It’s not just the students anymore.”
First published in Newsweek 12 December, 2015
More than a week after Myanmar went to the polls in a historic general election in early November, ballots were still trickling in from the Himalayan foothills in the country’s northern Kachin state—areas so secluded the trip could be made only by foot.
The fact these votes were cast and counted was a sign of progress in Myanmar, but it does not mean that all is well in parts of the country that have endured warlike conditions for much of the last six decades. Fierce fighting between the country’s military and an array of ethnic armed groups, determined to retain arms, territory and a degree of autonomy, has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced and disenfranchised. (These conflicts are one reason why Myanmar, also known as Burma, is among the largest sources of refugees to the United States.)
Living amidst the towering mountains of Myanmar’s eastern Shan State, Father Mario Mardu, a local Catholic priest who works near the border with China, has little patience for talk of elections and peace. “I don’t think the elections will change things here,” he said a few months before the poll. “The [outgoing] government will surely lose, so they will create a problem, one way or another.”
The resounding election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party surprised many observers. The NLD defeated not only the incumbent military-backed party but also parties that represent various ethnic minorities. Now those ethnic political groups worry they will have little say in future peace negotiations.
“Unless we end this civil war, there is no way to have a smooth and real democratization process,” says Dr Lian Sakhong, a leading member of the ethnic Chin National Front.
One month before the election, Myanmar authorities announced with much fanfare they had reached a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). But it was only a partial success. After nearly two years of discussions between the military-backed government and a coalition of ethnic armed organizations, just eight of more than two dozen active groups signed.
“Peace Starts Now” was the headline emblazoned across one state-backed newspaper, but skeptics point out the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is a misnomer. “I think it’s a symbolic victory at best, a PR stunt,” says David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch. “The fact that there are so many groups still in active conflict reveals the weakness in both the agreement and the signing itself.”
With so many groups involved, the acronyms alone can be confusing, let alone the politics. Among those that did sign was the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the oldest revolutionary groups in Myanmar. But among the holdouts were the powerful and influential Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
The U.N. estimates that in the past four years over 100,000 people have been internally displaced in the regions where those groups operate, adding to the hundreds of thousands before them who have fled across the borders to Thailand, Laos and China.
In 1994 the military government wrangled a bilateral ceasefire with the KIA. Composed of mainly ethnic Kachin, they had been fighting for decades against the military. Following the ceasefire, the KIA complained that the military was making creeping gains in the region, and in 2011 the government issued an ultimatum to KIA soldiers to assimilate with the national army, known as the Tatmadaw. The KIA refused and fighting resumed.
The violence in Kachin is not just about ethnic tensions. A recent Global Witness investigation examined the multibillion-dollar jade trade in Kachin state, saying it was “tightly controlled by the same military elites, U.S.-sanctioned drug lords and crony companies that the government says it is consigning to the past.” The report highlighted the role played by former military general and dictator Than Shwe, whose companies operate extensively in the region, making millions while next to nothing reaches the people of Kachin state.
“I am convinced that the Tatmadaw’s continuing attacks on Kachin state and northern Shan, where there are a lot of Kachin, has to do with the economic interests and protecting the interests of Than Shwe,” said Priscilla Clap, senior advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace and former charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002.
In northern Shan state, the United Wa State Army commands an estimated 20,000 troops. Having formed after the collapse of the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma, they are widely believed in Myanmar to be supplied and tacitly backed by interests across the border in Yunnan Province.
Shortly after the peace talks began, the United Wa State Army withdrew, instead forming a so-called Northern Alliance and wielding its influence to persuade several other groups to withdraw, according to Sakhong. “Their interests are linked, and everyone knows the Wa are the main provider of the arms and everything else, directly or indirectly for those groups,” he says.
The Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army both said they refused to sign the peace deal because of the exclusion of other small groups from negotiations.
The overarching problem is the lack of trust felt by the various ethnic minorities for the generals. As Father Mardu, the Catholic priest, put it: “The Tatmadaw say one thing and always do another thing.”
Sakhong’s answer to that: “The reason we signed was not because we trust them, but because we do not trust them.”
The new government, which takes office in March, will have a key role in pushing forward some kind of dialogue. “The NLD should ensure the ethnic political parties who lost in the election will have some political space by reaching out to them outside parliament politics,” said Sai Leik, spokesman for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, one of only two ethnic parties to enjoy moderate success in the election. “This way, democratic forces can counterbalance the Tatmadaw.”
Several groups excluded from the agreement have already voiced a willingness to engage with Suu Kyi’s government. The military will remain critical too, especially since they hold 25 percent of the seats in parliament under Myanmar’s constitution. Since the election, Suu Kyi has held private talks with several big players in the military, including former dictator Than Shwe, but details of their talks remain unknown.
“They’re going to have to work out some kind of modus vivendi and we have no idea yet what that’s going to be,” says Clap, of the U.S. Institute for Peace.
Sakhong hopes the issue will be part of backroom negotiations between the NLD and the outgoing military-backed government before March. “If we don’t give [the Tatmadaw and outgoing government] space and a way out so that they can withdraw themselves with dignity, there can be problems,” he said.
“If they do that well then [the ethnic armed groups] can work on this political dialogue with the NLD, the current government, the armed forces and the ethnic parties,” Sakhong said. “And if we are all working for peace, then I think the country has a bright future.”
First published Vice News, 13 November 2015
The Aung San Suu Kyi landslide in Myanmar is even bigger than forecast. As more results come in following historic general elections last Sunday, her National League for Democracy Party (NLD) has 80.5 percent of elected parliament seats, just two seats shy of the 329 needed to form a majority government, and is likely to get them since only 82 percent of the vote has been counted.
At the state and regional levels, the party led by the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner fared almost as well, winning more than 77 percent of seats announced thus far. But the challenges ahead for a triumphant NLD will be tough. The party will now have to adjust quickly and carefully from its long-held opposition to government – a position in which it will still have to deal with a military faction keen to protect its privilege after decades of ruling through a junta.
The incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military’s political proxy, is facing humiliating losses nationwide, mostly to NLD candidates. From commanding three quarters of the elected seats in the current parliament, it has just 10 percent now. The rout is so bad that, in one particularly surreal case, an NLD regional parliament candidate managed to defeat his USDP counterpart despite the severe disadvantage of having died two days before the vote.
But the country’s first openly contested nationwide poll in 25 years has been anything but a dead-man-winning sham. In fact, the world is congratulating Myanmar for pulling off a remarkably free and fair election, compared to Myanmar’s past.
“This was a hell of a step forward for the democratic process”
The European Union’s chief observer in the country, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, told reporters in Yangon that “the process went better than many of us expected beforehand.” Daniel Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was blunter: “This was a hell of a step forward for the democratic process,” he told reporters.
But, he added, “now comes the hard part.”
For the NLD members involved in negotiation talks with outgoing parliamentarians and the military, the euphoria of election success is quickly fading as the problems of a budding democracy take center stage, particularly over nominations for the next president.
“We can’t shout “Yeah, we win!” because then the loser may get angry and the situation could become a lot harder for us,” Kyi Pyar, 36, an NLD candidate who just won election to the regional parliament, said in her office in downtown Yangon. “I knew during the campaigning that we would win in this constituency. I’m now focused on what is next,” she said.
After decades in opposition, there are worries within the party that the public’s high expectations for an NLD government may lead to impatience when it comes to the capacity for quick and real change.
“I have heard some people say ‘OK, Daw Suu [Kyi] won. I will give [the NLD] one year to see what she can do.’ But our country has been destroyed over the past 50 years!” Kyi Pyar said.
The military that’s been in charge until now still has 25 percent of seats in parliament, an unelected quota mandated by the 2008 constitution drafted under the junta’s regime, and Kyi Pyar fears it may use that influence to “disrupt” the work of the incoming government.
“I think this collision of interests is going to shape the landscape after the election. And through that, the next five years,” David Mathieson, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Myanmar, said.
“We have to build bridges between the civilian [representatives] and the military,” Kyi Pyar said.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s first political move after the election has been a conciliatory one. On Wednesday, she published a call for “national reconciliation” talks with Myanmar’s army chief, the president and the parliamentary speaker.
“For the sake of the country’s dignity and the well-being of the people, it is paramount that their will, expressed through the November 8 general elections, be fulfilled in a stable, peaceful and correct way. With regards to this, I would like to request a meeting next week that is aimed at national reconciliation,” she wrote on the NLD’s Facebook page.
Shwe Mann, the parliamentary speaker and another high-profile loser in the elections, quickly responded on his Facebook page, saying he’d help facilitate that meeting. Later that day, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s Office released a statement congratulating Suu Kyi’s success in the polls and agreeing to “do what is best in cooperation with the new government during the post-election period.”
The Obama administration, which holds Myanmar’s opening up to democracy as a major diplomatic coup, wants a peaceful transfer of power. It hopes to have strong ties in the future with this resource-rich country of 53 million, with a booming economy and a growing appetite for imported goods.
In a statement after the election, US Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that a “credible” transition was now needed, hinting to reform of the 2008 constitution and the ongoing human rights violations, particularly towards the Rohingya Muslim minority by extremistBuddhist factions.
For newly-minted democratic lawmakers like Kyi Pyar, the next few months will be vital in picking the next president and cabinet, even though the next government will take office only in April next year.
“We have a lot of priorities,” she said. “This [next] government will have a lot of burdens and many are linked together. National reconciliation is important, but so is the next president, so is economic development, so is educational reform, so is reaching peace” in the country’s ongoing civil war.
With so many tricky issues, and despite her awareness of the delicate task of implementing reform while resolving civil-military mistrust, Suu Kyi has remained unequivocal when it comes to the topic of leadership and the next president: She may not reign, but she will rule. Barred from the presidency by the 2008 constitution, she has said before the election that she would be “above the president” in the new Myanmar.
Such rhetoric may prove inflammatory to the military, but Suu Kyi remains the symbol of the struggle against the dictatorship, and the international face of Myanmar, despite recent controversy over her refusal to get involved in the plight of the persecuted Rohingya Muslims. Whatever her role in the country’s new democracy will be, there’s no denying that her party’s stunning victory and the smooth running of the election have been a resounding success for the 70-year old Suu Kyi.
Leafing through a number of newspapers littering her office desk, Kyi Piar let herself smile as she held one with Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on the front page. “Maybe”, she said, “I’m just a pessimist.”
First published on Buzzfeed News, November 7
YANGON, Myanmar — Daw Kyi Pyar was just 9 years old, but she had followed her father to downtown Yangon, where tens of thousands of students, ochre-robed monks, doctors, street vendors, and others were gathered for a rally.
Not far away, 34-year-old Ko Ba Myo Thein, who worked as a clerk in the agriculture ministry, stood under the shade of the 2,500-year-old Sule Pagoda and shouted slogans against the very government that employed him.
It was August 1988, and those six-week-long protests later became known as the “8888 Uprisings,” the conclusion of which would mark the bloody end to a bloody dictatorship which had ruled the country for 26 years. A new military government would take over just as a new pro-democracy party was formed — the National League for Democracy (NLD) — headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had herself emerged from the uprising as an icon of democratic change in the country.
Kyi Pyar says she remembers the uprising. “I was just a primary school student, how much could I know about democracy and human rights?” she said. “But still, I supported my father and all the people around me in the rally.”
Nearly 27 years later, both Daw Kyi Pyar and Ko Ba Myo Thein now find themselves working side by side in a cramped office, still just a few blocks from Sule Pagoda, but in slightly different capacities — today they stand as NLD candidates in the historic general election that will take place on Sunday.
Nearly 25 years after the last freely contested multiparty elections, the weight of expectations for the Nov. 8 poll has brought international attention to Myanmar and a giddy energy to the small NLD office in downtown Yangon. On the floor, a group of young volunteers sit patiently, waiting to see how they can help. All around them the room is plastered with either the red and gold of the NLD flag or the smiling face of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“She inspired me in 1988 and she inspired me today,” says Ko Ba Myo.
Daw Kyi Pyar is running for a seat in the region’s local parliament, while Ko Ba Myo Thein looks to represent their constituency in the Burmese parliament’s Upper House. Both have strong chances of winning, but they recognize that historical precedence makes no guarantees for a peaceful transfer of power post-election.
Myanmar’s last “free” multi-party election was held in 1990, two years after 1988 uprisings. The results were overwhelming, with then newly formed NLD claiming 392 of the 492 seats. The fallout, however, was just as extreme, as the military government annulled the results, arrested hundreds, and sent thousands more underground.
Aung San Suu Kyi herself would spend 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest — and her peaceful, pro-democratic rhetoric earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Daw Kyi Pyar remembers that her father, an outspoken and well-recognized activist, was detained on several occasions. “But he was never imprisoned,” she said, hinting at multiple escapes from authorities. “Maybe because he was a very good runner.”
Ko Ba Myo Thein was less lucky. After the uprisings, he found himself becoming more politically active. While continuing his job as a clerk, he befriended a number of student activists, including NLD members. “I thought if I could help the activists from my position, then why not help them?” he said.
In October 1990, and like so many others, the military government discovered his activities and arrested him along with his new activist contacts. Four months later, he was sentenced to seven years in the notorious Insein prison, just north of Yangon.
Now 61, his almost sleepy demeanor and hushed voice belie his history as a political agitator. While in prison, he managed to create so much trouble that his sentencing was extended by another 12 years.
“When I was in prison, I knew I would be politically active,” he says. “I had a lot of time to think and read.”
Not long after his release in 2010, Ko Ba Myo Thein would see his country suddenly open itself to the world after decades under a policy of isolation.
An election that same year was boycotted by the NLD, which led to a quasi-civilian government under the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), mostly made up of old military hands now in civilian garb. But the new government began enacting hard reforms and liberalizing policies that caught the eyes of their regional neighbors and the wider international community.
The government granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, allowed some — though not many — journalistic freedoms, and laid the groundwork for the multi-party election that will take place on Sunday.
“This [constitution] is there to guarantee [the military’s] place in our political future”
More than 6,000 candidates from a staggering 92 political parties will be vying for seats in the next government, yet the focus still falls heavily on the two main parties: the military-backed incumbent, the USDP and the longstanding opposition, the NLD.
The sheer numbers involved in these elections have tested the capacity of the country’s Union Election Commission — there have been some chatters about foul play — but for many, the elections carry a promise for the first smooth transfer of power by the ballot box since 1960.
In October, Yanghee Lee, the special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, acknowledged the importance of the historic election, but also highlighted its shortcomings.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Lee urged the international community to support further reforms in Myanmar. In particular, Lee called attention to 760,000 people with temporary registration cards who were disenfranchised, most of them members of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority.
The disenfranchisement of the Rohingyas comes amid a rising wave of caustic Buddhist nationalism stoked by influential groups like Ma Ba Tha, which proposed and pushed “protection of race and religion laws” that the Amnesty International says are “grossly discriminatory,” particularly to the Rohingyas.
But for both Daw Kyi Pyar and Ko Ba Myo Thein, the most critical issues of the election will come immediately after the election.
“The incoming government would find itself in constant conflict with the military,” says Daw Kyi Pyar, who like many others expects a majority for the NLD. Kyi Pyar believes separating the old military figures from the new political arena will be the most important, and dangerous, hurdle for incoming government.
At the core of the issue is the 2008 constitution. The controversial document guarantees a quarter of the seats to the military, effectively giving unelected military figures a veto on any constitutional amendments, while also barring Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.
“This [constitution] is there to guarantee their place in our political future,” says Kyi Pyar. “It’s one of the reasons why I think [the military] are happy to hold these elections, because even if the NLD get a majority, they still have so much power.”
Yet like her idol, Aung San Suu Kyi, Daw Kyi Pyar says that to avoid any dramatic events after the election, conciliatory discussions have to take place between the civilian government and the military contingent, especially once the backroom political intrigue over the nominations for the president takes place.
“It will get very, very interesting those few months after we know the results,” Daw Kyi Pyar says. “Who knows what the military will do?”