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Myanmar’s General Election Will Put Its New Order to the Test

First published in Newsweek US, 20 October 2015 – print edition Oct 30

Kyaw Wanna Soe, a 40-something newspaper distributor in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, was twitching anxiously. While speaking, he wiped his brow and shifted in his chair. It was summer in Yangon, and that unholy union of heat and moisture was reaching a suffocating climax.

It was unclear whether his obvious discomfort was a result of the soaring temperatures or provoked by contemplation of his country’s immediate future. Asked what ambitions he harbored for Myanmar’s upcoming general elections, he meekly responded, “I just hope they happen without any problems.

“There are a lot of tensions right now,” he continued, pointing to front-page images of protesting students. “So if something goes wrong…” His voice trailed off while he surveyed the maze of newspapers littering his shop floor. “I’m worried for my business.”
While many are optimistic about the November 8 election, others are skeptical, worrying that if there are problems with the election, it could undermine the progress made by Myanmar thus far. Such skepticism was fueled by contradictory reports this month from the Union Election Commission—first that the vote would be postponed, then, 12 hours later, that it would go ahead.

For people like Kyaw Wanna Soe, incidents like these are reminiscent of the ruling elite’s capricious past, particularly the 1990 general election. It was considered the country’s last relatively free and fair one, when the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 80 percent of the seats in the parliament. In response, the ruling military regime annulled the results, and many of the opposition candidates went into hiding. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, and the military retained its grip on society for many more years.

For half a century after the military coup in 1962, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, stagnated under a dictatorial and antagonistic policy called “the Burmese Way to Socialism.” It has been only five years since the country began making serious changes, easing up on the hermetic seal that kept it isolated and embracing both regional neighbors and the international community.

President Barack Obama hailed the gradual opening as a diplomatic coup, the result of a “carrot and stick” U.S. policy of dropping or imposing sanctions as Myanmar’s internal situation evolved. In November 2012, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, applauding the start of its “dramatic transition.”
Now Myanmar has reached another milestone, in the form of what the government promises will be a free and fair general election. In reality, this will be a test of whether the country moves closer to democracy or remains a military kleptocracy characterized by cronyism.

This time, there are several parties running for the parliament’s upper and lower houses, but most of the attention is focused on the two major ones: the NLD, headed by Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, and the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by President Thein Sein.

“It’s certainly important, and it’s shaping up to be the fairest and most inclusive [general election] since 1990,” says David Mathieson, the senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Yangon. “But,” he adds, “there are still major caveats that need to be factored in.”

For Mathieson, the lack of reform of the heavily criticized constitution of 2008 is one such failure. It was drafted by the old military junta and passed in the immediate aftermath of the deadly Cyclone Nargis. One of the most contentious points lies in Article 436, which requires a supermajority of more than 75 percent of parliamentary votes to amend the constitution. This point, combined with the fact that a quarter of the total seats are guaranteed to the military, means that the generals enjoy a de facto veto over any constitutional changes.

“I would call this is a 75 percent election, because 25 percent of the seats are guaranteed to the military,” Mathieson says. “They have stated they are the guardian of the constitution…. They have made it very clear they won’t countenance any changes.”

One of the more dramatic signs of that came in August when the USDP ousted party chairman and presidential hopeful Shwe Mann in a surprise overnight move. He had disagreed with other party members over a number of issues, including his willingness for constitutional change.

Another controversial article of the constitution bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the highest office. Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British citizen, as are her children, and critics interpreted that article as tailored to exclude her.

In spite of the constitutional barrier, Suu Kyi sounds confident. At a campaign rally just north of Yangon, she told the crowd, “Make no mistake: Whoever the president is, I will be the leader of the NLD government.”

There is another big factor weighing against a free and fair election: the many citizens who cannot vote.

There are bureaucratic problems, and the Union Election Commission—which oversees registration, campaigning and polling—is badly stretched, says Myat Thu, director of the Yangon School of Political Science. “I’ve been told by people that names are being repeated [on voting rosters], while others are missing. Sometimes a single name appears five times,” he says.

Meanwhile, several pockets along Myanmar’s border regions are still subject to violence that is part of a conflict between the military and a plethora of ethnic armed groups, now in its 67th year. The result has been the displacement of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of the country’s citizenry, either into camps or as refugees. Some estimate at least 110,000 refugees have fled the country in the past 20 years.

A much-touted two-year-long attempt to reach a nationwide cease-fire has just ended in disappointment, with only eight of the 15 invited groups willing to sign with the government. The various conflicts mean that nearly 600 village districts nationwide will have their voting canceled. “There are far more active conflict areas and displaced people now than in 2010. That should be a sobering assessment,” Mathieson says.

Meanwhile, in western Myanmar, the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, has raised doubts over the sincerity of the government’s transition. Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya citizens, referring to them as Bangladeshis and revoking many of their rights. This has left some 140,000 people displaced and wholly disenfranchised. Earlier this year, there was a surge in the numbers of Rohingya fleeing to neighboring countries, many of them risking their lives on rickety boats run by smugglers. Obama, while praising the country’s “courageous process” of political reform, warned that “Myanmar won’t succeed if the Muslim population is oppressed.”

Myanmar’s political elites, including Suu Kyi, were noticeably silent about the crisis, a sign that sympathy with the Rohingya is not politically expedient in Myanmar. Now the Rohingya face more discrimination than ever, partly as a reflexive response to condemnation from abroad, and partly thanks to the rise of Buddhist nationalist groups like the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, known locally by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.

The Ma Ba Tha, led by hard-line monks, has stoked sectarian tensions, particularly toward the Muslim minorities in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country. Last year, it proposed four so-called “protection of race and religion laws” condemning Muslims that were swiftly pushed through the parliament. They garnered huge support across the electorate.

“My view is that [the government has] simply just stood back, allowed [the Ma Ba Tha’s rise] to happen and are now utilizing that sentiment for themselves,” says Mathieson.

In recent months, state media have carried numerous reports of senior government officials making offerings to senior monks. Ma Ba Tha figures have praised government officials for the speedy enactment of the new race and religion laws, while explicitly calling on the movement’s supporters not to vote for the NLD.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, has rejected such rhetoric mixing religion and politics as unconstitutional. She told supporters she was focused on reconciliation and building a bright future based on democracy. “The past should be something from which to take lessons,” she said, “not something that ties us to anger and grudges.”

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With Historic Elections Approaching, the People of Yangon Ponder Their Fate

Script from the hour-long PRI radio program on Burma, published April 23 2015

Yangon Mosque Pagoda 2

In the heart of downtown Yangon — formerly known as Rangoon — the 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda buzzes with the chants of monks and worshippers. Over the years, this iconic Buddhist structure has been a major attraction for both the pious and the political in Myanmar, serving as a rallying point for what was then called Burma’s 1988 student uprisings and again for the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

This country’s incredible diversity of cultures, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities are crushed together in the rapidly developing city. Yet many of its residents share the experience of decades of oppressive isolationism and military rule.

Meandering through gridlocked traffic below the Sule Pagoda, Muslims filter past their Buddhist countrymen and cross the street to the Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque, just in time for sunset prayer. Down a small alley by the mosque is Mg Mg Nyunt’s electronics store. In a small, air-conditioned office at the back of his shop, he considers how the political landscape is changing.

“I haven’t seen any real democracy in my lifetime. But everybody wants to see something new, and they are eager to have democracy. We even have a common saying now whenever we go to a funeral, we feel sad for the person because they never had a chance to see democracy,” he says.

Nyunt has followed international affairs since childhood, and he’s now keen to analyze politics a little closer to home. And yet, even with his excitement, he’s quick to temper his positivity.

“I’m really not too optimistic, even though Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will win the election. I think these transitional problems will continue for decades,” he says.

A few blocks to the east of Sule Pagoda, Than Than Naing busies herself at her food stall, quickly loading plates with hot food and shouting orders to her family. For her, the politics of elections come second to surviving and the practical realities of making a living.

“The reason I’m not interested in the elections is we are running a business, so we can’t keep politics in mind too much. I have to care about myself, I have to struggle myself, whichever government comes in. I hope that something will change. It would be much better if the country had justice and rules of law. Everybody is struggling and I want everybody to be alright,” she says.

Just around the corner from her food stand sits a small newspaper shop. Inside, a worried Kyaw Wanna Soe seems overwhelmed with the myriad issues affecting the people of Myanmar.

“There are a lot of problems right now. The problems between the students and the government and the different types of people. There are problems here and there and it never gets solved. If one problem is solved, another pops up,” he says.

With his floors a mosaic of newspapers and his walls plastered with posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, Soe feels torn between a desire for a stability that won’t threaten his livelihood, and a desire for a National League for Democracy (NLD) victory and positive change.

“I’m worried about whether the demonstrators will cooperate, or if the elections will be canceled, because I witnessed the Saffron Revolution and when that happened I had to stop my business for some time. If something like the 1988 demonstration happens again, I truly worry what the future of my business will be,” he says.

Another part of his anxiety lies in the constitutional ruling that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. For him, this is a sure sign that true change is not coming anytime soon.

“Everybody wants change, everybody hopes there will be change. But I have to say that the change that everyone hopes for is not really happening so far,” he says.

For many, Aung San Suu Kyi is the personification of change. And yet for others, her worrying silence on more recent human rights matters, such as the plight of the Rohingyas, Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim population, is concerning.

David Mathieson can see why people would feel this way. He’s an Australian in his 50s who’s been travelling to the country for 20 years and now works as the main researcher for Human Rights Watch. He says many people in the West — and in Myanmar — are oversimplifying the situation she’s in.

“I think the new disappointment with Suu Kyi is a convenient diversion for their own delusions for how complicated the country is,” he says.

Myo Yan Naung Thein, a former political prisoner and research assistant for Suu Kyi’s NLD party, agrees that things are more complicated than they appear to be.

“People still recognize her as an ideal, [the] human rights leader of the world, and at the same time they want to see her to be a successful politician. She is trying very hard,” he says.

While the international community and many within Burma place the spotlight solely on Aung San Suu Kyi, for the ordinary people of Myanmar the priorities are simple: A chance to enforce positive changes for others like them. Reforms have been a start, but with the elections just around the corner, too many feel there is too much at stake where too little is guaranteed.

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An hour long radio documentary from Public Radio International’s America Abroad Media on Burma in the buildup to the elections later this year.  First broadcast on Tuesday 7th April with my contribution starting at 27 mins.

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April 9, 2015 · 11:15

Hobson’s Choice for Egyptian Voters

First published in the New Internationalist on May 30th

 

As polling booths closed late last night, Egyptians ticked off yet another election.  This has been the country’s second presidential election in as many years, and the 7th time Egyptians had been sent to the polling booths in just over 3 years.  Democracy by way of the ballot box abounds.  Yet the only reason these elections could even be called ‘democratic’ was down to one man, the Nasserist opposition candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

With early results from the elections trickling out, the inevitable looks to be confirmed: ex-defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be Egypt’s next President with a landslide majority, while his only opposition is left far adrift with just a single-digit percentage of the ballots. Yet while the result itself is as expected, the turnout and build up to the election was anything but.

The idea of campaigning against the man considered by many as the “saviour of Egypt” would be a hard, if not impossible, task.  Sisi had, after all, been the “hero” who removed the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi – this was a common sentiment from voters I spoke to.  Other potential candidates quickly opted out of the race, either out of reverence to Sisi, or citing the impossibility of competing in what was termed a “state of fear”.

Since Morsi was overthrown in July last year hundreds of his supporters have been killed.  Over a thousand more have been sentenced to death in the courts.  Journalists have been targeted and harassed.  Activists and members of youth groups have been imprisoned after the passing of a draconian protest law.  The message was clear: dissent and opposition will not be tolerated, and the same seemed to apply with the elections.

So when Sabahi announced his candidacy, he was met with accusations of delusion and backroom cooperation from a fragmented opposition bloc.  There was no way he could possibly win, and by competing he was simply bestowing a veneer of democracy to what was a practical coronation.

Travelling around Cairo, you could be forgiven for thinking there was only one candidate.  Sisi’s face beams down from posters and billboards, while Sabahi is apparently neither seen nor heard.  Yet out of the two, it was Sabahi who embraced the campaign period with gusto, while Sisi himself eschewed nearly all forms of electioneering.  Ostensibly due to security issues, the three-week campaigning period ended without Sisi making a single public appearance.

In the first week of campaigning, Sabahi’s headquarters was abuzz with young volunteers oozing an infectious confidence.  The walls were littered with posters of Martyrs from the previous three years revolting, in keeping with the image that Sabahi was trying to portray: he was the candidate of the youth and the revolution.

This belief was apparent in his team, and a sole objective was clearly stated.  Ehab Ghobashy, an organiser in Sabahi’s ‘Street Committee’ who referred to his candidate only as “the President”, held, if anything, a hubristic view as to who would win the elections.  “You wait and see, our President will win.”  He would say with a smile, reasoning apparently superfluous to his “good feeling”.

Further up the campaign echelon, a more pragmatic approach was taken, but the singular hope was still that, with the correct strategy, Sabahi would somehow win.  “We are targeting the youth [18-39], they make up 60% of the voting bloc” explained Hussein Qorshum, head of the communications committee.  “When we travel, we hit the areas we know we have support and tailor our speeches to address the needs of the people there.  This is how we will win – with our policies.  Sisi speaks of energy saving light bulbs?  We talk of solar power!”

However, as the campaign dragged on, the cracks started to show, literally.  The campaign was working on a laughably small budget and that much was clear to anyone watching.  Mid way through the campaigning, Sisi’s team had spent LE 12 million (£1,003,400) including renting a private jet that purportedly cost them £7,500.  In the same period, Sabahi’s director of advertising stated they had spent just LE 100,000 (£8,362).

It was a picture of forced frugality.  A great deal of their resources were drawn from Sabahi’s failed 2012 presidential bid.  Slogans, songs, posters and t-shirts from two years prior were all dusted off and brought back to life.  The campaign team didn’t even have a security officer, as, according to their secretary of the political relations committee, they “can’t afford one”.

The young team of volunteers found themselves harassed, assaulted, arrested and impeded in their work by both pro-Sisi civilians and policemen.  “Just two days ago, we had trouble in Mahalla,” said Ahmed Dowayik, a 22 year-old volunteer with Sabahi.  “They tried to stop our bus and pull us out but we just quickly drove out.”  He shrugs when asked who they were.  “They were dressed like civilians, but you never know.  The police just watched it all happen and did nothing.”

As the campaigning neared its end, it was noticeable that Sabahi’s team were trying to shift the goalposts.  The main objective remained the triumph of their candidate, but another aim suddenly came to carry great importance too.  “What’s most important for us is the spirit of youth.” Said Mohamed Aziz, a prominent organiser with the campaign.

As one of the cofounders of the Tamarod movement that brought about the fall of Morsi, Aziz knows what a successful campaign feels like, and the day after campaigning was finished, he was expert in avoiding a straight answer as to possible success in the elections.  “We’ve gained some ground and we’ve trained a lot of the youth in the democratic way.  The thousands that volunteered for us, work with us, the spirit of hope for a young crowd that believes in a democratic state, for me this is the most important thing.”

Yet on the day, the brutal reality in the turnout of the elections would have left both candidates disappointed.  While Sabahi had hoped for some success among the younger voters, Sisi had called for record voter participation, thus providing proof of his popular mandate.  The first days showing was so poor that it prompted an angry reproach from local television personalities.  The youth were particularly conspicuous in their absence.

On the second, and what should have been the final day’s voting, the turnout was hardly better, despite the best efforts of the state.  Non-voters were threatened with fines (voting is mandatory in Egypt, but this is never observed); a popular shopping mall was closed early; and the day was proclaimed a national holiday.  One studies centre put the turnout over the two days at a staggeringly low 7.5%.  Then, late on Tuesday, a desperate Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) made the extraordinary decision to extend voting to a third day.  The latest state figures now put the overall turnout at between 38 and 59 percent of voters.

The events of the polling period seemed to exactly mirror an earlier episode during the elections. On a trip to Benha, a group of Sabahi volunteers careened around corners in their campaign minibus, blasting songs and handing out posters.  The occasional onlooker smiled and the occasional onlooker gave a thumbs down, but the vast majority watched on with complete indifference, instead returning to whatever they were doing, as if nothing had happened.  As if nothing had changed.

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The Altar Lottery: Papal Elections in Egypt and the Ramifications on Constitutional Diplomacy

The 4th November marked the culmination in a rather bizarre and controversial process that resulted in Bishop Tawadros being ordained Pope Tawadros II, the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, thus becoming the leader of the largest Christian community in the Middle East.  An estimated 10% of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians (around 8 million people) making them the largest single minority in Egypt’s Muslim majority country.

The process for selecting a new pope began immediately after the death of Pope Shenouda III in March 2011.  The position of locum tenens was given to Archbishop Pachomios, who has overseen the election process as guided by the 1957 bylaws, which regulate the papal election.  Ironically, one of the first challenges facing the newly appointed Pope is in reforming these controversial regulations.

The selection regulations meant that only 2417 Copts were eligible in voting for their preferred nominees.  The enfranchised were drawn from “notable” Coptic laymen, Coptic public officials and local councillors, and Coptic Bishops and Archbishops.  Those against the bylaws point to its exclusivity and the perceived elitism of its regulations.  This system of election has only been employed 10 times since having first been introduced in the 8th century and there are accusations that it has no spiritual or legal basis with some calling for it to be discarded altogether.

The process started with a committee mandated with creating a shortlist of 17 candidates to be Shenouda’s successor.  A papal nominations committee then whittled the group down to 5 candidates, which included 2 bishops and 3 monks.  The penultimate round included the enfranchised group casting their ballots to select the 3 that they wanted to see in the final round.

The top three finalists included: Bishop Raphael, 54, an auxiliary Bishop of central Cairo who is known for having good relations with young Copts; Bishop Tawadros, 60, Auxiliary Bishop for Northern Beheira Governorate, Auxiliary to Archbishop Pachomios and known for having good relations with Islamists; and Father Rafael Ava Mina, 70, a monk at St. Mina Monastery, author of several religious books and once deacon for the 116th Pope, Kyrillos VI.

Finally, yesterday morning after the 8am mass, this odd and contentious election process reached its zenith as a blindfolded Coptic child put his hand into a bowl containing the three candidate’s names and pulled out the small box with Bishop Tawadros’ name in it.  Those in favour of this rather unconventional practice claim that this ensures that the selection is in God’s hands.

A member of the Holy Synod, Tawadros was born in 1952 and studied pharmaceutical sciences at Alexandria University and was ordained Bishop in 1997 by the Late Pope Shenouda III.  His broad experience and managerial skills, he used to run a medicine factory, will be useful assets in helping him confront the challenges ahead.

Within the Church itself he has issues to contest with.  Bishop Raphael spoke of how the new pope must devote himself to reorganising the Church from within and draw in the alienated and disillusioned Coptic youth that have moved away from the Church.  Moreover, there is the issue of getting state approval in amending the controversial 1957 papal election bylaws as well as the 1938 bylaws, which govern the rules of divorce and remarriage.

Outside of the Church, the issues at stake are arguably larger.  The Egypt Independent newspaper ran an article a week ago suggesting a ‘depoliticising’ of the Church, but with the volatile arena that he is stepping into, it seems that the question is not whether Pope Tawadros II will be involved in the politics, but to what degree he will be involved.

A month ago a 1-year anniversary march took place remembering the Maspero massacre where 27 people, mostly Copts, were killed during a peaceful protest, which was itself in reaction to the demolition of a Church in Upper Egypt.

A week later, there were large clashes in Tahrir Square, in part driven by the anger at the unrepresentative make-up of the Constitutional Assembly; the seculars, women and Copts all claiming little representation in it’s members.  Around the same time the Constitutional Assembly released it’s draft constitution, which has received criticism from across the board.

Human Right’s Watch asked for the constitution to make some serious changes, saying that it “falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and, surprisingly, torture and trafficking”.

The Commercial Workers’ Syndicate released a joint statement condemning the draft for omitting their 50% seat quota in Parliament calling it a “violation of rights”.

With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of the country’s first Islamist President it’s understandable that some Copts would be worried about their future – especially how it will be enshrined in the constitution.  This isn’t to say that they will be targeted or alienated, but some of the constitutional articles lay grounds for worry.

Article 2 says, rather vaguely, that, “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation”.  The exact application of this is predicated on the hermeneutic advice from Al-Azhar’s senior scholars with regards to the Sharia (as enshrined in Article 4), as well as the judiciary, legislative and executive bodies in power at the time.  Due to its ill-defined wording, one can safely say that the future of Egypt and its dealings with the Coptic Christians (as well as all the other minorities, I might add) is dependent on whoever seizes the upper hand in its interpretation and application.

Which brings us back to the role of the newly appointed.  Pope Tawadros II was known as an Islamist-friendly, peace-seeking Bishop, but now that he is head of his Church, the consequence of his rhetoric and promise of his actions – be they more or less politically inclined – is of the utmost importance to the largest minority in Egypt.

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