What's In Blue

Posted Tue 17 Nov 2015

Briefing Following Elections in Myanmar

On Thursday (19 November) during consultations, there will be a briefing by the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, under “any other business” on the 8 November elections in Myanmar, at the request of the UK. This will be the fourth time this year that Council members have discussed Myanmar, a significant increase in attention. Although the main focus this time will be on the elections, it is possible that other issues will also be addressed. These include continuing concerns about the human rights situation, in particular for the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Rakhine state, and the implementation of the national ceasefire agreement.

Although the final results of the elections have yet to be released, the preliminary tally indicates that the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has won 80 per cent of the contested parliamentary seats, thus securing a majority in both houses of parliament despite the fact that 25 per cent of the total number of seats are reserved for the military. In the upper house (the house of nationalities), the NLD appears to have won 135 of the 168 seats that were up for election, while the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) only got 12, with an additional 56 seats reserved for the military. In the lower house, the NLD obtained 244 of the contested seats and USDP 29, with 110 seats reserved for the military. Voter turnout was reported to be around 80 per cent.

The 8 November elections were the first nationwide polls since 1990, when the NLD also won a large majority but the military refused to respect the results. International partners, including the Secretary-General and several Security Council members, have generally welcomed the elections as an important step forward for Myanmar, but have also noted that they were far from perfect, expressing concern in particular about the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, who were largely excluded from the elections as a result of new restrictive government policies. (According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 700,000 Rohingya were disenfranchised.) They have also drawn attention to the many challenges that lie ahead in securing a peaceful transition and building a true democracy. The briefing on Wednesday will provide an opportunity for Council members to get an update on the elections from Nambiar and discuss the political transition, including any concerns related to the security situation, such as an increased risk of ethnic tensions. They are likely to be particularly interested in how Nambiar intends to carry out his good offices role in this new phase.

With regard to the transition, signals from the main stakeholders have been encouraging. Following the announcement of the initial elections results, Myanmar’s military government conceded defeat without any delays and congratulated the NLD on its victory. Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has promised a smooth transfer of power and has said that all duties will be transferred to the new government on schedule. For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi has stressed the importance of national reconciliation, and on 11 November announced that she had sent letters to the president, to the speaker of parliament and to Myanmar’s military commander-in- chief, asking them to meet with her to ensure a peaceful transition. The responses have apparently been positive, and a meeting is expected next week.

Still, there are concerns about potential challenges ahead resulting from the important role that the military will continue to play through the sizable number of parliamentary seats that will remain under its control, allowing it among other things to block any amendments to the constitution. The military will also remain in charge of a number of key ministries. Another potential source of conflict is that the constitution prevents anyone with immediate family who “owe allegiance to a foreign power” from being president of Myanmar. It also requires the president to have military experience. This disqualifies Suu Kyi, who has no military background and whose two sons are UK citizens. She has made it clear, however, that although she cannot formally become the president of Myanmar, she will act as the de facto leader of the new government. How that will work in practice, however, is not clear. A further complicating element, according to some observers, is the fact that the new parliament will not be inaugurated until the end of January at the earliest, leaving the current parliament in charge for at least another three months. During this time it is scheduled to adopt a new budget, which may have important implications for the incoming government. These are issues that Council members may want Nambiar to address tomorrow.

Council members may also want to discuss the implementation of the nationwide ceasefire agreement that was signed by the government and eight armed groups on 15 October. It was welcomed as a significant achievement, but there are several outstanding issues that will have to be dealt with by the new government. Seven of the 15 groups that have negotiated with the government did not sign the agreement, including two of the militarily most powerful ethnic groups, the Kachin and Shan. There are also important details that still need to be negotiated, such as how the ceasefire will be monitored and the timing of its implementation. The NLD declined an invitation to sign the agreement as a witness and Suu Kyi did not attend the signing ceremony, a response which seems to have given rise to some questions. Council members may want to hear from Nambiar an assessment of the prospects for further progress and the impact of the elections in this regard. There may also be interest in hearing more about a military offensive on Kachin rebel targets in northern Myanmar that according to media reports took place over the weekend.

The human rights situation is likely to be a further area of concern for Council members, as it was in previous discussions on Myanmar this year. The High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein briefed Council members on the human rights situation in Myanmar in May and Assistant-Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonovic participated in a briefing with Nambiar last August. Just before the elections, most Council members will have participated in the annual discussion on Myanmar in the General Assembly’s Third Committee. On 28 October, the Committee was briefed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, on her 6 October report (A/70/412) and on Wednesday (18 November) it adopted its annual resolution on Myanmar (A/C.3/70/L.39).

Specifically with regard to the 8 November elections, Lee issued a statement on 16 November welcoming the elections as a new chapter in the country’s history, but noted a number of key human rights concerns that would require the urgent attention of the new government, including the disenfranchisement “of hundreds of thousands of people” and the disqualification of many Muslim candidates in the elections, as well as continuing restrictions on the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. She emphasised that discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya, as well as hate speech and incitement to violence against minority communities, should be addressed as a matter of priority.

Lee’s assessment of the human rights challenges is probably shared by a number of Council members. At this stage, they may be particularly interested in getting an update from Nambiar on any discussions he has had with Suu Kyi and other members of her party on the human rights challenges in Myanmar. Despite her profile as a human rights defender, Suu Kyi has been largely quiet on the situation of ethnic minorities and was criticised in the run-up to the elections for not defending the Rohingya’s right to vote and addressing other issues of ethnic discrimination. Council members, who believe improving the human rights situation should be a priority for the new government, may therefore have questions about how the NLD is likely to tackle these issues.