Myanmar Political Situation

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Steve Dowall
5:27pm Saturday 20 September

Myanmar Political Situation

Elections were last held in Myanmar in 1990, two years after the 1988 coup staged by the SLORC. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won almost 60% of valid votes and 80% of seats. However the SLORC subsequently imposed martial law and said it would continue to hold power until it had ensured that a sufficiently strong constitution had been drafted according to the guidelines laid down by a National Convention. The military responded to election results with a campaign of intimidation. It arrested and detained members of the NLD (including Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK)) and other perceived political opponents, and prevented the convening of the National Assembly.

The 1992 retirement of the then SLORC Chairman, Senior General Saw Maung, in favour of General (later Senior General) Than Shwe, instigated some positive developments. These included the introduction of a "market-oriented" economic system, the lifting of the curfew, the resumption of university education, some release of political prisoners, the conclusion of cease-fires with all but one major ethnic insurgent group, and the commencement of a process of drafting a new constitution through a National Convention. This liberalisation process culminated in the temporary release in July 1995 of ASSK and, for a time, tolerance of the NLD's political activity.

In 1993 a National Convention to draft a new Constitution was established. "Basic Principles" governing the drafting of the new constitution included retaining a central role for the military in government. After years of deadlock the NLD and other political groups walked out of the Convention in 1996 and called for international trade sanctions and boycott.

SLORC changed its name in 1997 to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In recent years the SPDC has been successful in negotiating ceasefires with approximately 17 of the 21 largest groups that had been engaged in military operations against the Government.

Hopes were high in mid 2002 after another release of ASSK from house arrest that progress towards national reconciliation would occur. Her release had followed months of visits by the United Nations Special Envoy Ismail Razali. However, in May 2003 ASSK's convey was attacked near Depayin and she was placed under "protective custody". On 25 May 2007, the regime extended the period of ASSK's detention for a further 12 months. This was further extended in May 2008.

In August 2003 Khin Nyunt became Prime Minister and announced the SPDC's "Road map to democracy" which included the reconvention of a National Convention. The National Convention which concluded in late 2007 was not representative- excluding key political parties and lacking free debate.

In September 2007, small scale protests in Myanmar, ostensibly about food shortages and rising fuel prices, escalated and increasingly focused on the lack of democratisation in the country. The size of the protests grew significantly (to tens of thousands of demonstrators) and after some delay the regime moved to violently suppress the dissent.

The United Nations is leading the international response to the most recent developments in Myanmar. The UN Secretary General's Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, has visited Myanmar six times since the violent crackdown and the new UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, conducted his first visit to Myanmar in August 2008. Gambari has focused on convincing Myanmar authorities to engage in an all-inclusive, participatory and transparent post-national convention process of consultations but his most recent visit to Myanmar yielded no immediate tangible outcome.

A nationwide referendum on the draft constitution was held in May 2008, amidst the humanitarian crisis in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. The constitution was approved despite the dubious circumstances and elections are scheduled for 2010.

Myanmar's humanitarian needs remain substantial. In 2006, UNDP's Human Development Index, ranked Myanmar 130 out of 177 countries. Women and children are especially vulnerable. The standard of education is a major concern, the economy is weak, food shortages prevail, and healthcare is severely limited. Population displacement on a substantial scale has also occurred because of continuing conflict in many areas, despite the ceasefires negotiated in recent years. Positively, the Myanmar government has agreed to a complaints mechanism for dealing with the issue of forced labour and significant progress has also been achieved in terms of combating HIV/AIDS and opium drug production.

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Last updated: 04 December 2008