With Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) on the verge of a decisive victory in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections, Myanmar is riding a tide of democratic euphoria.
Yet, while Myanmar will undoubtedly be better off with an NLD government, it is important not to be carried away. Myanmar has not become a democracy overnight just because it held relatively free and fair elections, nor will it become one anytime soon.
The military-drafted 2008 Constitution is the biggest stumbling block to genuine democracy. It reserves 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for the military, and a 75 per cent plus one vote is required to amend it.
This equates to an effective military veto on constitutional change, barring Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. Furthermore, it reserves the right of the military to take full control again if “national unity” is threatened.
Pervasive anti-Muslim, anti-Rohingya rhetoric, discrimination and violence are the tinderbox that the military can ignite at any time.
The constitution also excludes ethnic voices, ensuring that their dreams of peace, relative autonomy under a federal system and respect for their rights are further away than ever – however well-intentioned the NLD may be.
What does all this mean for Cambodia? Already both opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen have lauded the NLD victory, as have democrats across the globe.
While Cambodia would be blessed to have a leader as charismatic as Aung San Suu Kyi, is the Myanmar military’s “disciplined democracy” really something to aspire to? Since 1993, Cambodia has aspired to something much greater: genuine democracy, underpinned by the supremacy of the rule of law and respect for human rights.
It should therefore balk at the idea of a military – up to its neck in human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity – hand-picking important government ministers relating to security and defence, and maintaining its hold on the levers of power.
Recently, the Cambodian military was quite rightly criticised for betraying its partisan loyalty to the ruling party; in Myanmar, the military actually runs the country – both before Sunday’s elections and hereafter.
Furthermore, Cambodia should recognise that its own 1993 Constitution is infinitely superior and more democratic than Myanmar’s flawed constitution, regardless of whether it is respected in practice.
Finally, it would do well to think beyond a party that lacks institutional stability and sustainability, not to mention a comprehensive policy platform that offers concrete, transparent and viable solutions to national problems.
The NLD will certainly say the right things, and there will be progress on important issues such as the release of political prisoners and respect for fundamental freedoms.
However, it just does not have the democratic authority or strategy to solve the grave issues confronting Myanmar, including amending the repressive constitution, securingreal peace with the various ethnic regions, and ending recurring bouts of religious violence.
Euphoria is understandable, but a healthy dose of realism is needed. Cambodia would do well to congratulate Myanmar, and then return to getting its own – less messy – house in order.
Ou Virak is president of the Future Forum independent think tank, while Robert Finch is the think tank’s policy director and formerly a legal and advocacy officer at Burma Partnership.