MYANMAR GOVERNMENT & POLITICS
Burma is governed by a military junta with the head of state being Senior General Than Shwe, who holds the posts of “Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council” and “Commander in Chief of the Defence Services” as well as the Minister of Defence. General Khin Nyunt was prime minister until 19 October 2004, when he was replaced by General Soe Win, after the purge of Military Intelligence sections within the Myanmar armed forces. The Prime Minister is General Thein Sein, who took over upon the death of General Soe Win on 2 October 2007. The majority of ministry and cabinet posts are held by military officers, with the exceptions being the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labour, and the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development, posts which are held by civilians.
Elected delegates in the 1990 People’s Assembly election formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), a government-in-exile since December 1990, with the mission of restoring democracy. Dr. Sein Win, a first cousin of Aung San Suu Kyi, has held the position of prime minister of the NCGUB since its inception. The NCGUB has been outlawed by the military government.
Major political parties in the country are the National League for Democracy and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, although their activities are heavily regulated and suppressed by the military government. Many other parties, often representing ethnic minorities, exist. The military government allows little room for political organisations and has outlawed many political parties and underground student organisations. The military supported the National Unity Party in the 1990 elections and, more recently, an organisation named the Union Solidarity and Development Association.
In 1988, the army violently repressed protests against economic mismanagement and political oppression. On 8 August 1988, the military opened fire on demonstrators in what is known as 8888 Uprising and imposed martial law. However, the 1988 protests paved way for the 1990 People’s Assembly elections. The election results were subsequently annulled by Senior General Saw Maung’s government. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won over 60% of the vote and over 80% of parliamentary seats in the 1990 election, the first held in 30 years. The military-backed National Unity Party won less than 2% of the seats.
Aung San Suu Kyi has earned international recognition as an activist for the return of democratic rule, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The ruling regime has repeatedly placed her under house arrest. Despite a direct appeal by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to Senior General Than Shwe and pressure by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the military junta extended Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest another year on 27 May 2006 under the 1975 State Protection Act, which grants the government the right to detain any persons on the grounds of protecting peace and stability in the country.
The junta faces increasing pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom. Burma’s situation was referred to the UN Security Council for the first time in December 2005 for an informal consultation. In September 2006, ten of the United Nations Security Council’s 15 members voted to place Myanmar on the council’s formal agenda. On Independence Day, 4 January 2007, the government released 40 political prisoners, under a general amnesty, in which 2,831 prisoners were released. On 8 January 2007, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the national government to free all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Three days later, on 11 January, five additional prisoners were released from prison.
ASEAN has also stated its frustration with the Union of Myanmar’s government. It has formed the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus to address the lack of democratisation in the country. Dramatic change in the country’s political situation remains unlikely, due to support from major regional powers such as India, Russia, and, in particular, China.
In the annual ASEAN Summit in January 2007, held in Cebu, Philippines, member countries failed to find common ground on the issue of Burma’s lack of political reform. During the summit, ASEAN foreign ministers asked Burma to make greater progress on its roadmap toward democracy and national reconciliation. Some member countries contend that Burma’s human rights issues are the country’s own domestic affairs, while others contend that its poor human rights record is an international issue.
Burma’s army-drafted constitution was overwhelmingly approved (by 92.4% of the 22 million voters with alleged voter turnout of 99%) on 10 May in the first phase of a two-stage referendum amid Cyclone Nargis. It was the first national vote since the 1990 election. Multi-party elections in 2010 would end 5 decades of military rule, as the new charter gives the military an automatic 25% of seats in parliament. NLD spokesman Nyan Win, inter alia, criticised the referendum: “This referendum was full of cheating and fraud across the country; In some villages, authorities and polling station officials ticked the ballots themselves and did not let the voters do anything.”The constitution would bar Aung San Suu Kyi, from public office. 5 million citizens will vote 24 May in Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta, worst hit by Cyclone Nargis. Burma has a high level of corruption, and ranks 178th out of 180 countries worldwide according to Transparency International, which publishes its own Corruption Perceptions Index.