Myanmar’s neighbours closely monitoring precarious poll

International scrutiny as Myanmar gets set for historic vote amid the backdrop of ethnic and political tension.

Members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party rally on trishaws [Mark Baker/AP]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Myanmar voters will head to the polls on Sunday with neighbouring countries closely watching the political proceedings hoping that no violence will erupt, analysts say.

Hundreds of people have been killed in religious violence since 2012 while the government has battled armed rebellions in several states.

On Tuesday, a video juxtaposing violence in the Middle East with footage of seeming tranquility posted on the facebook page of Myanmar’s President Thein Sein’s suggested that an electoral defeat for his party might lead to violence.

 Rohingya face exploitation and torture

Thousands of desperate Muslim Rohingya fleeing persecution in the Buddhist-majority country have undertaken perilous sea journeys to reach the shores of neighbouring Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia in recent years.

Tens of thousands of people in restive Kachin and Shan states have been displaced because of fighting between government forces and rebel groups. Many of the displaced civilians were forced to cross the border into southern China. 

In Thailand, which shares a 2,100km border with Myanmar, about 150,000 refugees remain in limbo 30 years after escaping armed conflict.

Analysts say unless the result of Myanmar’s polls is credible, political and economic instability will continue with the threat of disorder again spilling out of its borders.

Interactive: Mapping Myanmar’s historic elections

Bunn Nagara, a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, said while neighbouring Southeast Asian nations “generally do not want to be intrusive” in the internal affairs of other countries, “everyone” wants Myanmar’s parliamentary polls to succeed. 

“Nobody has any sinister vested interest” for the vote in Myanmar, Nagara told Al Jazeera. “But if the elections do not go well and the conflict continues, things could get worse and then it will really affect us,” he said.

Given the goodwill and support that its neighbours have shown, it is important for the leaders of Myanmar to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process, Nagara said.

“If the people, the different parties, and the government conduct a fairly good, reliable and acceptable election campaign without violence, then I think the prospects for the country would be better,” he said.

Regional stability

Karen Khudsen of East-West Center in the United States said it’s important to recognise the changes that have already occurred since the military government launched reforms in 2010.

“While they still have a long way to go, I think there have been some encouraging signs along the way,” Khudsen told Al Jazeera. “I think we have to step back and judge where the country was a few short years ago, and the steps that it has taken towards democratisation.”

In Beijing, China’s leadership has taken a pragmatic approach to the elections, careful not to show its preference towards the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition alliance, said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

 Myanmar parties campaign ahead of vote

“I think that China is going to work with whoever is in power in Myanmar. I do not think they have a preference,” Kurlantzick told Al Jazeera. 

In recent years China has been seen as the lone patron of Myanmar and its former military rulers. China shares a 2,200km border with Myanmar, and the two countries refer to each other as “paukphaw”, or siblings, in the Myanmar language.

But the brotherly bond has frayed in recent years as leaders in the capital Naypyidaw started to flirt with the US and the European Union. Myanmar has also cozied up to China’s regional rival Japan, which is funding a newly opened $1.5bn economic zone outside the main city of Yangon.

Last February’s  tensions in Shan state only served to resurrect old grudges, as China once backed ethnic Chinese rebels fighting Myanmar’s government.

Litmus test

With cross-border trade continuing to grow, it is in the best interests of China, Thailand, and other border states to see a politically stable Myanmar, Michael Aung-Thwin, a professor at the University of Hawaii, told Al Jazeera. 


“Myanmar has a lot of oil and gas, jade and magnesium, so it’s important for them to maintain security,” the Asian studies professor said.

Trade between Myanmar and China stands at $13.4bn for this fiscal year, according to Myanmar government figures. In 2014, Myanmar’s oil-and-gas exports to China and Thailand hit $4.6bn.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, the plight of the Rohingya has drawn many ordinary Malaysians to the politics of Myanmar, said Nagara, an expert in Southeast Asian foreign policy. 

“Despite what the government says, they [Rohingya] are Myanmar citizens and they have not been given the basic rights of citizenship,” he said. “It is not just a national issue because the refugees are flowing out to Thailand and Malaysia and other countries.”

Nagara said whatever side wins Sunday’s vote must take immediate action to address the Rohingya’s plight.

“I think that is really a litmus test for a genuinely democratic Myanmar.”

The post-election treatment of the Rohingya is a litmus test for ethno-religious relations, analysts say [The Associated Press]
The post-election treatment of the Rohingya is a litmus test for ethno-religious relations, analysts say [The Associated Press]
Source: Al Jazeera