On the 8th November 2015, Myanmar held its first free general election in a quarter of a century. The opposition parties, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) were handed a clear mandate to rule the country.
While the new political landscape offers more space for reforms and enlarges the possible scope of democracy support, the future holds multiple challenges for the new majority. International engagement needs to remain sensitive and responsive to the particular situation in the country.
With this in mind, EPD organised a roundtable on the 9th December with representatives from the EU and civil and political society organisations to jointly analyse the situation, share information, and discuss the best ways to cooperate in supporting Myanmar’s democratisation process.
MEP Ana Gomes, who chaired the European Parliament’s Election Observation Delegation to Myanmar, and Colin Steinbach, Head of the Political, Press and Information Section of the European Union Delegation to Myanmar, shared their assessment of the EU’s democracy support to Myanmar.
Ms Gomes praised the smooth running of the voting process, but reminded participants that structural problems persist, notably the veto powers of the military. She noted that all political parties are in real need of capacity building and “people who understand the political and democratic game”. In addition, education would be necessary in order to facilitate the success of the peace process; in Ms. Gomes’ words, people would need to understand that “diversity is a resource, not a liability”. In particular, Ms. Gomes noted that the EU could not afford to be silent on the persecuted Rohingya minority and argued that the expectations of the international community vis-à-vis the new, democratically elected government were higher than those of the military junta.
Mr Steinbach explained that the three main priorities of the EU in Myanmar are: rural development, education and governance, with the latter including the rule of law, police reform, elections and the peace process. He stressed that the EU’s strategy of taking risks in Myanmar, like establishing the human rights commission, has been successful so far. At the same time, he also cautioned that the NLD would face myriad challenges once in office, and the EU would move to help address these issues. He warned that there were some doubts over the sincerity of NLD’s official line on better rights protection for the Rohingya minority, particularly given the lack of enthusiasm amongst the Burmese electorate.
Complementing the interventions by Ms Gomes and Mr Steinbach, representatives of the European Parliament’s Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group (DEG) and the European External Action Service (EEAS) outlined further priorities of the EU with regards to democracy support in the forthcoming period. The following issues were mentioned:
- The need for the EU to develop a more coherent strategy and communication better on EU actions in support of democracy;
- A lack of programmes that support political parties;
- The top-down nature of the Burmese revolution and the need or bridge the gap between leaders and the wider population.
EPD partners in action
Several EPD member organisations are active in Myanmar. NIMD’s representative Maaike van der Werf outlined the joint initiative with fellow EPD partner Demo Finland: the Myanmar Schools of Politics. The first opened in 2014, and a second followed in 2015, with the aim of helping all political parties to enhance the knowledge and skills required for working and collaborating across parties in a democratic system. There are plans for activities for alumni so that they are able to continue to practice interparty dialogue.
Elbarlament, also an EPD member, has been active in Myanmar since 2013 with the aims of supporting the peace process, strengthening parliament’s relations with the media, and supporting the opposition in order to help it fulfill its role in the parliament. Managing director Tobias Flessenkemper described elbarlament’s parliamentary support project, which took place in 2015 with the help of the German parliament as well as complementing the activities of the UNDP and the inter-parliamentary union in Myanmar.
Another EPD member present in Myanmar is Club de Madrid (CdM), which has conducted five high-level missions to Myanmar since 2013. Véronique Andrieux Araujo explained that the main aim of the CdM high-level missions is to support and encourage an inclusive approach to resolving the challenges posed by democratisation, decentralisation and the process of national reconciliation with the county’s different ethnic communities.
EPD also invited members of the Human Rights and Democracy Network (HRDN) to share their experience of working in Myanmar.
Neil Campbell, acting director of the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI) explained that Open Society Foundations have been active in Myanmar for many years, focusing mainly on involving civil society in decision making, supporting independent media and promoting legal reforms.
Susan Kerr of Christian Solidarity Worldwide explained that her organisation targets religious leaders in Myanmar, educating them about the need for mutual understanding among all religions and none. One of the organisation’s focus areas is preventing hate speech and religiously motivated violence.
After a productive session, the roundtable participants agreed that external organisations active in Myanmar should avoid oversupplying support, instead better channelling the existing supply to meet local needs and current absorption capabilities. Participants agreed that more should be done to support political parties, the parliament and the government, particularly in transparent leadership and law drafting skills. Finally, there were calls for the EU to further invest in its role as an honest broker between Myanmar’s civil society organisations and the government.