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Blog | Forging a New Path in Myanmar: Q&A with Carter Center Expert Jonathan Stonestreet

Polls opened: Nov. 8
Population: 56,320,206
Registered: 33,500,000
Political parties: 90
Parliament seats: 664 (with 166 reserved for military)
Carter Center observers: 62

This election was the 101st observed by The Carter Center.

After more than 50 years of oppressive military rule, the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar is emerging from isolation and taking its first tentative steps toward democracy.

On Nov. 8, its people went to the polls for the first general election since democracy began to take root, and a Carter Center election observation team was there to witness this historic event.

Its team of more than 60 accredited observers visited polling stations in every state and region in the country on election day, and for the most part, found well-conducted proceedings. When the votes were tallied, it became clear that Myanmar’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, had swept the elections, winning a majority in the Union Assembly. A core Carter Center team will remain in Myanmar to observe the election dispute resolution process and the seating of the new parliament.

Associate Director of the Democracy Program and head of the Center's election mission, Jonathan Stonestreet, sat down to answer some questions about Myanmar’s history and the Center’s election observation mission.

Q:     How did Myanmar find itself in this place?

Myanmar is a former British colony that gained its independence in 1948. In 1962, there was a military coup. The military instituted a one-party, isolationist regime. Then in 1988, a violent crackdown on massive pro-democracy demonstrations led the military to step in again, ostensibly to restore order. In a 1990 election, the National League for Democracy, an opposition group headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of an independence hero, won 82 percent of the vote. But the military refused to allow her party to take power and essentially assumed power again. Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest.

Q:     This is when the country changed its name from Burma to Myanmar, right?

Yes. In 1989, the regime changed the name. Their announced reason was that the name ‘Burma’ was linked to only one of the country’s 135 or so ethnic groups and that ‘Myanmar’ would be more inclusive. Some countries recognized the change; others, like the U.S. and the U.K., didn’t, as a way to show sympathy for the pro-democracy movement and to indicate that they didn’t recognize the regime.

  • A Carter Center team of 62 observers was on hand Nov. 8 to observe Myanmar's general elections. Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is emerging from decades of rule by a military junta and longstanding ethnic conflict.

  • Following former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's visits to Myanmar in 2013, The Carter Center established a field office in Yangon. Since December 2014, the Center has been conducting a field-based assessment of Myanmar's pre-election and transition environment. (Photo: The Carter Center)

  • In preparation for the historic Nov. 8 elections in Myanmar, a voter from Kaw Man Thar village checks for his name on a voter list display. (Photo: The Carter Center/ J. S. Nolle)

  • A Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) office clerk holds up a campaign plan. (Photo: The Carter Center/ J. S. Nolle)

  • Approximately 6,000 candidates from 90 political parties have been busy campaigning and canvassing across Myanmar. Here a Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) convoy drives through Pathein City, a port city and capital of the Ayeyarwady region. (Photo: The Carter Center/ J. S. Nolle)

  • Women volunteer their time to help the largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in Kalaw Township, Southern Shan State. (Photo: The Carter Center/ T. Adha)

  • A boy waves an NLD flag in Kalaw Township, Southern Shan State. (Photo: The Carter Center/ T. Adha)

  • Walking through Myawaddy, female cadres of the Mon National Party (MNP) distribute flyers and party pamphlets. After the general election in November, the newly seated parliament will select a president early next year. (Photo: The Carter Center/ J. S. Nolle)

  • Some people waited three hours or more to cast their ballots on election day. (Photo: The Carter Center/ R. Borden)

  • A voter casts his ballot at a polling station inside a Buddhist community center in Yangon. (Photo: The Carter Center/ S. Ellison)

  • Taxi Driver Ko Min Thura Soe and his family went to vote together on election day in Myanmar. (Photo: The Carter Center/ S. Ellison)

Q:     When did Myanmar’s political climate begin to change?

In 2010, there were elections, widely seen as fraudulent, that the National League for Democracy boycotted. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won, and the new president began to end many of the isolationist policies. Aung San Suu Kyi, who by then had won a Nobel peace prize, was released from house arrest. Since 2011, the military has stepped into the background but still controls major ministries and 25 percent of the parliament.

As part of this transition, there has been increased opening for public meetings, a much freer press, increased foreign investment, the introduction of cell phones and internet, a reduction of censorship, and an effort to make peace with armed groups that have been operating within the country since independence.

Q:     Did the people elect a new president in this election?

Not directly. These were elections for both houses of parliament and for the state and regional assemblies. The new parliament will choose the president and two vice presidents.

Q:     Why did we think it was important for us to observe this election?

It was the first general election since this transition started — the first chance to see whether this is a real transition and whether it will keep moving. The government made a commitment to having elections in accordance with democratic standards. The question is: To what extent did they do that? And will the military respect the results, no matter what those are?

Q:     Are there issues we’re paying particular attention to in this election?

All Carter Center election missions look at the entire process, beginning many months before election day and continuing through the installment of the new government.

Because this is a transitional election, there are some serious structural problems, and we’ll be taking those into account. For example, the military names 25 percent of the parliament, which means the people don’t have a say in choosing one-quarter of their representatives. The opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, cannot be elected president because of a clause in the constitution that seems to have been written specifically to exclude her. There is discrimination against Muslims, particularly a group called the Rohingya, who are mostly excluded from voting.

Some of the things we’ll be looking for more specifically include the openness of political space prior to the election, the integrity of the counting and tabulation process, the ability of all eligible voters to participate, and the ability of the winners to take office, because that was precisely the problem in the 1990 elections.

We’ll also be watching for any election-related violence that may occur, especially interreligious violence or interethnic violence. We’re interested, too, in advance voting. In 2010, that seemed to be the primary way fraud was conducted.

We obviously don’t want to legitimize an election that seriously contradicts democratic standards. At the same time, ‘transition’ implies some movement toward something else, and we’re interested to see if this process is in fact moving in the direction of becoming democratic, so that the next elections, in 2020, could be fully democratic.

Q: Were there issues we paid particular attention to in this election, or are still concerned about?

All Carter Center election missions look at the entire process, beginning many months before election day and continuing through the installment of the new government.

We looked closely at the openness of political space prior to the election, the integrity of the counting and tabulation process, and the ability of all eligible voters to participate. And, of course, we’ll be monitoring the ability of the winners to take office, because that was precisely the problem in the 1990 elections.

Because this is a transitional election, there are some serious structural problems, and we have addressed those in statements we’ve issued. For example, the military names 25 percent of the parliament, which means the people don’t have a say in choosing one-quarter of their representatives. The opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, cannot be elected president because of a clause in the constitution that seems to have been written specifically to exclude her. There is discrimination against Muslims, particularly a group called the Rohingya, who are mostly excluded from voting.

We obviously don’t want to legitimize an election that seriously contradicts democratic standards. At the same time, ‘transition’ implies some movement toward something else, and we’re interested to see if this process is in fact moving in the direction of becoming democratic, so that the next elections, in 2020, could be fully democratic.

Related Resources

Learn more about the Carter Center’s Democracy Program >

Nov. 10, 2015 | Carter Center Congratulates Myanmar People on Election, Urges Key Democratic Reforms

Nov. 2, 2015 | Carter Center Election Observation Delegation Arrives in Yangon Wednesday

Oct. 27, 2015 | Carter Center Releases Latest Statement on Myanmar’s Pre-Election Activities

Sept. 25, 2015 | Center Issues Statement on Candidate Scrutiny Process and Campaign Environment

Aug. 19, 2015 | Center Issues Second Report and Recommendations on Myanmar’s Electoral Process

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