Today, Myanmar held its first contested general election in 25 years — one that will have major implications for human rights. As vote counting starts, everyone is waiting to see whether the current ruling party, the military-backed United Solidarity and Development Party, or the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, will win control of the parliament. There is a long history between military-backed parties and the NLD, dating to 1990, when the NLD won a landslide victory that was never recognized. In 2010, after decades of military rule, the country held elections again, leading to a USDP victory in parliament and the appointment of former general Thein Sein as president. But the NLD boycotted the 2010 vote, which was largely considered illegitimate.
Today, as the USDP, NLD, and other parties face off, seats in both the upper and lower houses of the national legislature, as well as at the state and division levels, are at stake. Despite concerns about whether the election will be free and fair, the key question is whether the NLD or USDP will win a victory and be able to control parliament—either alone or in a coalition. The winning party should control the selection of the next president, who will have a major influence over the course of human rights in the country over the next few years.
The outcome of the election will prove especially crucial since the president and newly elected parliament will bear responsibility of advancing a challenging peace process. Although the Myanmar government signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight ethnic armed organizations on October 15, 2015, the agreement remains neither nationwide nor a ceasefire. (For more on that, see the recent piece by our fellow clinic student, Roi Bachmutsky, JD ’17). Fighting has continued in several ethnic areas, raising concerns about the displacement of ethnic communities and other human rights violations.
Beyond the elections, Myanmar’s human rights record was under scrutiny this past Friday through the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which is evaluating Myanmar’s progress on human rights since 2011. Regrettably, Myanmar appointed Lt. Gen. Ko Ko to head the committee responsible for Myanmar’s UPR process. Ko Ko has a long track record of alleged involvement in human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity as the International Human Rights Clinic previously documented in a four-year investigation.
The Clinic made a UPR submission in March highlighting that the Myanmar government has not taken any steps to investigate the allegations against Lt. Gen. Ko Ko. In a major development, more than 500 groups from Myanmar (who must remain anonymous for fear of retaliation) have signed a petition calling for international action to hold Lt. Gen. Ko Ko accountable due to inaction at the national level. In response, the Clinic, along with eight other organizations, released a statement echoing the need for an end to impunity.
Whether on the election front, in its peace process, or on issues of accountability, it is a pivotal time in Myanmar. Along with the world, the people of Myanmar wait to see whether a new chapter for human rights is on the horizon or whether it will be more of the same.