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Why Myanmar's Upcoming Election Is So Historic

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 7/11/2015 Charlotte Alfred

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Aung Zaw, founder and editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy. 

Myanmar will hold elections on Sunday to elect a new parliament, known as the Hluttaw. It'll be the first national election since the country embarked on a transition to democracy and freed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after years under house arrest.

The two front-runners in the election are the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The parliament will vote for a new president next year. Suu Kyi is running for a seat in the Hluttaw, but is banned from running for the presidency under a provision in the country's constitution.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, ended 50 years of military rule in 2011, and began a process of instituting political and economic reforms. The U.S. lifted sanctions and poured aid into the nation, which has the lowest life expectancy in southeast Asia.

Despite the reforms, journalists and dissidents have been jailed ahead of the vote. Many members of the country's Rohingya Muslim minority, which has been the target of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination in recent years, have been barred from voting. Meanwhile, the military retains considerable power: One-quarter of the seats in parliament, as well as key ministerial posts, are reserved for military appointees. 

The WorldPost spoke with Aung Zaw, the founder and editor of Burmese news organization The Irrawaddy, about the upcoming elections. Zaw set up The Irrawady from exile in Thailand in 1993, having fled the country because of his involvement in student activism. Since the reforms began, The Irrawady has opened an office inside Myanmar, and Zaw has been allowed to return to the country. In 2014, the Committee To Protect Journalists awarded Zaw an International Press Freedom Award.

What is the mood like in Myanmar now ahead of the election?

People are very hopeful, hopeful for change. They've been living in a very repressive atmosphere and under a repressive regime for so long. There's a change in atmosphere now. People want to exercise their rights. They are enjoying their freedom. 

This is also the first time Aung San Suu Kyi, who people have known for so long, has been free to participate in a national election. 

What is the situation like for journalists and opposition activists in Myanmar right now? 

There have been pockets of crackdown on dissidents and activists who post on social media, and some arrests in the the last two or three weeks have been quite disturbing.

But today is much freer than before. Now, they select targeted people to arrest and put in prison, sending a message to the public that this kind of message, cartoon or caricature is not allowed -- whereas in the past they targeted massive numbers of people and put them in prison right away, without trials or lawyers. 

Have you been surprised by the changes that have taken place in these last years?

Yes! I myself was allowed to return to my country two years ago. The Irrawaddy now has more than 50 people operating inside the country. Right now all my staff are spreading across the country, reporting from different places. We've been given freedom to write freely, as long as it's based on the facts and done responsibly, and we can be quite critical of many issues, as well as the government. 

People want to exercise their rights. They are enjoying their freedom.

How popular are Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in Myanmar?

I'm a little bit surprised [by the extent of her popularity]. In the past few years, there has been a systematic propaganda campaign against her, and Irrawaddy has published critical articles about her leadership and her shortcomings, like her failure to speak up on some issues. We felt that her popularity was shrinking.

But when I went [to see] her campaign around the countryside last month, I saw that the color red [the color of the NLD] is everywhere, the symbols of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pictures, the flags, the peacocks, everything. I was surprised, but I can also understand why people see her as a beacon of hope and believe she's the only one who can bring them more freedom -- economic freedom and freedom from this repressive government, who they see as an extension of the previous military dictators. 

If the NLD wins, how do you think the military will react?

I simply don't know. If Aung San Suu Kyi wins the majority of seats in the parliament, and if the military won't accept it, there will be a big issue, and it will drag on and on, and new problems will come to our country. That's what I'm afraid of. The election on Nov. 8 is one of the biggest milestones we will pass. However, the post-election period will be much more important and it could be very challenging for all of us, the people of Burma. No one wants to see the repeat of the election of 1990, and the repeat of the vicious cycles and crackdowns. 

Whoever wins the majority in the election, they have to be pragmatic, because the military is the biggest institution in the country and you have to talk to them. They have economic power and political power. So if the leadership is wise on both sides there will be some sort of compromise. 

This is about more than the result of the election. The military is not going to go away overnight. People have to be prepared to play a long game in politics.

What about the nationalist Buddhist movement, the Ma Ba Tha? Is there a risk of unrest?

I myself worried a lot about this. But so far, no serious violence has taken place, so I think the election will be safe, unless there is huge state-sponsored violence, which then will be very obvious. I am more concerned about the post-election period.

However, my analysis is that Ma Ba Tha is divided right now. Some of the monks in the group support NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. They think the organization went too far when they started attacking the democratic opposition. And I believe the extremist elements are getting weaker and weaker. 

There is a very diverse community in Burma, including Hindus, Christians, Jews, as well as Muslims and the Buddhist majority, and they all used to live quite peacefully.

What political or social changes need to take place to address some of the major issues blighting Myanmar’s transition to democracy, including discrimination against Rohingya Muslims?

This issue is very sad, and needs to be addressed. This violence was systematically organized by some elements within the establishment, ahead of the 2015 elections. It started exactly two months after Aung San Suu Kyi and her party won a landslide victory in a by-election in April 2012.

There is a very diverse community in Burma, including Hindus, Christians, Jews, as well as Muslims and the Buddhist majority, and they all used to live quite peacefully. We can go back to that normal life one day, but only if the government starts to talk about how diversity is our strength and not our weakness. It's a beautiful country and a diverse society. But as long as the authorities want to manipulate this diversity to stoke fear and nationalism, then we will have a problem. That's why we need to have a more open-minded, responsive government, who will calm the situation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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