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Myanmar polls hold promise for SE Asia

By Zheng Anguang (China Daily) Updated: 2015-11-06 07:51

The world's attention is focused on Myanmar, especially because of its general election on Nov 8. In fact, the Southeast Asian country has been in the headlines ever since it started democratic reforms in 2010, particularly after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and restarted her political activities.

The general election will have a great impact not only on the political situation within Myanmar, but also across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The problem is that even though the National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi is widely expected to win the elections, Myanmar's constitution bars her (a citizen whose family comprises foreigners) from becoming president.

Also, even if the NLD wins the majority of the 75 percent parliament seats in Myanmar, the military will still continue to exert its hold on the country by constitutionally occupying 25 percent of the seats and exercising the power to veto any change to the Constitution. But the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, led by President U Thein Sein, may not enjoy a dominance in the election.

Moreover, Suu Kyi and her NLD are expected to adopt a cooperative attitude toward the USDP and the military as part of its "rational strategy" to expand its influence. In this sense, the NLD will become a constructive contributor to rather than a pure opposition party in Myanmar's politics. Therefore, Myanmar can move toward a brighter future only if its different political forces give up their prejudice against each other, stop the civil war, and work together for peace and the country's prosperity.

No wonder, global observers have laid emphasis on the influence that the election will have on Myanmar's foreign policy. Since 2010, ASEAN, the US and China have been adjusting their Myanmar policies. Since accepting Myanmar as a member in 1997, ASEAN has been encouraging it to participate in the regional economic integration process while taking measures to solve its domestic problems, propel economic development and political reforms. Those efforts have yielded fruits especially since Myanmar launched democratic reforms in 2010 - for example, the country's GDP growth topped all other ASEAN member states' in 2014.

The US had imposed sanctions on Myanmar when it was ruled by a junta. But after the 2010 democratic reforms, US-Myanmar relations warmed up quickly. Senior American leaders, including President Barack Obama, have visited Myanmar and met with Suu Kyi, and the US government has partly lifted its sanctions on Myanmar and encouraged American enterprises to invest in the country. Although the US Congress continues to put pressure on Myanmar to improve its human rights record, the two countries' relationship is likely to improve further in the near future.

China has always maintained good relations with Myanmar. Because of the harsh Western sanctions it faced during the junta's rule, Myanmar considered China its most reliable friend and their relationship prospered. Changes happened in 2010 following the democratic reforms in Myanmar. Past cooperative programs like the Myitsone Dam and exploitation of mineral resources faced difficulties, while the armed conflicts between Myanmar's central government and the armed groups of its northern ethnic minorities threatened China's border security.

But China has continued to maintain a good relationship with Myanmar's ruling party and reached out to other political forces in the country. In June this year, an NLD delegation headed by Suu Kyi visited China, which according to many helped strengthen two-way relations. And during the visit, Suu Kyi said China is an important neighbor for Myanmar and the two countries must maintain good relations.

This is especially important because Myanmar is a key point for China's Belt and Road Initiative. As such, China needs to maintain smooth communication with various political forces in Myanmar and boost cooperation with the country in order to strengthen overall bilateral relations.

The author is an associate professor of Southeast Asia studies at Nanjing University.

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