December 20, 2015

Myanmar: Partial Comeback for Civilian Rule

Yohannan Chemarapally

IT has been an electoral sweep for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi in the general elections held on November 8. It was the first open elections held in the country after a gap of more than twenty five years. In the last free elections held in 1990, the NLD had won a landslide victory. The military junta ruling the country at the time refused to accept the electoral outcome. Harsh political repression followed. Suu Kyi was first arrested in 1989. In all, she spent around 15 years under house arrest. Thousands of her supporters were also imprisoned for long years.


Myanmar's national election commission announced on November 13 that the NLD had won an absolute majority to rule on its own. With more than 80 percent of the seats now assured in the country's parliament, the NLD is poised to form a government of its own in March this year. There are 664 seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament. The military directly nominates 166 members from the armed forces to the parliament. The military government's term will end only by the end of the year and the new parliament will meet in January to elect a new president. For the first time since 1962, the people's representatives will be electing the head of the State.


The military leadership has accepted the results and congratulated Suu Kyi on her victory. The military backed ruling party –The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lost even in the administrative capital, Naypyidaw, which is populated by families of army officers and bureaucrats. Almost all the serving ministers who contested under the USDP banner lost the elections.  The NLD swept urban, rural as well as areas dominated by ethnic minorities where the smaller parties had hoped to do well. President Thein Sein has been quick to congratulate Suu Kyi and her party “for gathering the support of the people”. In his message, the former military leader said that the government “will respect and follow the people's choice and decision and work on transferring power peacefully according to the timetable”.




The army while conceding the presidency and ushering in a form of truncated parliamentary democracy will continue to cast a long shadow on the country's politics. Suu Kyi, now the undisputed leader of the Burmese people, is constitutionally barred from holding the presidency. In the current constitution, which is the handiwork of the army, there is a provision barring citizens having foreign spouses or having children with foreign passports from holding the top post. The provision was specifically incorporated to exclude with Suu Kyi, whose late husband was a British academic. Her two sons have British citizenship.


The constitution also ensures that the army will continue to have direct control over the police and large sections of the bureaucracy. The army chief will not be answerable to the president. The previous military government which drafted the constitution wanted to replicate the Indonesian model of transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. Indonesia has still not been able to shake off all the vestiges of military rule even today. In fact, there are reports that the Indonesian army is again exerting itself to politically constrict the new president, Joko Widodo.


The Burmese military has veto power over the amendment of the constitution. Suu Kyi has said that she would try to amend the constitution. With the Suu Kyi led NLD enjoying such a large majority in parliament and overwhelming public support, it will be difficult for the army brass to stonewall gradual amendments to the constitution. The two sides have agreed to talk about the future course for the country before a civilian government is formed. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the armed forces speaking after the results had gone in favor of the NLD, said that the armed forces would “continue to strengthen the multiparty democracy system”. The administration of President Thein Sein, in comparison to earlier military governments, has allowed the opposition to campaign freely and had freed many political prisoners.


More than a thousand election observers from the US and EU countries were allowed to monitor the elections. They duly certified the elections as broadly free and fair despite hundreds of thousands Rohingya people being disenfranchised before the polls. Many Muslim candidates were not allowed to stand for elections by the election commission on flimsy grounds. Though many of the restrictions on the media were removed, the government implicitly encouraged Islamophobia hoping that the army backed ruling party would harvest the votes. The army had encouraged a radical Buddhist organisation, Ma Ba Tha (the Patriotic Association of Myanmar) which has been in the forefront in the targeting of the Rohingya. The organisation tried to paint the NLD as an Islamist party despite the absence of a single Muslim candidate on the NLD's electoral list. Suu Kyi herself preferred to remain silent on the Rohingya issue to the consternation of many of her supporters and admirers. “There can be no democratic elections without human rights”, Forum Asia, a Bangkok based human rights group said in a statement. 


The charisma of Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma's foremost freedom fighter, Gen. Aung San coupled with the anti-incumbency factor, undermined the military's game plan for holding on to complete power. Till the constitution is suitably amended, Suu Kyi has said that she would appoint a president who will be taking orders from her. “The president will be told what exactly he can do”, she told the media. “I make all the decisions because I am the leader of the winning party”. 


But despite the scale of her sweeping victory, the army's influence could stymie her plans. The army's nominees will be occupying 25 percent (125) of the seats in parliament. Under the existing constitution, these MP's will have the right to select one of the two vice presidents, who in all likelihood will be an army officer. The army chief will also have the final say in the selection of the ministers in charge of the defense, home affairs and border portfolios as they all have to be serving officers. In short, under the existing constitution, a NLD led government will not have control of these key ministries. Many of the ethnic minorities like the Kachins and the Shans have been at war with the central government for the last sixty years. The ethnic minorities have little trust left in the army. For a lasting peace, they want a meaningful share of power. With the military still calling the shots, they will be loath to give up arms and enter the political mainstream.


Further circumscribing the powers of the civilian government is a body that is above both the parliament and the executive, known as the National Defense and Security Council. This body consisting of eleven members has the power to overrule decisions taken by the civilian government. Six of the members of the council are from the military. Over and above all this, the military has inserted clauses relating to “national security” and “national unity” in the constitution, that will allow it to circumvent government decisions. To change the constitution, the ruling party needs the support of more than 75 percent of the legislators in parliament. With the army already having 25 percent of the seats and pro-military parties having another 50 seats, the only way the constitution can be amended is if the army removes itself completely from politics. Given the post-independence history of Burma, that is a tall order. Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian told the NYT, that the electoral exercise in November “was not an election of a government”. He said that it was merely “an election for a spot in a shared government with the army”.




All the same, the international community has welcomed the outcome of the elections. The two major powers vying for influence in the country, the US and China, have been careful to keep both Suu Kyi and the army in good humor. Burma since independence has been following a “neutral” foreign policy. Till the late 1980's, the military leaders did not want to be over dependent on either of its two big neighbours, China or India. Suu Kyi was viewed by the military rulers as being close to India, where she had grown up and had her education. The brutal crackdown of the pro-democracy movement in 1988 and the annulment of the results of the 1990 elections led to the imposition of tough western sanctions on the country. It was after that the military government forged closer economic relations with China. Ties with India improved in the beginning of the last decade but New Delhi was in no position to match the economic clout of Beijing and instead opted to play second fiddle to Washington in Myanmar and the Southeast Asian region. Suu Kyi was also not happy with the rapprochement between New Delhi and Yangon at a time when she was languishing under house arrest.


It was after 2011, when Thein Sein took over as president, that the military junta changed its foreign policy course. After the visit of the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton to the country in December 2011, the government unilaterally suspended the huge Chinese funded Myistone Dam project. Bilateral relations between Washington and Yangon was restored. Many of the sanctions were soon lifted and the West started describing Myanmar as a “developing democracy”. American, European and Japanese companies started investing in the country that has an abundance of mineral resources and cheap labour. All this happened after the Obama administration announced its “pivot to the East” policy aimed at isolating China militarily. China continues to be the biggest investor and trading partner of the country. Suu Kyi has been assiduously courted in the capitals of the world, including Delhi, Washington and Beijing, after she was released. Her father Gen. Aung San, had teamed up with the Japanese occupation forces to fight the Chinese army during Second World War. For that matter, many freedom fighters in the region like Sukarno and Subhash Chandra Bose had also aligned with the Japanese during that period of anti-colonial struggle.