May 08, 2016

Myanmar: Civilian Government Takes Over

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE first civilian government in more than fifty years in Burma formally took over the reins of power on April 1. The military which had monopolised power for most of the years since the country gained independence however will continue to have a major say in the running of the government. The constitution it has bestowed on the country without meaningful debate has placed significant roadblocks for the smooth transition to a full fledged civilian rule. Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a sweeping victory in the elections has not been allowed to become the country's president nor has the military junta relaxed its iron grip over key State institutions. The country's constitution explicitly prohibits citizens having foreign spouses or children holding foreign passports from holding the top post in government. Though her husband is no more, Suu Kyi's two children are British passport holders. The NLD leader, who spent 15 long years incarcerated by the military, failed in her efforts to convince the military top brass to allow her to become the president. In early March, she had held three long closed door meetings with the current military chief, Ming Aung Hlaing, in order to cut a deal with the military.


After the landslide victory at the polls in November last year, Suu Kyi had made it clear that she would be calling the shots as far as major decision making was concerned in the new government. After the army vetoed her demand, she chose her close confidant, Htin Kyaw, as the NLD's candidate for president. He was easily elected with a thumping majority. “I have become president because of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's good will and loving kindness”, he told reporters after his election. Two vice presidents, one of them a candidate of the army, were also elected. Myint Swe, the army's choice, was a former head of intelligence. Many in Myanmar hold him responsible for the crackdown on the protests by monks in 2007. The NLD selected Henry Van Thio, from the ethnic Chin minority. He was a former army officer who is said to have good relations with the current military hierarchy.


When the cabinet was announced in March, Suu Kyi was given charge of four key portfolios, including that of foreign affairs. Three other important portfolios – that of defence, border security and interior, were given to representatives of the military as mandated by the army drafted constitution. The interior ministry in particular is a very powerful one, having within its ambit the duties of coordinating and communicating with all the different ministries. It also controls appointments to all the provincial and state level bodies. When Suu Kyi was negotiating with the army top brass after last year's elections, she had offered them three additional cabinet portfolios provided that they relented on the issue of her assuming the presidency. The new president, Htin Kyaw, in his first speech in parliament advised his countrymen to be patient as the government strives for full democracy. “We have to work for a constitution that is in harmony with democratic values”, he stressed.


After a meeting with the former army ruler, Than Shwe, Suu Kyi had stated that the incoming civilian government would not focus on the past. The army had brutally suppressed the pro-democracy movement in 1988. The army has also been accused of serious human rights violations and other crimes in its decades long war with various ethnic minorities. And on top of all this, are charges relating to corruption and misuse of office during the long era of military rule.


The NLD and the army broadly agreed on the changes in foreign policy, particularly on the country's pro American tilt. After a visit by the former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton in 2011, Myanmar was elevated from the status of a “pariah state” to that of an “emerging democracy”. After President Barack Obama announced his “pivot to the East”, Myanmar was quick to abandon its pro-China tilt and open up the economy to Western investments.


Suu Kyi on her part started visiting western capitals to persuade them to lift the economic sanctions on the country. She was noticeably silent on the targeting of the Muslim Rohingya minority. She was also supportive of the army's new economic policies that aimed to convert the country into Southeast Asia's newest “sweat shop”.  After the meeting with Suu Kyi, Than Shwe had described her as “a future leader” of the country.


But the new army leadership does not want to let go of the tight leash it has on the civilian government. It has been on the other hand sending signals in recent weeks that it is unhappy over the increasing powers that are incrementally being accrued to Suu Kyi. 


As soon as the new civilian dominated parliament opened on April 1, the NLD introduced a bill to create a new post of “state counselor”. It was the first bill to be passed by the legislature after it convened. Despite the objections of the army which still controls more than 25 percent of the seats in the national parliament, the proposal has been speedily accepted by the upper house. It has to be approved by the lower house and the new president. That will only be a formality. The “state counselor's” job will be akin to that of a prime minister. With this deft political move, Suu Kyi's authority will now be stamped on the legislature as well as the executive. As “state counselor”, she will be able to openly interact with the legislature and the executive. After being appointed a minister, she had to give up her parliamentary seat. As foreign minister, she will be able to sit on the influential military dominated defence and security committees.


Aung Kyi Nyunt, a senior member of the NLD, who helped draft the bill, said that Suu Kyi will now be able to advise the speakers of the two houses of parliament on the important problems relating to peace and development that the nation is facing. Establishing a lasting peace with ethnic groups that have been at war with the central government, some of them since independence, is a high priority for Suu Kyi. 40 percent of the country's population consists of people from different ethnic groups. Despite predictions to the contrary, ethnic communities also voted massively for the NLD and generally ignored the army backed party. Suu Kyi also wants to expedite the release of more than 500 political prisoners who were charged under the draconian laws of the military junta.


The next move, which may take some time, will be to formally amend the constitution so that she can legally assume the top job. The amendment of the constitution requires a super majority of 75 percent plus one. Only a split among the legislators nominated by the army which holds 25 percent of the seats would help the passage of a constitutional amendment. Many of those whom the army has nominated to parliament are senior officers, many of them holding the rank of colonels and major generals. Their mandate is clear – it is to ensure that the army's influence and perks continue to remain unscathed.


Suu Kyi seems equally determined in her pledge to “be above” the president. Given her new exalted status as de facto prime minister, she will be able to wear many hats including that of leader of the ruling party in parliament. The supporters of the army have already described her latest move as a “power grab”. The members of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party have been critical of Suu Kyi's political gambit. One senior army politician said that the proposed move would destroy the balance of power that exists between the legislature, executive and the judiciary. Another army officer, also a parliamentarian said that the move would put the post of “state counselor” at par constitutionally with the president.


Given her popularity domestically and on the world stage, there is little the army can do at this juncture. Like its counterpart in neighbouring Thailand, the current army leadership will bide its time and wait for the civilian dominated government to falter and rifts to emerge within the ruling NLD. Thaksin Shinawatra and later on his sister, Yingluk, were elected with huge majorities in Thailand in consecutive elections. But a politicised army in cahoots with a corrupt Bangkok elite, have repeatedly undermined democracy. Even as the people of Burma are celebrating the election of the first civilian president after more than 50 years of army rule, the military in Thailand is proposing to introduce a new constitution that would drastically curtail democracy.


But as of now, the 70 year old Nobel laureate is striding the domestic political scene with supreme confidence. Step by step, she is trying to tame the highly politicised army. It will not be an easy task as the army still controls many key government institutions and has stakes in lucrative business ventures which it is loath to give up. In a recent speech on the occasion of armed forces day, the army chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, said that the military has to “play a leading role in national politics with regards to the ways with which we stand along the history and critical situations of the country”. Under the current constitution, the army chief can take over in a crisis situation.