With Presidential Vote Looming, Myanmar Stares at Uncharted Waters

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Myanmar is entering unknown terrain these days. For the first time since the historic victory of the oppositional National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 8 elections, party leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has met with her military counterpart, commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, to talk about the ongoing transition. The country’s parliament will probably start electing the new president on March 10 and many contentious issues remain to be solved before that.

Both parties have already met three times without reaching an agreement. The question now is whether both sides can hammer out an effective power-sharing deal, a pact built on trust for the coming years, or whether they remain opponents watching each other suspiciously in the years ahead.

Admittedly, power sharing is unlikely in a country that has been ruled directly or indirectly by the military for the past 50 years. Moreover, it is not a very likely scenario given the overall mode of transition. The military initiated the current transition from a position of strength; the ruling generals have been carefully planning and executing it during the past decade.

First, the former military regime built up institutions that secure the military’s continuing dominance in the political arena. The constitution promulgated in 2008 gives the army a number of political prerogatives, such as a 25 percent representation in every parliament.

Additionally, the Ministers of Home Affairs, Defense and Border Affairs are appointed by army commander Min Aung Hlaing (not by the president). This gives the military control over the entire civilian administration and over security in the country – a powerful position. Since 75 percent of parliament needs to approve changes to the constitution, the military can successfully use its veto power to block any changes for constitutional reform.

The military supported the Burmese Spring

The Burmese Spring we have been witnessing was not initiated against the will of the generals. The military wanted it to happen.

Since the inauguration of President Thein Sein in March 2011, we have seen far-reaching changes in the normally repressive military regime. He released approximately 1,200 political prisoners, ended press censorship, invited the NLD to reintegrate into the political system, started to take the first steps towards reforming the ailing economy and invited foreign investors to come to Myanmar.

These reforms culminated in the relatively free and fair elections of 2015, which the opposition NLD party won by a landslide. The political party closest to the military, the USDP – built up to reinforce military interests in parliament before the elections of 2010 – suffered an overwhelming defeat.

The NLD won a supermajority in both houses of parliament and will take over the presidency – although Aung San Suu Kyi herself is prohibited from holding this position, since Article 59 (f) of the 2008 constitution bars anyone with a foreign spouse or children from the presidency. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British, as are her two sons, has already vowed to disregard the constitution and head the country from ‘above the president’ – an announcement that foreshadows upcoming discontent between the NLD and the military, which sees itself as the guardian of the constitution.

So there are enough topics to discuss during the ongoing transition talks. Rumor has it that in return for accepting to annul Article 59 (f), Aung Min Hlaing demands to fill senior ministerial positions in four regions (of Kachin State, Shan State, Rakhine State, and Yangon Region) with military personnel. This would further increase the militarization of the country and limit the scope for Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. Moreover, the NLD government faces huge expectations, and a pact made on the military’s terms might alienate some of the Lady’s followers.

Yet the NLD leader and the military will need to reach a compromise to bring long-awaited progress, given that the multi-ethnic country has severe governance obstacles, including ongoing civil war in parts of the country, widespread poverty and a long authoritarian past.

“A new peace initiative” is promised

On October 15, 2015, Thein Sein signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight armed ethnic groups. The agreement had been under negotiation since August 2011, and it is one of the key political outcomes of the transition period. Yet only eight of the 15 armed groups ultimately signed, and the most powerful of them were absent – for instance, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army and the United Wa State Army.

Aung San Suu Kyi has already promised a “new peace initiative,” and she wants to include these groups in the ongoing discussions about the Myanmar’s future. The military, which has actively supported President Thein Sein’s peace initiative, will be carefully watching her steps.

It remains to be seen whether she can convince the generals to come up with a more far-reaching version of federalism – a longstanding demand of the ethnic groups, and one that the military has only reluctantly accepted during the peace talks of the last few years.

Poverty is still widespread

Although Myanmar managed solid growth rates under President Thein Sein, only a limited number of people have benefited. While the growing middle class and the country’s cronies are gaining from the reforms, the majority of people working in agriculture have not.

As the new Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) notes in its Myanmar report, since the 1990s, “military-dominated ‘predatory capitalism,’ horizontal inequality (between ethnic groups) and vertical inequality (between members of the military elite and their civilian cronies on one hand and the rest of the impoverished Myanmar population on the other hand)” have been high.

Myanmar is still an agricultural country, with about 70 percent of people living in rural areas. Many farmers survive at very low income levels.’ Aung San Suu Kyi has therefore promised to concentrate on the development of agriculture. Unless she touches the military conglomerates, no conflict with the military is expected.

Shortly after the elections, Min Aung Hlaing made clear that it is too early to talk about the military’s withdrawal from politics. According to him, this process could take 5 to 10 years if certain conditions were in place (peace, maturity of democratic institutions). Consequently, limiting the influence of the military remains off-topic at the moment. Yet further democratization is possible.

One example would be to revise the peaceful assembly law, which only allows demonstrations under very restricted conditions. As the BTI notes, although “freedom of assembly and association have clearly expanded in recent years…local authorities often use the law to stifle public protest.”

Additionally, the BTI points out that “there are also older laws and guidelines which call for prison sentences for those who disseminate certain types of information that are perceived to pose a threat to national security or racial harmony, including reports about corruption or ethnic politics.” A revision of these laws could significantly improve the level of freedom in the country – even if no pact is reached until a new president is elected in March.

Dr. Marco Bünte is Associate Professor of Politics at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia. He is one of 250 country experts who worked on the new Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index, BTI 2016.

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