On his recent trip to Myanmar, U.S. President Barack Obama embraced opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, signaling strong U.S. support for continued reforms in a nation that has long been under military rule. Since Myanmar’s political opening following elections in 2010, tentative reforms have stalled, and bursts of ethnic conflict have raised fears that Myanmar’s democracy is on fragile ground. The next year will thus be a critical test for Myanmar: the government will need to finalize ceasefire negotiations with a number of armed ethnic groups; prepare for the first nationwide, multiparty elections since parliament convened for the first time in 2010; and decide on hotly contested constitutional measures.
In her memoirs, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton points to Myanmar’s democratic transition as one of her crowning achievements. In her view, the change in U.S. policy toward Myanmar around her visit in 2011, engagement with the former junta leaders, and the suspension of sanctions, represents “America at our best.” Less sanguine analysts bemoan America’s re-engagement with Myanmar’s repressive government, pointing to the generals’ past war crimes and the dire state of human rights in the country today.
For decades, Myanmar was run by military generals who oversaw economic mismanagement, harsh political repression, and human rights abuses, as the national army fought ethnic rebel forces across the country in conflicts that still simmer today. The country now finds itself at a historic crossroads and, despite massive setbacks, the administration of reformist President Thein Sein may have an opportunity to finally resolve numerous grievances with embattled ethnic minorities. Thein Sein has empowered a small cadre of progressives who may be able to keep reforms on track, if they are able to check the influence of the military quarter. The tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army is known, nominally falls under control of the civilian government, after decades during which it held a stranglehold over society as the only political institution with a legal mandate under the old constitution.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Under the 2008 Constitution, the military holds 25 percent of seats in parliament and guards murky constitutional rights to seize political power in the event of a national emergency. While the military has largely refrained from overstepping the boundaries circumscribed by civilian authority, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s orders have increasingly run counter to those of President Thein Sein. The president has responded by nominating leaders such as U Aung Min, who oversaw peace overtures with ethnic factions as minister for Rail Transportation, and U Soe Thein, a champion for reform as minister of Industry, to key positions in his inner cabinet. The president, along with Soe Thein and Aung Min, are former army and navy commanders, but staunchly support continued democratic reforms.
Aung Min seems to have earned the trust of the representatives of ethnic rebels. The Karen National Union (KNU), who have been battling the central government for more than 60 years, has signaled its desire to work with Thein Sein, even signaling their desire for him to remain in the presidency after 2015:
Peace talks have happened under the regime of President Thein Sein, and he is the one who already understands what has happened in past years. If there’s a change in president, we all will have to start the whole thing from the beginning.
Ultimately, the ability of Myanmar’s leaders and ethnic armed forces to come to a comprehensive agreement while the Thein Sein administration is in power, and the ability of the government to peacefully transfer power under an electoral system based on consensus among competing factions, will be a litmus test for Myanmar’s young democracy.
The nation is expected to hold multiparty elections, the first since the transfer to parliamentary democracy in 2011, in the second half of 2015. The parliament has recently voted to adopt a system of proportional representation (PR) in the 224-seat upper house, while retaining the current single-member district (SMD) plurality vote in the 400-member lower house.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won in 1990 but was denied power by the military regime, firmly opposed the adoption of PR, as did ethnic political parties, because the current system stands to benefit their candidates. The NLD will likely sweep the elections under plurality voting, often referred to as “first-past-the-post” (FPTP), according to the present electoral rules. The NLD won 60 percent of the votes in a 1990 election, which would have given them 80 percent of seats, and won 43 seats out of 44 contested in 2012 by-elections.
Ethnic parties realize that a national vote under PR may accord them a slim margin of seats according to their percent of the population nationwide. Their votes in the 1990 and 2010 elections came from constituents in their home districts, where candidates easily won majorities. A shift to a national party vote under PR effectively removes their home field advantage.
Dr. Nyo Tun, an international consultant, argues that PR will “entrench special interests in the parliament and create a political impasse, at the very moment when the nation needs general consensus to keep reforms moving quickly and smoothly.”
Proportional representation, due to its heavy emphasis on proportionality, brings to the fore a variety of disparate voices and competing interests. However, the incumbent USDP, a conglomeration of former officers in the Myanmar army which currently holds more than 67 percent of elected seats in parliament, stands to lose the most under the current electoral system. Since the NLD would probably dominate elections under the current SMD system, PR may be the surest means for the USDP to guarantee itself a soft landing. The combined system that the two houses seem to have adopted, in which the lower house sticks to plurality voting with single-member districts, while the upper house adopts a system of proportional representation, is an apt compromise between the divergent interests.
The USDP and military MPs have a host of other concerns, chief among them pressure from opposition groups to amend the 2008 Constitution to allow Suu Kyi to run for president, and to remove an article requiring a 75 percent vote in parliament to make changes to the constitution.
Opponents of the 2008 Constitution have focused their energies on two subsections: Chapter IV, Articles 109(b) and 141(b), which grant the military 25 percent of seats in Myanmar’s parliament; and Chapter XII, Article 436, which requires a 75 percent vote to amend constitutional clauses. The latter necessarily precedes the former: if the opposition is to curb the influence of the military by revoking some of the quota of its seats, it first must gather enough support to amend Section 436. “If we don’t change 436, it means that the military has virtual veto power over what can or cannot be changed within the constitution,” Aung San Suu Kyi has argued on her campaign for reform.
Though Suu Kyi has effectively mobilized citizens across the country on this issue, she has drawn the ire of the military establishment. Her party boasts nearly five million signatories to a petition calling for the repeal of 436. But Brigadier General U Tin San, head of the military MPs in the lower house, has accused Suu Kyi of selfish motives, arguing that she is going after clause 436 in order to pave the way for her own presidency. Suu Kyi is currently barred from the presidency by Article 59(f), which prohibits those with family members holding citizenship in foreign countries from becoming president. Whether or not Suu Kyi has her eyes on the presidency, it is unlikely she will be eligible for the position before 2015 elections, as the national Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee voted down proposed amendments to 59(f). The crux of the debate on constitutional reform will therefore come down to the military veto.
While military MPs recently rebuffed calls for a change to the amendment clause, their intransigence may point to “growing insecurity,” Myanmar analyst Min Zin argues. President Thein Sein still has the space to push for reforms and solidify his democratic credentials. Drawing on his support from international investors and global democracies like the U.S., Norway, and the U.K., Thein Sein’s team of reformers can capitalize on the trust it has built with representatives of armed ethnic forces by finalizing a comprehensive ceasefire negotiation. A peace agreement would rally the support his administration needs from the ethnic factions and lend parliament the political capital necessary to accomplish national, constitutional reform.
Myanmar has a difficult road to travel in the next year, one that requires serious thought and painful compromises on the part of all stakeholders. Looking ahead at Thein Sein’s final year in office, the window of opportunity for concluding the ceasefire negotiations will close in 2015.
Myanmar scholar David Steinberg, in a recent article, urges us to see the glass as at least half full: “Reforms are never immediate, rarely complete, often misdirected, and subject to all the ills, to paraphrase the poet, that flesh is heir to.” But this is no time to let up the pressure on Myanmar’s leaders to continue reforms.
Hunter Marston is a Myanmar analyst for The Indo-Pacific Review and publishes on politics and elections in Southeast Asia. He served in the U.S. Embassy Rangoon in 2012 as a Harold Rosenthal Fellow in International Relations.