Myanmar’s coming elections, scheduled for November 8 this year, have taken on growing significance after the key opposition party, National League for Democracy (NLD), determined in mid-July that it would take part. Both the Myanmar people and the international community are counting on the elections to help usher in genuine democracy together with lasting peace and prosperity.
The NLD, the most popular party in Myanmar, is expected to win a “majority” of the seats that it is permitted to contest under the controversial 2008 constitution – 75 percent of all seats, with the remaining 25 percent reserved for the military. The NLD already has a proven electoral record, winning 82.2 percent of the vote in 1990 elections and 97.7 percent in the 2012 by-elections. So although the outcome of the 2015 elections is still uncertain, it seems likely that the NLD will be well placed to shape Myanmar politics both in the next government and in the next parliament. That would certainly be a widely popular outcome.
Yet many questions about Myanmar’s future remain. What will the relationship between the NLD and the Armed Forces – known as the Tatmadaw – look like after the elections? Will the NLD seek to engage with the military, the strongest institution in the nation, or vice versa? Is the Tatmadaw willing to accept that potential engagement, and if so by what means? The potential relationship between the NLD and the armed forces will be a critical factor in determining Myanmar’s transition to democracy and the future of the nation.
These are serious questions. Perhaps their most obvious recent manifestation is the dramatic purge this week of the parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, a former Burmese army general, who was surprisingly removed as chair of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) on Wednesday night for reportedly getting too cozy with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In other words, the influential speaker lacked a strategy for dealing with the Tatmadaw – a major flaw. This political ruction demonstrates that without the Tatmadaw’s support, Myanmar’s political leaders have no way forward. Given that, the most important question for Myanmar’s post-election era is this: Who will help manage the relationship between the Opposition and the Tatmadaw, for the sake of a successful and peaceful transition?
Unfortunately, few if anybody at this point would have the answer to that question. Yet it needs to be addressed, perhaps even prior to the official election result being announced, so that the nation can move forward. After all, if the Union Election Commission’s promise of free and fair elections are kept, NLD is clearly going to occupy more political space.
Historically, there has been no record of engagement between the Tatmadaw and the NLD. Rather, the two sides have constantly been in conflict – most recently with the constitutional amendment in parliament, which the military blocked. Myanmar’s contemporary history is all about political deadlock. With the NLD likely growing in power after the elections, confrontation surely lies ahead unless the two sides can find a way to work together for the benefit of the nation.
Take that constitutional amendment. After the elections, the NLD will certainly be in a better position that it is in the current parliament, which is dominated by the military. It will be looking to take bolder steps to change the constitution. Given the importance of that issue to the military, it can be expected to do whatever it can to prevent any amendments. If the two sides can’t negotiate, political deadlock will be the inevitable result. That is a risk that both the NLD and the Tatmadaw need to manage, lest Myanmar return to the situation it was in under the junta.
Second, Myanmar’s existing executive power is unique, given that even in the executive branch power is shared between the president and the commander-in-chief, with the latter having the right to appoint three key ministers: defense, home and border affairs. It is in fact a civilian-military executive branch – which demands that both sides work together.
In fact, the ultimate power in Myanmar rests with the National Defense and Security Council, which comprises eleven powerful people: the president, two vice presidents, the speakers of the upper and lower houses, the commander-in-chief, the deputy commander-in-chief, and the ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. Clearly, the military has dominated the powerful Council. It can even propose a state of emergency at any time, for whatever reason, for instance if it felt that its interests were being compromised. As long as there is no civilian oversight of the military and as long as there is no reform of the security sector, the political risks will be high.
So as the NLD grows in executive power, it must make the effort to build a relationship with the military. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to concede to every one of the Tatmadaw’s demands in that power structure, but rather that it has to develop some effective strategies for moving the nation, even if at times at the expense of the Tatmadaw’s interests. This may well be the greatest challenge the NLD faces after the election.
Third, Myanmar needs to achieve a lasting peace. Whether the peace process can move forward will again depend on the relationship between the NLD and the Tatmadaw. It is obvious that the military can easily disrupt the peace process at any time, and destroy any trust that has been built among stakeholders. Nonetheless, the new civilian government must take responsibility for working for a lasting peace. This again comes down to working with the Tatmadaw. Without genuine peace, there can be no true democracy. Thus, the next government will need to work with the military to develop strategies to achieve a lasting peace.
Fourth, in this highly connected world, Myanmar’s prosperity depends on foreign investment. With so many potential political risks in the post-election period, investors may be hesitant to invest in Myanmar. That would make it difficult for the new government to deliver prosperity and development. That in turn could lead to growing frustration and damage the government’s credibility. Instability would again loom. Uncertainty would escalate. Risks for investors would grow.
And so Myanmar faces a bumpy road to democracy, one fraught with risk, especially in the immediate post-election period. Impressive political dexterity will be needed to address the risks. This is not to say the country is without a way forward, rather that it faces an enormous political task to ensure a peaceful transition. It is a task for the whole nation. Key political stakeholders, including ethnic representatives, need to engage in dialogue based on a shared understanding of the potential pitfalls. They need to work out how to manage the risks to democracy, peace and development. There is no greater task that will face Myanmar’s politicians in the wake of the elections.
Aung Tun is an independent consultant mainly working in local governance issues inside Myanmar for several development organizations. He previously worked as a journalist for several years inside the country.