Myanmar is soon to hold elections for regional/state assemblies, the national parliament, and the president. Voting for the first two, scheduled for November 8, will influence the third – the election of the president, which may take place in February 2016. Much is at stake, not only for political forces within the country but also for powers elsewhere in the region. The process of conducting free and fair elections and their eventual outcome will very likely influence regional politics.
Of the three elections, what really matters in the immediate future is the voting for members of the two houses of parliament. The Upper House has 224 seats and the Lower House has 440. Of these, 25 percent are reserved for the military. Thus, the contest is for a total of 498 seats. Seventy-three political parties are in the fray. The principal players are the current ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Other parties will matter mostly in the non-Bamar/Burman constituencies, where voters may prefer ethnic over national parties. In the Bamar areas, the contest is taking place within the context of a marked ascendancy of narrow Buddhist nationalism. This ensures that perceived threats to the Buddhist nation will be the key concern for many, rather than other issues such as the transition to democracy, the role of the military, political reforms, economic growth, or ethnic reconciliation.
As for the outcome, the opposition NLD is widely expected to win a majority of the seats it is permitted to contest. Whether that majority is a landslide or a somewhat less convincing result is uncertain, although the party may be confident given Suu Kyi’s continuing charisma and astute cultivation of the Buddhist constituency, along with the unexpected disarray in the USDP. However, a robust performance by the USDP would open the door to smaller parties, who might then be able to participate in coalition-building and the selection of the president.
The parliamentary poll will offer some major clues for the election of the president, but it will not eliminate all uncertainty. The reason is simple: The NLD has a single recognized leader nationally and internationally, but she – Suu Kyi – is constitutionally barred from being a candidate.
Further complicating the calculation is the dramatic ouster last week of Speaker Shwe Mann as chairman of the USDP. As The Diplomat’s Shawn Crispin explained at the time, Shwe Mann was planning to run for president and could have led a “unity” government with the NLD if neither party won an outright majority. With his removal, the incumbent Thein Sein – who has clearly signaled his interest in a second term – has strengthened his grip on the party. Suu Kyi meanwhile has announced this week an alliance with Shwe Mann, who remains as speaker, although the details remain unclear.
So who will prevail? The number of seats obtained by political parties in the parliamentary elections will be a key determinant. Horse-trading among them would be another. A critical factor will be the actions of the military leadership. In all likelihood, its decision and the guaranteed support of the 25 percent of parliament represented by uniformed officers doubling as MPs should settle the outcome. That would seem to favor President Thein Sein. The president will not take part in the parliamentary elections, but he has expressed readiness to be president again (something Myanmar’s system allows him to do), as the nation, in his view, has “very few young people or middle-aged people who could steer the nation in the right direction.”
Thein Sein would be a strong and safe, if unexciting candidate. Whether his candidacy is a tactical maneuver remains to be seen. It is possible that a candidate acceptable to both the military and USDP will become attractive. Who might that be? Shwe Mann remains a possibility. Experts also point to Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, or Khin Maung Myint, speaker of the Upper House. The names of one or two outgoing ministers have also surfaced.
Finally, NLD supporters talk about the party offering a presidential candidate of its own, with Suu Kyi playing the role of king-maker. Two party leaders – Tin Oo and Win Htein – have been mentioned. At present, neither looks credible; a BBC expert stressed that Tin Oo is “nine months older than the Thai King, and a year younger than Queen Elizabeth.” Win Htein is younger, but apparently in poor health. Theoretically, MPs could pick a president from the NLD, but the military is unlikely to accept this scenario. Suu Kyi herself may perhaps prefer to back one of the generals – the least unacceptable candidate – in return for the coveted position of speaker.
In view of the considerable uncertainty prevailing now, Myanmar’s principal partners – China, India, ASEAN, the U.S. – are apparently keeping their options open. In public, of course, regional powers will speak of their commitment to refrain from interfering in the nation’s internal affairs, the need to respect the choice of the people, and support for political stability. But do they have their own preferences?
Among the Western powers, the U.S. has been the lead player. Its Myanmar policy has now been managed by realists who have shown some deference to the liberal lobby. President Barack Obama, who had hailed Suu Kyi as “my hero,” made a valiant attempt to advise Myanmar that the constitutional ban on her presidential candidacy made little sense and should be removed. But Western liberals’ ardor for Suu Kyi’s leadership has cooled somewhat due to her silence on the violations of the human rights of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. The U.S. played a significant role in facilitating reconciliation between President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. Washington is, therefore, likely to support a broad coalition involving these two leaders and the military.
China and India
China, the major supporter of the junta that governed Myanmar until March 2011, has had several reasons to be unhappy with the Thein Sein government. The president’s decision to suspend work on Myitsone Dam and his pro-U.S. inclinations did not sit well with the new rulers in Beijing. President Xi Jinping has not seen fit to return several visits paid by Thein Sein to China in recent years.
The Chinese government has its reservations about Suu Kyi too, and has left it to its embassy in Yangon to cultivate ties with the NLD. These endeavors culminated in an invitation being extended to her to visit China, but only after much delay. Eventually she did visit China and met with Xi. This visit reflected Beijing’s recognition that Suu Kyi may well play an important role in Myanmar politics, even if she doesn’t become the next president. It also showed China’s newfound talent for seeking access to emerging democratic forces. At the same time, Beijing has cultivated close ties with the military leadership. The Chinese would prefer to have a friendlier leader as the next president.
Myanmar’s other neighbors, India and ASEAN, have consistently supported the reform process, advocating national reconciliation and continued democratization. During Thein Sein’s presidency, Myanmar-ASEAN and Myanmar-India relations have become richer and more diversified.
India has shown dexterity in strengthening ties with all key players – Thein Sein, Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann. All have visited India within the past three years. The latest high-level visitor was Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who came to India in July 2015 following unprecedented action by Indian Special Forces against NSCN (K) insurgents on Myanmar soil. The Myanmar government demonstrated considerable maturity in dealing with this delicate matter, and in response the Myanmar commander-in-chief was given a red carpet welcome. During their meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave assurances that India desired to deepen cooperation with Myanmar “in all areas,” including security and defense.
In this context, India would hope that the coming elections throw up a combination of parties committed to cooperation between the military and pro-democracy forces. In any case, the bottom line is that India would deal with whoever emerges to wield power in Naypyitaw.
In discussions on Myanmar’s foreign policy, reference is often made to the India-Myanmar-China triangle and how developments in Myanmar in the past two decades have shaped its evolution. India and China will continue to pursue their interests through a complex mix of cooperation, competition and confrontation. Myanmar remains determined not to choose between the two. As President Thein Sein noted recently, China is “a good friend and neighbor” and India is also “a key regional player.” Both are “big emerging powers and our country is sandwiched between them. So we need cordial relations with those important neighbors.”
Myanmar watchers might vary on their forecasts, but they all are agreed that the nation’s politics is extremely complicated and hard to predict. In all probability, the journey towards reform, reconciliation, democracy and development in the years to come will trace a similar path to that seen since the elections in November 2010 – a path with numerous twists and turns.
A former ambassador to Myanmar, Rajiv Bhatia served as DG, Indian Council of World Affairs until recently. His book India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours, being published by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, will be released shortly.