When Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party forms government in Myanmar, it will face enormous limits that the military-drafted 2008 constitution places on the scope of a civilian government. Yet Suu Kyi still ought to be able to find enough room to make a difference.
Many issues need to be dealt with in Myanmar, also known as Burma, which now has at least some semblance of democracy after five years of quasi-civilian governance preceded by five decades of military government rule.
The main issue is structural, and would require constitutional amendments. Other issues range from civil wars along the country’s borders to the retention of political prisoners, from a lack of press freedom to the presence of ex-army officials in the bureaucracy, and from widespread corruption to a rise in religious identity-based violence and intolerance.
The international community has unsuccessfully pushed the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by ex-general of the former military junta, to amend the constitution, which reserves one-quarter of the seats in parliament for military officers, giving them an effective veto on constitutional change.
The constitution, which was promulgated after an allegedly rigged referendum before the former junta held the nation’s first democratic election in 2010 (which was also widely criticized), does not not allow the civilian government much say in the crucial ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs, whose ministers have to be serving military officers and which consequently report to the military.
Moreover, Article 20(b) of the constitution empowers the military to run its own show without any accountability to the civilian government. It states, “The Defence Services has the right to independently administer and adjudicate all affairs of the armed forces.”
“Affairs of the armed forces” are so broadly provided for in the charter that the military can bring anything under its jurisdiction. Article 20(e) states, “The Defence Services is mainly responsible for safeguarding the nondisintegration of the Union, the non-disintegration of National solidarity and the perpetuation of sovereignty.” What does this include? The Army has been empowered to interpret the constitution. Article 20(f) says, “The Defence Services is mainly responsible for safeguarding the Constitution.” Safeguarding of the charter cannot be separated from its interpretation, or the spirit of the constitution.
The army also has the power to impose military discipline on the whole population if it so wants, according to Article 20 (b): “The Defence Services has the right to independently administer and adjudicate all affairs of the armed forces.”
Limits, Possibilities of Civilian Government
Therefore, the civilian government will have little or no control over any of the armed forces, including police or the security guards that would be deployed for the protection of ministers, the president and other VIPs, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
This also means that resolving the numerous ethnic conflicts will be an uphill task for the NLD.
The USDP government signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight of the 16 ethnic organizations weeks before the November election, even as the military continues to attack armed groups in Kachin and Shan states, which refused to sign it unless the government involved all armed ethnic groups.
The Union Peace Central Committee, formed by President Thein Sein, a former high-ranking army general, to represent the government in the peace process with ethnic armed resistance groups, is dominated by the military. And the body above this committee is the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), the highest authority in the government of Burma, which comprises the president; both vice presidents, one of whom is always an appointee of the military; the two speakers of the national parliament; the commander in chief of the armed forces and his deputy; and the ministers of defense, home affairs, border affairs and foreign affairs. In other words, six of the 11 members in the council are military officers or appointees.
Contrary to expectations, the NLD government, on its own, may not even be able to free the remaining political prisoners. Thousands of political prisoners have been freed over the last few years. But, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, jails in Myanmar still have 97 political prisoners, and 471 others who are facing trial.
The new NLD government will, however, have somewhat greater freedom in running more than a dozen remaining ministries, including the ministries of information, religious affairs, economic affairs and finance.
The Thein Sein government abolished censorship in 2012 and several exiled journalists were able to return to the country. However, seven journalists were sentenced to jail terms and a freelance journalist was killed over the past year, according to media reports. Therefore, “invisible limits,” as local journalists call the self-censorship, remain due to fear that has been created among the journalists’ fraternity. The new government can help alleviate such fears, and also seek to pass a right to information law to give journalists access to all unclassified information.
The NLD government can also take on social actors that are promoting communal hate and intolerance.
The Patriotic Association of Myanmar, abbreviated in the local language as “Ma Ba Tha” and which consists of powerful Buddhist monks and nuns, successfully lobbied the Thein Sein government for the passage of four bills through parliament that criminalize polygamy and adultery and restrict religious conversions and interfaith marriage, targeting mainly the Muslim minority to stop an imaginary Islamic “invasion” of Myanmar.
This divisive movement began in the wake of mass violence perpetrated against the Rohingya, who are part of a minority Muslim ethnic group in Northern Rakhine State, in 2013. Suu Kyi has been criticized for not speaking out strongly enough against the bloodbath. Her party also chose not to field even one Muslim candidate, to avoid a direct clash with “Ma Ba Tha” monks. This may have sent the wrong message to the leaders of the movement, namely that they can dictate their agenda to the government. Suu Kyi needs to ensure that this is reversed at the earliest.
Measures such as reducing corruption and making business and economics more inclusive could also be achievable goals for the NLD government.
Mess of Governance
Aung San Suu Kyi – likely to be the “de facto” president as the constitution bars her from the presidency due to her foreign family members – is likely to at least try and deal with these issues. However, the road ahead is both challenging and messy. To succeed, she will need the support of both good administrators and highly skilled negotiators, given that the constitution provides for two parallel powers, the defense establishment and the civilian government, giving far more authority to the former. Negotiations with the military will often involve uncomfortable and unpopular tradeoffs.
Suu Kyi should also prepare for more criticism than she has ever faced before. Welcome to the world of politics and governance!