Situated at the strategic crossroads of South Asia and South-East Asia and sandwiched between China and India, two countries with which it shares a long border, Myanmar was until recently believed to be at the cusp of becoming a flourishing constitutional democracy. However, with the countdown for the 2020 general election having started, these hopes have been belied and the interest of the international community in the country has waned. The National League for Democracy (NLD), which emerged as a result of a democratic struggle, has been in power for the past four years. At present, Myanmar and the NLD’s governance are seen through the lens of the Rohingya crisis. A broad look would reveal the current political landscape, framed by the forces of history, disproportionate expectations and structural constraints with an iterative impact in various areas.
In order to understand contemporary Myanmar, some of the changes that took place during the early years of this decade need to be factored in. The equilibrium imposed by several decades of iron-clad military control was shaken by the November 2010 general election. The election was far from free and fair. The NLD did not contest. The party was not even registered by the country’s Election Commission. The election rules prevented anyone “convicted by a court of law from participating in the elections”. The NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was convicted by a court in August 2009 for violating the terms of her house arrest. She had intermittently served house arrests since the 1991 election and survived an assassination attempt in 2003. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
A new political party called the Union Solidarity and Development Party was formed on June 8, 2010. The party contested the election, which was held under a new Constitution that was ratified on May 29, 2008, and won convincingly without any major contest. Its top party leadership mainly comprised former senior military officials. The soft-spoken former military General Thein Sein, who had earlier served as Prime Minister, was appointed President. The military stated that the holding of the election was in line with its seven-step road map to democracy. Myanmar’s democratic forces, both inside and outside (the country has a large dissident population in exile spread across the world), were sceptic about the developments.
Proving naysayers wrong, President Thein Sein took a series of noteworthy steps. In phases, he released hundreds of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, in November 2010. He invited her to his office in August 2011. He even gave a personal touch to the meeting by taking her to his nearby residence to meet his wife. The NLD gained formal recognition as a political party and was registered by the Election Commission. The party contested and won the byelections held on April 1, 2012. This marked the entry of the party into the political structure formulated and designed by the military. In the same period, several bilateral ceasefire agreements were signed with various armed groups representing ethnic minorities and fighting along the peripheral areas of the country. Thein Sein started a political track by appointing a former colleague, Aung Min, to engage with these groups. Aung Min, with his flexible approach and maximalist mandate from the President, was able to nail down ceasefires with many armed groups, most importantly the Karens.
Rare oasis of hope
By the middle of 2012, scepticism made way for hope and excitement. Several countries that had jettisoned any diplomatic engagement with Myanmar re-established their embassies. Some further increased their diplomatic strength. On any weekend social outing in Yangon, one was certain to find a huge population of young expatriates. They worked for a diverse range of Western civil society organisations. Disillusioned by the developments in Afghanistan and Iraq and the failure of the Arab Spring to usher in democracy in West Asia, Myanmar was seen as a rare oasis of hope. Added to this was a relatively safe environment for expatriates to work in than in other countries in transition. The interest of foreign governments was partly economic. After the relative success of neighbouring South-East Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as manufacturing hubs, Myanmar, with its vast young population and cheaper labour, was seen as the next frontier. The adult literacy rate in Myanmar is approximately 89.5 per cent with youth literacy at 94 per cent.
The next keenly awaited event was the November 2015 election. The NLD won a landslide victory. Aung San Suu Kyi, married to a British citizen, was denied the presidentship. This was owing to the constitutional provision 59(d) which says that the President must be someone who “he himself, one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power, not be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country”. To circumvent this provision, she created the position of State Counsellor, a position borrowed from the Chinese system of governance. In practice, since then, she has exercised the powers of the head of government and is the face of the ruling party for the international community as defacto Foreign Minister.
Challenges and constraints
The challenges of and constraints on Aung San Suu Kyi were structural and have together shaped Myanmar’s political trajectory since its independence in 1948. One of the foremost structural challenges, partly existential, that her government inherited was the disconnect between the Burman heartland and the large peripheral areas, largely hilly in the north, inhabited by ethnic minorities. The country was administratively part of the British colonial India project until 1937. Burman ethnicity, predominantly Buddhist, forms the majority and its importance can be sensed from the former name of the country, “Burma”. However, this is not to understate the importance of minorities in the country who form around 35 per cent of the population. Ethnicity can be a fluid concept in various parts of the country as many are descendants of two or more ethnic races.
A major part the country’s politics and history revolves around ethnicity. A 2017 study by the California-based Asia Foundation, a non-profit international development organisation, stated that “almost one-quarter of Myanmar’s population hosts one or more ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) that challenges the authority of the central government”. The governance structures introduced by the British in the non-Burman areas were analogous to the North West Frontier Province, now part of Pakistan. They were given autonomy, with loose administrative arrangements with the central authority. These areas erupted in revolt against attempts by the ruling political structure, which was predominantly Burman, to forcibly integrate them. Bereft of any serious political dialogue and with concerns of national security becoming predominant, the areas became the military’s prerogative as it frequently exercised the instruments of coercion, repression and co-option.
In 2015, the authorities and eight groups spread across the country (which numbered 10 in 2018), agreed to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a mechanism that “stipulates the terms of ceasefires, their implementation and monitoring, and the road map for political dialogue and peace ahead”. Some of these groups had already signed bilateral agreements with the military. The practical connotations of the generic term “peace process” used in Myanmar are nothing new. The fact that these coincided with a potential democratic transition in the country ignited an interest among many relevant actors of the international community specialising in peace processes. One finds similar patterns of the on-and-off ceasefires between the ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, in the past.
Groups that control territory in the northern areas bordering China refused to sign the NCA. The ceasefire agreement signed with the Kachin Independence Army in 1994 ended in 2011. The ceasefire with the United Wa State Army representing Wa ethnicity, one of the 135 constitutionally recognised ethnicities by Myanmar and one of the ethnicities in China, has been in operation since 1989. Both these groups refused to sign the NCA although they held bilateral talks with the Tatmadaw on numerous occasions.
To provide a perspective about their size, the United Wa State Army has approximately 25,000 soldiers. With co-ethnic community members present across the border in China’s Yunnan province, the area is an autonomous zone as recognised by Myanmar’s Constitution, a kind of modus vivendi . Relative peace has prevailed between the two sides as the area was given autonomous status. The ones that had seen recent incidents of episodic flare-ups with the Tatmadaw were the Kachin Independence Army and various groups in the northern Shan state such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. Many of these groups have operational alliances and they hold territories. On the other hand, illicit trade in jade and methamphetamine has created parallel economies. The methamphetamine trade network has tentacles across the South-East Asian region and outside.
Even in Rakhine, which is largely seen from the lens of the ongoing Rohingya crisis, there are multiple layers of conflict. The Arakan Army (Arakan are Buddhists but are ethnically distinct from Burman Buddhists) renewed its fight against the Tatmadaw in the last quarter of 2018. Arakan Buddhists attach a special significance to 1784, the year when the Burmese king of the Konbaung dynasty took control of their capital, Mrauk U. The Konbaung dynasty was defeated in 1885 by the British.
Before the 2015 election, in several interviews, Aung San Suu Kyi questioned the Tatmadaw’s dislike for federalism. In this context, the NLD was expected to be more sensitive to the political concerns of the ethnic minorities and influence the military to make concessions. However, Aung San Suu Kyi is careful not to cross the redlines of the military on this issue. She has led the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre, constituted by her on assumption of power, to hold political dialogue with ethnic groups. Parallel to this, the Tatmadaw continues to have multilayered negotiations with the same groups, either bilaterally or with their alliances, mostly focussing on the military component, including on the intricate and complex modalities of a potential ceasefire.
China and its provinces adjoining Myanmar, such as Yunnan, have parallel linkages with multiple stakeholders in Myanmar, including the leadership of ethnic minorities. NLD rule is marked by greater intricate engagement of Myanmar with China. China’s appointment of specific envoys for Asian affairs, who are defacto , working on Myanmar-related issues since 2013 signifies the importance China attaches to its relations with its southern neighbour. Even before China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) made international headlines, the China-Myanmar oil and natural gas pipelines became operational. The gas pipeline was put into operation in July 2013 and the 1,420 km-long crude oil pipeline became operational in 2017. By July 2019, China imported more than 19 million tonnes of crude oil and more than 20 billion cubic metres of natural gas through the pipelines. The project has strategic significance as the pipeline enables China’s oil and gas imports to lessen its burden on the Malacca Straits, a narrow channel that connects the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
On the BRI alone, several rounds of discussions have taken place between Myanmar and China; Aung San Suu Kyi participated in the two rounds of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. However, this economic relationship has not followed a linear trajectory as a number of Chinese projects are stalled or revised. The proposed Myitsone dam in the Kachin area was called off by President Thein Sein in August 2011 following concerns over massive dislocation of human settlements and potential ecological costs. Aung San Suu Kyi did not relent in spite of China’s consistent attempts at negotiation.
Other Asian countries such as Singapore, Japan and the Republic of Korea invested in Myanmar both before and after the Rohingya crisis. Apart from giving grants for long-term infrastructure projects, which would create win-win situations, India has investments in the oil and gas sector. India is the fifth largest destination for Myanmarese exports and the sixth largest source of imports. The Myanmarese garments industry specifically benefited from the European Union’s “Everything But Arms” scheme, which allows the world’s least developed countries such as Myanmar to export most goods to the E.U. free of duties. The E.U. has said that it is reviewing the preferential treatment given to Myanmar though many human rights advocates have stated that this will only hurt the poor.
In its October 2019 report titled “Weathering Growing Risks” for East Asia and the Pacific, the World Bank remarked that the positive trend in poverty reduction was expected to continue in Myanmar. “Poverty was halved between 2005 and 2017 (from 48 to 25 per cent), based on the national poverty line.” It adds that rural poverty decreased at a lesser scale as “poor agricultural households continue to see slower progress”. Global concerns about rising inequality and climate change impact, with particular vulnerability of the country to natural disasters as evidenced by cyclones and floods in the last few years, are also resonating in Myanmar.
In a span of eight years Myanmar has become one of the most wired societies, which has seen an exponential rise in social media. The price of a SIM card came down from $1,400-$1,500 to around $1. The concomitant problem is the challenge of fake news and hate speech that peaked during the Rohingya crisis.
In the penultimate and final year of its five-year term, the NLD leadership and the regional parties, which have members in Parliament, are seeking to further civilianise the power structure. The Tatmadaw is the architect of the country’s present Constitution in design and substance. By the writ of the Constitution, three important Ministries relating to national security, namely Defence, Home and Border, are held by the military. The military nominates 30 per cent of the Members of Parliament. No amendments can be passed without 75 per cent approval in Myanmar’s Parliament.
Early this year, the NLD formed a committee to draft amendments to the Constitution. Military legislators hit back immediately. In September, they proposed amending the Constitution to bar anyone who has a foreign citizen in their immediate family from becoming a Union Minister or Chief Minister. This is a warning to the NLD leader that any attempt to remove the military from the ruling political structure will invite a similar response against her. The NLD has proposed to amend the Constitution to further strengthen the powers of the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), which includes the dismissal of elected provincial governments. The NDSC has a majority of military representatives. Tatmadaw, which holds supremacy on national security issues, has criticised the NLD for its failure to hold an NDSC meeting since assuming power. There is a rare consensus on amending Section 261 of the Constitution, which empowers the President to appoint the Chief Minister of a region. The military chief has supported the idea of regional legislatures electing their Chief Ministers instead of the President appointing them.
In the final analysis, for most of her term, the NLD leader, who faces little opposition in the Burman heartland, has avoided any direct clash with the military and has, in fact, reinforced the military outlook on some critical issues such as the Rohingya crisis. By presiding over the political executive and sequencing her priorities, Aung San Suu Kyi silenced her critics, in the establishment and even outside, who questioned her administrative ability and implicitly remarked that only the military had the capacity to run the country. However, institutionalisation of the political idea of a peaceful and inclusive democratic Myanmar is a goal far away.
Luv Puri was a member of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Good offices on Myanmar.