Halfway to democracy

Print edition : December 11, 2015

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, arrives at the Lower House of Parliament in Nay Pyi Taw on November 16 for the first parliament meeting after the November 8 general elections. Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/REUTERS

Supporters of the National League for Democracy shout slogans outside the party headquarters in Yangon on November 9. Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Outside a polling station in Mandalay on November 8. Photo: Hkun Lat/AP

President Thein Sein. He allowed the oppositon to campaign freely. Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP

At an area for Muslim refugees north of Sittwe in western Rakhine, a May 8, 2014, photograph. Suu Kyi preferred to remain silent on the Rohingya issue to the consternation of many of her supporters. Photo: Robin McDowell/AP

The Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy scores a thumping victory in Myanmar, marking a partial comeback of civilian rule in the country.

It has been an electoral sweep for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, in the general elections held in Myanmar on November 8. It was for the first time open elections were held in the country after a gap of more than 25 years. In the last free elections held in 1990, the NLD won a landslide victory, but the military junta ruling the country at the time refused to accept the outcome. Harsh political repression followed.

Suu Kyi was first arrested in 1989. In all, she has spent around 15 years under house arrest. Thousands of her supporters were also imprisoned for long years.

Myanmar’s national election commission announced on November 13 that the NLD had won an absolute majority to rule on its own. With more than 80 per cent of the seats now assured in the country’s parliament, the NLD is poised to form a government of its own in March. Of the 664 seats in the Upper and Lower Houses of the parliament, the military directly nominates 166 members from the armed forces. The military government’s term will end only by the end of the year and the new parliament will meet in January to elect a new President. For the first time since 1962, people’s representatives will be electing the head of state.

The military-backed ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), lost even in the administrative capital, Nay Pyi Taw, which is populated by families of army officers and bureaucrats. Almost all the serving Ministers who contested under the USDP banner lost the elections. The NLD swept urban and rural areas and areas dominated by ethnic minorities where the smaller parties had hoped to do well. President Thein Sein was quick to congratulate Suu Kyi and her party on “gathering the support of the people”. In his message, the former military leader said that the government “will respect and follow the people’s choice and decision and work on transferring power peacefully according to the timetable”.

Army’s long shadow

Even while conceding the presidency and ushering in a form of truncated parliamentary democracy, the army will continue to cast a long shadow over the country’s politics. Suu Kyi, now the undisputed leader of the Myanmarese people, is constitutionally barred from holding the presidency. The current Constitution, which is the handiwork of the army, has a provision barring citizens having foreign spouses or children with foreign passports from holding the top post. It was incorporated specifically to exclude Suu Kyi, whose late husband was a British academic. Her two sons have British citizenship.

The Constitution ensures that the army will continue to have direct control over the police and large sections of the bureaucracy. The army chief will not be answerable to the President. The previous military government, which drafted the Constitution, wanted to replicate the Indonesian model of transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. Indonesia has not been able to shake off the vestiges of military rule even today. In fact, there are reports that the Indonesian army is again exerting itself to politically constrict the new President, Joko Widodo.

The Myanmarese military can veto any amendment to the Constitution. Suu Kyi has said that she will try to amend the Constitution. With the NLD enjoying such a large majority in the parliament and overwhelming public support, it will be difficult for the army brass to stonewall gradual amendment of the Constitution. The two sides have agreed to talk about the future course for the country before a civilian government is formed. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, speaking after the election results were out, said that the armed forces would “continue to strengthen the multiparty democracy system”. The administration of Thein Sein, in comparison to earlier military governments, had freed many political prisoners and allowed the opposition to campaign freely.

More than a thousand election observers from the United States and European Union countries were allowed to monitor the elections. They duly certified the elections as broadly free and fair despite hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people being disenfranchised before the elections. Many Muslim candidates were not allowed to stand for elections by the election commission on flimsy grounds.

Though many of the restrictions on the media were removed, the government implicitly encouraged Islamophobia, hoping that the army-backed ruling party would harvest the votes. The army encouraged a radical Buddhist organisation, Ma Ba Tha (the Patriotic Association of Myanmar), which has been in the forefront in targeting the Rohingya.

The organisation tried to paint the NLD as an Islamist party despite the absence of a single Muslim candidate on the NLD’s electoral list. Suu Kyi herself preferred to remain silent on the Rohingya issue to the consternation of many of her supporters and admirers. “There can be no democratic elections without human rights,” said a statement released by Forum Asia, a Bangkok-based human rights group.

The charisma of Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s foremost freedom fighter, General Aung San, coupled with the anti-incumbency factor, undermined the military’s game plan for holding on to complete power. Suu Kyi has said that until the Constitution is suitably amended, she will appoint a President who will be taking orders from her. “The President will be told what exactly he can do,” she told the media. “I make all the decisions because I am the leader of the winning party.”

But despite the scale of her sweeping victory, the army’s influence could stymie her plans. Its nominees will occupy 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament. Under the existing constitution, these MPs will have the right to select one of the two Vice Presidents, who in all likelihood will be an army officer. The army chief will also have the final say in the selection of the Ministers in charge of the Defence, Home Affairs and Border portfolios as they all have to be serving officers. In short, under the existing Constitution, an NLD government will not have control of these key Ministries.

Many of the ethnic minorities such as the Kachins and the Shans have been at war with the Central government for the past 60 years. The ethnic minorities have little trust left in the army. For lasting peace, they want a meaningful share of power. With the military still calling the shots, they will be loath to give up arms and enter the political mainstream.

Further circumscribing the powers of the civilian government is a body that is above both the parliament and the executive, known as the National Defence and Security Council. This body, consisting of 11 members, has the power to overrule the decisions taken by the civilian government. Six of the members of the Council are from the military. Over and above all this, the military has inserted clauses relating to “national security” and “national unity” in the Constitution that will allow it to circumvent government decisions.

To amend the Constitution, the ruling party needs the support of more than 75 per cent of the legislators in the parliament. With the army already having 25 per cent of the seats and pro-military parties having another 50 seats, the Constitution can be amended only if the army removes itself completely from politics. Given the post-independence history of Myanmar, that is a tall order. Thant Myint-U, a Myanmarese historian, told The New York Times that the electoral exercise in November “was not an election of a government”. He said that it was merely “an election for a spot in a shared government with the army”.

International interests

All the same, the international community has welcomed the outcome of the elections. The two major powers vying for influence in the country, the U.S. and China, have been careful to keep both Suu Kyi and the army in good humour. Since independence, Myanmar has been following a “neutral” foreign policy. Until the late 1980s, the military leaders did not want to be overdependent on either China or India, its two big neighbours. Suu Kyi was viewed by the military rulers as being close to India, where she had grown up and had her education.

The brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1988 and the annulment of the results of the 1990 elections led to the imposition of tough Western sanctions on the country. It was following this that the military government forged closer economic relations with China.

Ties with India improved in the beginning of the last decade, but India was in no position to match the economic clout of China and instead opted to play second fiddle to the U.S. in Myanmar and the South-East Asian region. Suu Kyi was also not happy with the rapprochement between New Delhi and Yangon at a time when she was languishing under house arrest.

It was after 2011, when Thein Sein took over as President, that the military junta changed its foreign policy course. After the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the country in December 2011, the government unilaterally suspended the huge, Chinese-funded Myitsone dam project. Bilateral relations between Washington and Yangon were restored. Many of the sanctions were lifted and the West started describing Myanmar as a “developing democracy”. American, European and Japanese companies started investing in the country, which has an abundance of mineral resources and cheap labour. All this happened after the Barack Obama administration announced its “pivot to the East” policy aimed at isolating China militarily. China continues to be the biggest investor and trading partner of the country.

Suu Kyi has been assiduously courted in the capitals of the world, including New Delhi, Washington and Beijing, after she was released. Her father, Gen. Aung San, had teamed up with the Japanese occupation forces to fight the Chinese army during the Second World War. For that matter, many freedom fighters in the region, like Sukarno and Subhas Chandra Bose, had also aligned with the Japanese during that period of anti-colonial struggle.