The first civilian government in more than 50 years in Myanmar (Burma) formally took over the reins of power on April 1. The military, which has had a monopoly on power for most of the years since the country gained independence, will continue to have a major say in the running of the government. The Constitution it has bequeathed to the country without meaningful debate has placed major roadblocks on the path to a smooth transition to full-fledged civilian rule. Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a sweeping victory in the elections, has not been allowed to become President, nor has the junta relaxed its iron grip over key state institutions. The Constitution explicitly prohibits citizens with foreign spouses or children holding foreign passports from holding the top post in government. Though her husband is no more, Suu Kyi’s two children are British. The NLD leader, who spent 15 long years incarcerated by the military, failed in her efforts to convince the military top brass to allow her to become President. In early March, she held three closed-door meetings with the current military chief, Ming Aung Hlaing, in order to cut a deal with the military.
After a landslide victory in the elections in November last year, Suu Kyi made it clear that she would be calling the shots as far as major decision-making was concerned in the new government. After the army vetoed her demand, she chose her close confidant, Htin Kyaw, as the NLD’s candidate for President. He was elected with a thumping majority. “I have become President because of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s goodwill and loving kindness,” he told reporters after his election. Two Vice-Presidents, one of them a candidate of the army, were also elected. Myint Swe, the army’s choice, was a former head of intelligence. Many in Myanmar hold him responsible for the crackdown on the monks’ protests in 2007. The NLD selected Henry Van Thio, who belongs to the ethnic Chin minority. He is a former army officer who is said to have good relations with the current military hierarchy.
When the Cabinet was announced in March, Suu Kyi was given charge of four key portfolios, including that of Foreign Affairs. However, in early April it was announced that she would hold only two portfolios. New nominees have been put forward for the Energy and Education Ministries. Three other important portfolios, Defence, Border Security, and Interior, were given to representatives of the military as mandated by the army-drafted Constitution. The Interior Ministry in particular is a powerful one, having within its ambit the duties of coordinating and communicating with all the different Ministries. It also controls appointments to all the provincial and State-level bodies. When Suu Kyi was negotiating with the army top brass after last year’s elections, she offered them three additional Cabinet portfolios provided that they relented on the issue of her assuming the presidency. The new President, Htin Kyaw, in his first speech in the parliament, advised his countrymen to be patient as the government strove for full democracy. “We have to work for a Constitution that is in harmony with democratic values,” he said. After a meeting with Than Shwe, the former army ruler, Suu Kyi stated that the incoming civilian government would not focus on the past. The army brutally suppressed the pro-democracy movement in 1988. The army has also been accused of serious human rights violations and other crimes in its decades-long war with various ethnic minorities. In addition, there are charges relating to corruption and misuse of office during the long era of military rule. But in the last couple of years, Suu Kyi and the army have had a cosy relationship.
The NLD and the army broadly agreed on the changes in foreign policy, particularly on the country’s pro-United States tilt. After a visit by the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in 2011, Myanmar was elevated from the status of a “pariah state” to that of an “emerging democracy”. After President Barack Obama announced his “pivot to the East”, Myanmar was quick to abandon its pro-China tilt and open up the economy to Western investments.
Suu Kyi on her part started visiting Western capitals to persuade them to lift the economic sanctions on the country. She was noticeably silent on the targeting of the Muslim Rohingya minority. She was also supportive of the army’s new economic policies that aimed to convert the country into South-East Asia’s newest “sweat shop”. After the meeting with Suu Kyi, Than Shwe described her as “a future leader” of the country. But the new army leadership does not want to let go of the tight leash it has on the civilian government. In recent weeks, it has been sending out signals that it is unhappy over the powers that are incrementally being accrued to Suu Kyi.
As soon as the new civilian-dominated parliament opened on April 1, the NLD introduced a Bill to create a new post of “state counsellor”. It was the first Bill to be passed by the legislature after it convened. Despite the objections of the army, which still controls more than 25 per cent of the seats in the national parliament, the proposal has been speedily accepted by the Upper House. It has to be approved by the Lower House and the new President. That will only be a formality. The “state counsellor’s” job will be akin to that of a Prime Minister.
With this deft political move, Suu Kyi’s authority will now be stamped on the legislature as well as the executive. As “state counsellor”, she will be able to openly interact with the legislature and the executive. After being appointed a Minister, she had to give up her parliamentary seat. As Foreign Minister, she will be able to sit on the influential military-dominated defence and security committees.
Aung Kyi Nyunt, a senior member of the NLD who helped draft the Bill, said that Suu Kyi would now be able to advise the speakers of the two Houses on problems relating to peace and development that the nation was facing. Establishing a lasting peace with ethnic groups that have been at war with the Central government, some of them since independence, is a high priority for Suu Kyi. Forty per cent of the country’s population consists of people from different ethnic groups. Despite predictions to the contrary, ethnic communities also voted massively for the NLD and generally ignored the army-backed party. Suu Kyi also wants to expedite the release of more than 500 political prisoners who were charged under the draconian laws of the military junta.
The next move, which may take some time, will be to formally amend the Constitution so that she can legally assume the top job. That will require support from a 75 per cent majority plus one. Only a split among the legislators nominated by the army, which holds 25 per cent of the seats, will enable the passage of a constitutional amendment. Many of those whom the army has nominated to the parliament are senior officers, and a number of them hold the rank of colonels and major generals. Their mandate is clear: to ensure that the army’s influence and perks continue to remain unscathed.
Suu Kyi seems equally determined in her pledge to “be above” the President. Given her new exalted status as de facto Prime Minister, she will be able to wear many hats, including that of the leader of the ruling party in the parliament. The supporters of the army have already described her latest move as “power grab”. The members of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party have been critical of Suu Kyi’s political gambit. One senior army politician said that the proposed move would destroy the balance of power that existed between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Another army officer, also a parliamentarian, said that the move would put the post of “state counsellor” on a par constitutionally with the President. Given her popularity at home and on the world stage, there is little the army can do at this juncture. Like its counterpart in neighbouring Thailand, the current army leadership will bide its time and wait for the civilian-dominated government to falter and for rifts to emerge within the ruling NLD. Thaksin Shinawatra, and later on his sister Yingluk, were elected with huge majorities in Thailand in consecutive elections. But a politicised army, in cahoots with a corrupt Bangkok elite, has repeatedly undermined democracy. Even as the people of Myanmar are celebrating the election of the first civilian President after more than 50 years of army rule, the military in Thailand is proposing to introduce a new Constitution that will drastically curtail democracy.
As of now, the 70-year-old Nobel laureate strides the domestic political scene with supreme confidence. Step by step, she is trying to tame the highly politicised army. It will not be easy as the army controls key government institutions and has stakes in lucrative business ventures which it is loath to give up. In a recent speech on the occasion of the Armed Forces Day, the army chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, said that the military had to “play a leading role in national politics with regard to the ways with which we stand along the history and critical situations of the country”. Under the current Constitution, the army chief can take over in a crisis situation.