Myanmar’s slow, incomplete transition to democracy

When a government led by the National League for Democracy is sworn in on Wednesday, it will mark only progress, not complete change

March 28, 2016 11:13 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 04:57 am IST - YANGON:

Speaking at an armed forces’ parade, Myanmar's Commander-in-Chief,General Min Aung Hlaing, had called the Army the country’s sole unifying force and protector of the Constitution. Picture shows the General with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Speaking at an armed forces’ parade, Myanmar's Commander-in-Chief,General Min Aung Hlaing, had called the Army the country’s sole unifying force and protector of the Constitution. Picture shows the General with Aung San Suu Kyi.

From the bustling downtown of Scott Market — renamed as Bogyoke Aung San Market — to the diplomatic corps, there is much speculation in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, after comments by the country’s Senior General, Min Aung Hlaing over the weekend. His remarks confirmed that when a National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government is sworn in on Wednesday, it would only mark progress towards a predominantly civilian government, not an establishment of full democracy.

Civil-military cooperation

Speaking at the annual armed forces’ parade, Gen. Hlaing specified that the armed forces would “cooperate to bring about prosperity” if “obstacles” like “failure to abide by the rule of law and regulations” and “armed insurgencies” are overcome. Then only “will there be advancement on the path of democracy”, he asserted.

In the style of one of his Pakistani counterparts, the general claimed that during the transition to civilian rule, the military was Myanmar’s sole unifying force and protector of the Constitution.

The statement seemed to fly in the face of the NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks to BBC after her landslide election victory in November, wherein she said any attempt to throw a spanner in the works “would sabotage the will of the people”. She added: “People will not stand for it.” Ms. Suu Kyi (70) did not attend the parade.

The fact is, though, she is only too aware that in accordance with Myanmar’s constitutional arrangement, representatives of the armed forces will continue to retain three important portfolios in the Cabinet — home, defence and border affairs. Of these, the first mentioned is particularly significant, as it is not only responsible for maintaining peace and internal security, but all civil servants, right down to district level, report to it. As a Western diplomat put it, if they so desire, the armed forces could indirectly “impede implementation of policies” of ministries being administered by the NLD.

After decades of junta regimes since 1962, Myanmar has undergone a steady transformation since 2011, thereby emerging from isolation to a budding acceptance by the international community.

The military refused to recognise the NLD’s triumph in the 1990 elections; instead it placed the Nobel Prize winning Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated icon of Myanmar’s freedom movement against Britain, General Aung San, under house arrest.

In 2010, however, General Thein Sein, switching from khakis to civvies, formed a political party — United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — o set up an armed forces-approved, reformist government a year later. In 2012, he granted Ms. Suu Kyi and some of her colleagues entry into Parliament in carefully calibrated by-elections.

The NLD was required to win a minimum of 67 per cent of seats in the union legislature to earn the right to form a government. In the event, in what can be called a rousing triumph, they captured 75 per cent of the seats. And this time, the military permitted Daw Suu — as she is popularly addressed — to take over the reins of power in the realms of economic development and external affairs.

At the same time, Ms. Suu Kyi’s choice of Finance and Commerce Ministers have given rise to controversy. Both are said to have fake degrees from American universities.

Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst, criticised the NLD’s lack of information about the nominees’ backgrounds and told The Myanmar Times that they should have looked for ability and qualifications, rather than appointing people close to the leadership.

Zaw Myint Maung, a spokesman for the party, reacted by saying the Ministers were honest and haven’t deceived anyone. “They have no guilt.” Interestingly, a reliable source indicated that India had played a helpful behind-the-scenes role in recommending the NLD to take control of “communication” by assuming charge of the ministry of information. This will be headed by a former journalist Pe Myint.

Ms. Suu Kyi, who partly grew up in Delhi, where her mother Khin Kyi was Myanmar’s Ambassador, married an Oxford academic, now deceased. This resulted in her two sons adopting British nationality.

To ostensibly deny her the post of head of government and state, the armed forces framed a clause in the country’s Constitution which debars a person with foreign children from holding such office. So the administration spearheaded by the NLD has an economist and close associate of Ms. Suu Kyi, Htin Kyaw, as President-elect, not Suu Kyi herself.

Yet, Daw Suu has made no bones about who will remain the boss. “I will make all the decisions. It is as simple as that,” she categorically told BBC after the elections.

She pointed out she is the leader of the winning party and explained: “I do believe in transparency and accountability; these are the basis of good governance.”

Suu Kyi to hold 4 ministries

While this has not been officially announced, it appears to be an open secret that Ms. Suu Kyi may control as many as four departments in the government — foreign affairs, President’s office, education and energy & electric power.

Thant Myint U, a Cambridge and Harvard educated historian and grandson of U. Thant, once secretary-general of the United Nations, in his book Where China Meets India , portrays Myanmar as a battleground between India and China.

India pursued a principled and hard-line approach towards the junta under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, but without benefit. It, in fact, consolidated cooperation between China and Myanmar to aid and abet separatists in India’s Northeast.

Therefore, the tough line was reversed by Premier P.V. Narasimha Rao as a component of his “Look East” policy. Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Myanmar in 2012. Narendra Modi followed suit in 2014.

Myanmar’s engagement with China expanded explosively during the Cold War following economic sanctions by the West. Consequently, New Delhi is far behind Beijing vis-à-vis investment and trade. But New Delhi has been fighting back under the Rao doctrine, with extension of aid and soft credit to the tune $2 billion, according the Indian Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya, and trade rising to $2.5 billion in the current financial year.

Pertinently, Suu Kyi is on record as stating: “Myanmar can play an important role in improving ties between India and China.” Time will tell whether this comes true.

( Ashis Ray is a London-based journalist currently in Myanmar. )

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