‘Suu Kyi will play a critical role in Myanmar’

Historian Thant Myint-U explains how Myanmar could offer a powerful example of a peaceful transition from authoritarianism to democracy

Updated - March 28, 2016 06:22 pm IST

Published - November 17, 2015 01:27 am IST

The election marks the beginning of democratisation of Myanmar’ssociety. Picture shows a graffiti of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The election marks the beginning of democratisation of Myanmar’ssociety. Picture shows a graffiti of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The historic election in Myanmar on November 8 is the first step to a peaceful transition of power after decades of military rule. The people of Myanmar have given an absolute majority to the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD). In step, the military, which continues to exercise power over the defeated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), seems committed to play by the norms of electoral politics. In an e-mail interview with Kallol Bhattacherjee , Thant Myint-U, author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia and chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, says the election marks the beginning of not just transition but also democratisation of Myanmar’s society where minorities are yet to find space. Excerpts:

Kallol Bhattacherjee
What is the significance of the Myanmar elections in the global context?

Myanmar’s elections are the first general elections since the beginning of political reforms in 2011. They are a test of the country’s democratic transition. Myanmar’s path to democracy, far from being complete, has been a top-down process, begun by the military elite, that has so far kept on board all parts of the political spectrum. The Constitution is hybrid: it has democratic elements, but still protects core military interests. The first step was the 2010 election (which was boycotted by the NLD), which ushered in a far more open political environment and competitive politics. In this second step, the main opposition, the NLD, will take over the reins of government, but within this hybrid constitutional framework. If successful in the years to come, Myanmar will offer a powerful example of a peaceful transition from authoritarianism.

What kind of ideological currents emerged during the election?

The election was a two-way contest between the ruling establishment and its party of ex-generals (the USDP), and the NLD. Neither has offered detailed policy agendas or has clear ideological moorings. They do not differ in any significant way on foreign policy either. But they do differ in their attitudes to Myanmar’s history of military rule, and in the speed with which they would like to see further democratic change.

Ms. Suu Kyi is disqualified from holding the top post of Myanmar. Is there an alternative line of leaders?

There are many capable people in Myanmar and in the NLD. But for obvious reasons, the only ones with actual experience in government are those in the old military establishment and existing bureaucracies.

Will Ms. Suu Kyi’s personality cult grow over time in Myanmar?

It’s hard to imagine a Myanmar where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not head and shoulders above all other political figures. I think she will play a critical role in Myanmar politics for many years to come.

Will the clause that disqualifies her be revised by the new government?

It would require a constitutional amendment; the armed forces would need to give their de facto assent. Only then would it be put to a referendum in which more than half of all the eligible voters nationwide would have to say yes. It will not be an easy clause to change.

Does it mean that Ms. Suu Kyi might end up as the real power behind the government?

I think so. She will clearly be in charge of her party. The party in turn will dominate Parliament. It is now in a position to choose the next President and one of two Vice-Presidents (and most but not all the Cabinet). What the exact working relationship will be between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as party head and the new President, who will be her selection, remains to be seen.

What will be the civil-military relation in Myanmar following this election?

The relationship between the current USDP government and the military has been a cooperative one. But the USDP is headed by recently retired generals, including the incumbent President. Many had been senior to the current army chiefs within the military hierarchy not long ago. A government led by former opposition leaders and civilians with no military background may have a far different relationship to the military, which will still control key offices.

Understandably the military in Myanmar has stakes in business. What is your opinion on armed forces having ties with business groups?

There are two large military-controlled business conglomerates. They operate in the same way as many other conglomerates in Myanmar. Since 2011, they have paid taxes on their income. The military has no formal ties otherwise with any specific business group. There may be many informal ties but these are not clear from the outside. Corruption is a big problem in Myanmar but again it’s difficult for an outsider to assess properly. It is certainly the case that people with connections to people in power have an easier time making lots of money, but I think we can all agree that that situation is not unique to Myanmar. Many leading businessmen are, I would think, politically neutral, though some clearly have USDP links whilst others have openly supported the NLD. It’s a complex business environment. It would be wrong to generalise about the top business class in Myanmar.

The junta has a record of not respecting the public mandate. Why do you think they supported the mandate this time?

It’s about a sense of history and a desire to see the country move in a different direction. The generals (now ex-generals) decided almost 10 years ago to take this path. They began to prepare for this transition 6-7 years ago when few believed them. They have actually done more or less everything they said they would do when they first set out on their “road map” in the mid-2000s. They have been saying repeatedly over the past few years that they would hold free and fair elections and respect the results. Many have said to me that they believe this is the role in history, to make possible this transition. There is an incredibly strong desire, across the political spectrum in Myanmar, including in the officer corps, to see Myanmar catch up with China, India, Thailand, and everyone else in the region, and see a better life for their children. We should not be too cynical about what is happening in Myanmar today.

Myanmar is also highly sought after in the global market because of its minerals, agro-products, and strategic importance. Do you think the world is eager to break into the Myanmarese resource basket and that the democratic movement is under pressure to oblige the global market forces?

There is a long history of wariness, going back to discussions around the India Act of 1919; a strong sense that Myanmar needs to be protected from exploitative forces from the outside. At the same time, the legacy of self-imposed isolation and then sanction have been so disastrous that I think most people do want to re-engage and see new, well-managed foreign trade and investment. But that’s the problem, as Myanmar really does not have the strong institutions that are necessary to properly reintegrate with the world economy. On the other hand, it cannot wait a generation or two needed to develop these institutions.

Myanmar is in the middle of a rivalry in the Southeast Asian region among various global powers. How do you think it will balance these various forces?

There is very little discussion of foreign policy in Myanmar. The country is extremely inward-looking with very little knowledge of politics, even in next-door neighbours such as India and China. A nascent democracy may be even more inward-looking. I think Myanmar should be much more proactive in its foreign policy, seek to build good relations with countries around the world, and be more involved in multilateral forums such as at the United Nations. The country’s natural foreign policy is a non-aligned one, and that is its instinct. But I think it will need a more imaginative approach if it is going to do well in this neighbourhood over the coming decades.

What is your assessment of the regional impact on Southeast Asia of this historic election of Myanmar? Will this election also send a message to the people of China?

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Expectations are sky-high. If a new democratic (or even quasi-democratic) country can really deliver on the economy and improve standards of living over the coming years, then yes, I think it will have an impact on people’s thinking in other authoritarian societies.

Do you think Myanmar will take remedial steps for the Rohingya under the new democratic government?

I think the current government has taken some important initial steps. We have not seen any repeat of communal violence for more than two years. There is still the specific challenge of displacement. I’m not sure how a new government will try to manage the situation. The regional Arakan National Party has done reasonably well in regional elections and Arakanese (Rakhine Buddhist) sentiment may have a stronger voice than in the past.

It is said that Ms. Suu Kyi has remained silent when it comes to resolving the issue of the Rohingya refugees.

I don’t think she’s been silent. And to be fair, she has not been in a position to do very much. But that will change by April and we’ll have to see if she chooses to move government policy in a new direction.

What kind of electoral participation has come from the conflict-ridden communities of Myanmar like the Karen, and minorities like the Han Chinese?

We’ll have to wait to see the final election numbers. I would only say that in many conflict-affected areas, the overwhelming desire of local people is more likely to be peace and freedom from the kind of semi-criminal exploitation they are often subject to, than any specific political programme.

What kind of peace initiatives will be taken by the democratic government for the warring ethnic groups of Myanmar?

The peace process is at a very delicate moment. The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was drafted by almost all the non-state armed groups that have been fighting the government over the years, but then only signed by eight. There are hundreds of other militia, primarily along the Sino-Myanmar border. In 1949 Prime Minister U Nu promised “peace within a year”. It should be a top priority, but it will not be easy. There are multi-billion dollar mining, logging, and narcotics operations at stake. There is also deep distrust, lack of institutions that could easily implement agreements, and issues of pride on all sides.

Do you think India’s working ties with the junta cast a shadow on future ties between New Delhi and Myanmar?

The junta was abolished in March 2011. I don’t think there has been a marked change of policy between 2011 and today, and I don’t think there will be one in the years to come. What’s needed beyond immediate security-related issues is a shared vision for the future of Northeast India and Myanmar, that will be beneficial to the people on both sides. I have a great desire to see strengthened people-to-people relations between Myanmar and India, in particular Northeast India, as well as greater economic ties. I think it’s important to work towards a shared vision and not make border security issues the be-all and end-all of bilateral ties.


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