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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 16 New Delhi April 9, 2016

Myanmar on Move....: Love-hate Relationship and a Marriage of Convenience!

Sunday 10 April 2016

by Sonu Trivedi

Having undergone transition from authoritarianism to democracy in 2010, Myanmar’s ‘disciplined’ democracy is on move since the first free and fair democratic elections in 2015 held after a gap of six decades. However, in its current phase of transition, on the one hand it is facing the daunting task of re-building its institutions, while on the other, the forces of the past remain powerful demanding a delicate balancing and thoughtful compromises both from the wielders of past regime and the present leadership.

The New government in Myanmar remains deeply entangled amidst the tussle between the hardliners and soft-liners in the authority. This is visible in both the military as well as the democratic camp. The hardliners in the military are more concerned about securing their position and seats in the parliament and the Cabinet whereas reformists are providing space for democracy to blossom though it is still in its nascent stage. However, what is more alarming is that the reform process in Myanmar is scarred by reformists and the hardliners in the democratic camp as well. The National League for Democracy (NLD) suffers from a lack of professionalism and centralised structure. There has been a strong discontentment amongst its members during the pre-election phase on the issue of selection of candidates and distribution of party tickets; this has further deepened in the post-election scenario owing to the distribution and allocation of ministerial portfolios.

The complicated and delicate relationship between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi has been the bedrock of the current reform process in Myanmar. Any strain in this relationship is going to adversely affect the transition process in the country. The changing political dynamics with the entry of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in parliament is going to shape the future of political transformation in Myanmar. Her entry in parliament has been a means of legitimising the regime’s mandate to govern and enhance its own reform credentials. The military needs her in parliament to bolster its authority in the government. However, Aung San Suu Kyi needs the military perhaps more than anyone else if she is to advance politically and amend the Constitution, given that a quarter of seats are reserved for the military in parliament. Therefore, any effort to amend the Constitution cannot disregard the role and support of the military officers present in parliament.

Amidst the current state of affairs, choosing a ‘proxy’ candidate as the President (reasons for which are obvious); creating the post of ‘State Counsellor’ and assuming it; and reserving the Cabinet berth of Minister in the President’s Office for herself, in addition to the Foreign Ministry explains the appeasement of the military to retain its influence as prescribed and specified within the letters of the Constitution. However, at this juncture, Aung San Suu Kyi also cannot afford a confrontationist strategy if she has to assume a ‘pseudo’- presidential role outside the framework of the Constitution. This compromise between the ‘letter of the law’ versus the ‘spirit of the law’ echoes a unique ‘love-hate’ relationship and a ‘marriage of convenience’ by both—the military and the NLD to retain their control over authority in Myanmar respectively.

Demilitarising politics and sending the military ‘back to the barracks’ is the foremost challenge for the new government which requires consistent effort and perseverance. Notwithstanding the reform initiatives, the Army still wields enor-mous influence over Myanmar’s institutions. The Ministry of Defence, Home and Border Affairs remain under the armed forces [Article 232 (b) (ii) of the 2008 Constitution]. Furthermore, Article 201 related to the formation of a National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) and its role during the Emer-gency is a sign of the military being sacrosanct. Failure of the democratic forces to bring about constitutional reforms and the amendment of the controversial Article 59(f) of the Constitution has ruled out all the possibilities of Aung San Suu Kyi becoming the President, though she is the leader of the largest ruling party in parliament. On top, Article 60 provides for the procedure of electing the President who is chosen from the candidates put forward by each of the two Houses of Parliament, in addition to a third nominee from the military. The winning candidate becomes the President while the succeeding two serve as first Vice-President and second Vice-President respectively. In the current Parliament U Htin Kyaw who won with 360 of the 652 votes cast in the two Houses of Parliament, emerged as the President. He was followed by Myint Swe, who was nominated by the military and received 213 votes. The third place was taken over by an ethnic Chin candidate, Henry Van Thio, nominated by the Upper House, who got 79 votes. In addition, the most infamous Article 74 laying down the procedure for formation of the Union Parliament according to which one-third of the seats would be reserved for the Defence Forces in both the Houses and Article 161 extending this modus operandi to the Regional Parliaments. In view of that, Myanmar’s experience reflects its fragile experiment with democracy which still depends upon the relics of the previous regime.

In view of the growing Centre-periphery contestations, the issue of ethnic reconciliation demands high priority of the government, which has signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as a part of the three-stage process towards peace and ethnic reconciliation. Though the government had signed bilateral ceasefire agreements with 15 armed groups, only eight out of these were party to the NCA. However, some of the volatile groups such as the Kachin Independence Army, the United Wa State Army, and the abrogation of the ceasefire agreement by the Kokang ethnic armed group have challenged the reconciliation process and hope for durable peace in Myanmar. Critics are apprehensive about the peace deal because of the ongoing skirmishes with some of the major armed groups and the deep-seated mistrust that some of these ethnic groups share towards the military. Nevertheless, resolving the ethnic issue will be Myanmar’s biggest challenge now. Overcoming the sixty-year-old ethnic conflict will not be easy and the government will have to do a great deal to build the trust necessary to move beyond the ceasefires to resolve the underlying political issues and, last but not the least, ‘post-conflict reconstruction’ and ‘peace building’ which remain crucial for post-conflict security and stability in Myanmar.

Economic reconstruction and recovery in a country where corruption is endemic is an Achilles’ heel. Much of the dominance by the military which remains in Myanmar is also because of its “economic might” and control over resources. Extension of military control over the national economy under Ne Win’s Burmese Way of Socialism and antagonism to private capital, liberalisation and xenophobia has led to the stagnation of the economic institutions in Myanmar. Adoption of the nationalistic policies in the modernisation of the country has led to the establishment of a state- led ‘developmental model’ and absence of strong corporatist elites emerging separate from the military. Pacifying this growing internal urge for economic recovery in recent years, financial stability and security are going to be the single most significant challenge of change for Myanmar.

The newly elected President U Htin Kyaw must focus on safeguarding the interests of the minorities, women, children and other margina-lised communities, release of political prisoners and Child soldiers and cushion the pressures generated by the anchors of the global political economy. The widening ‘majority-minority’ divide has been an unfortunate development in Myanmar. This historic conflict has flared up communal violence in the recent past, thereby complicating the socio-religious fabric and aggravating tensions. On this particular front, the advocate of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, appears to have failed to act, given the possibility of alienating voters during the elections, which otherwise would have been crucial in mainstreaming them. Her critics also appear to be at loggerheads for not having come out openly on this issue of worsening sectarian violence. Thus, consolidating her position amidst the waves of sectarian violence and widening rift between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority is another formidable challenge faced by the new President and Aung San Suu Kyi. Amidst the limited political role she is expected to play, according to the Constitution (theoreti-cally), and the deep skepticism existing towards the political institutions which are still largely dominated by the military, she needs to take calculated steps in this democratic re-engineering and re-structuring.

Sonu Trivedi teaches at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi.