Myanmar is moving towards a general election later this year which, while likely to bring about significant changes to the government and parliament will essentially not change the underlying power structure of the land. The country has been under military rule or military-run civilian rule for the past 53 years and nobody should expect this institution, arguably the strongest, best-financed and best-managed in a country that has precious few institutions, to fade away quickly. “The military are not ready to give up power,” said one veteran western observer in Yangon who preferred to remain anonymous. “They are not yet convinced that the country is ready to handle democracy without their guidance.”
But that is not to suggest that the polls, probably to be held in November, will be meaningless. The outcome will be very significant for Myanmar, especially in terms of how the country is perceived by western democracies and western companies. The West puts great stock in elections, and Myanmar’s general election is expected to be a pretty free and fair one, certainly by regional standards.
The military have had some practice in holding elections, and have no doubt learned from their past mistakes. The first lesson learned was that a truly free and fair election, like the one held in 1990, is hard for the military to win. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 1990 polls by a landslide, assisted by the fact that the party’s charismatic leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest at the time, stirring up a huge and spontaneous protest vote. The NLD had won the election but they lost the battle, with many of their members lingering in jail between 1990 to 2010 when the military ruled by junta, denying the NLD their electoral victory and bringing world condemnation and sanctions down upon themselves and their countrymen in the process.
By November, 2010, the military felt they were ready for this election thing again, and this time they won, or rather the military-backed, military-manned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won, with a well-orchestrated landslide. Their victory was assisted by the decision of the NLD to boycott the polls to protest the continued incarceration of their leader, Suu Kyi. She was released six days after the election, a move which satisfied western governments a good deal more than the advent of an “elected, civilian” government in Myanmar. U Thein Sein, the ex-army general who became President in March, 2011, had more plans for Suu Kyi, with whom he broke the political ice in July of that year, inviting her to join mainstream politics, effectively getting the leading opposition movement off the streets and into the august halls of Parliament.
In a by-election held in April, 2012, Suu Kyi and her fellow NLD members won 43 of the 45 contested seats. The world rejoiced. The military-run USDP learned, once again, that winning elections isn’t easy, but at least they had effectively won the battle again. With Suu Kyi in Parliament, the economic sanctions came tumbling down. Myanmar was back in the international fold, and well on its way to economic recovery after five decades of pauperism and neglect. Western leaders, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and later US President Barack Obama himself, flocked to the Golden Land. Suu Kyi was invited abroad to win a plethora of democracy trophies but so was President U Thein Sein (although he missed out of a Nobel peace prize.)
In theory, the USDP has a lot going for itself as it heads for the polls. The economy is booming, averaging 7-8% growth in the past three years and likely to clock up another 8% in fiscal 2015/16, according to the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific Report, April 27, 2015. Foreign direct investment (FDI) hit $8.1 billion in newly approved projects in FY 2014/15, ending March 31, double the $4.1 billion seen in FY 2013/14, according to the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) data. Actual FDI in 2014/15 was more like $5 billion, according to the WB, bringing Myanmar’s cumulative stock to $50 billion, about one third of which is in the gas sector, and 27% by firms from China – the leading foreign investor.
The USDP government has performed less well in clinching a national ceasefire agreement with an estimated 16 ethnic minority insurgent groups and preventing sectarian violence directed against the country’s Muslim minority community, specifically the Rohingya Muslims of the Rakhine State. While such failures irk western democracies, they will not necessarily mean lost votes among the largely ethnic Burman, Buddhist majority.
Even so, the majority of the people are not likely to vote for the USDP simply because they initiated long overdue democratic reforms and reversed the sanctions that the military had brought upon themselves. There is still a good deal of hatred for the military, dating back to the army’s brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement of 1988, that left an estimated 3,000 people dead, to be followed by numerous other deadly crackdowns on any show of dissent, not least the 2007 crackdown.
Suu Kyi, 69, is still a symbol of freedom and democracy, even if a slightly faded one. Most observers expect the NLD to win the upcoming election, especially amid growing optimism that the polls with be rather fair. “There have been major improvements in election administration since the deeply flawed 2010 elections and the more credible 2012 by-elections,” said the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its latest report on Myanmar. “While the election commission is still widely perceived as close to the government and the USDP, the transparent and consultative approach it has adopted and the specific decisions it has taken suggest it is committed to delivering credible polls,” ICG said. International electoral observers may even be invited.
Most observers also expect the USDP/military to block efforts to amend the pro-military 2008 constitution before the polls. The constitution, in its current form, prevents Suu Kyi from becoming president after the polls because the charter prohibits a future president from having close relations of foreign nationality. Suu Kyi was married to the late Michael Aris, a British professor, and their two sons hold British passports. The constitution also cements military control over parliament by providing the institution with a 25% hold on the seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament. To make a change to the constitution needs at least 75% of the vote.
An amendment to the 25% military allotment would therefore require the military to vote themselves out of power, which is unlikely now but not impossible. “Now they are discussing the possibility of phasing the military out of Parliament,” noted U Nyunt Maung Shein, chairman of the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies. “But it will take some time. It will not be overnight, maybe another five to ten years like the Indonesians did. We are following the Indonesian model.” Indonesia also had fixed military representation in its parliament for decades, before the grip was finally loosened leading to the fairly democratic system the country enjoys today.
So Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will not be the next president and the military will still control parliament. There are still some unpredictables in the upcoming election, such as the extent of the expected NLD electoral victory and whether the USDP might gain a slim majority, through clever campaigning and declaring some districts “no voting zones” due to ongoing security concerns (the USDP is not so popular in the area where the army is still on the offensive against ethnic minority groups such as the Kachin, Kokang and Shan.) If the USDP managed to gain 25% of the electoral seats, they could claim a majority of sorts with the military’s 25% allotment.
A more likely scenario is that the NLD will win a majority of the seats, and take the lead in forming the next government with the other winners (there are at least 76 parties contesting.) Although Suu Kyi cannot become president, she might become Lower House speaker. The elected parliamentarians must choose the candidates for the presidency. Current Lower House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, known to be close to Suu Kyi, is seen as a compromise candidate for the presidency. But U Thein Sein may attempt to stay on another term and Army Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is another possible contender from the USDP camp.
To date the NLD have not put up an alternative presidential candidate to Suu Kyi, so it is possible the next government might be NLD-led but under a compromise president. Even if that figure is a military one, the important thing for most western governments and potential western investors will be the presence of the NLD in the government.
“The NLD represent the right mix of concern for justice and human rights with the needs of a modern economy,” said economist Sean Turnell, a long-time Myanmar watcher at Macquarie University. “I am very bullish for the economy if the NLD were to prevail.”
This Article first appeared in the May 14, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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