With more than half the votes counted, Myanmar’s dissident-turned-democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is well on the way to become the country’s unofficial leader. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has won 80 percent of the seats declared so far following Sunday’s historic polls, described as Myanmar’s first free and fair elections for decades.
Despite the landslide victory, the party may still be not in a position to change the constitution and make Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi the President. She is prevented from contesting for the presidency because her spouse and the children are foreign citizens.
The ruling military-backed Union Solidarity Party of President Thein Sein has so far won only 5 percent of the vote. Yet the 70-year-old Suu Kyi is treading carefully, because she does not want to give any excuse for the military to nullify the vote as happened in 1990 following the NLD’s victory that year.
Supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi watch results come in on a TV monitor at the National League for Democracy (NLD) offices in Mandalay, Myanmar. Reuters
Thein Sein, the onetime Army Commander and prime minister since 2007 in the military government before he became President following the controversial 2010 elections that was boycotted by the NLD, has congratulated Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San. Thein Sein’s move, that has even won the praise of US President Barack Obama, indicates a smooth transition. Even the military chief Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to respect the people’s will. But the question that looms large is: Will the military allow Suu Kyi to bring in the necessary reforms to transform the country into a civilian democracy?
The military is unlikely to surrender its political power and become subservient to civilian control. In terms of the constitution, the military will have to be allocated one fourth of parliament seats. Amendments to the constitution can be done only with a three-fourths majority. This is near impossible without the military’s support. In addition, the Suu Kyi’s party will not be able to form an exclusive NLD cabinet. The ministries of Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Military Affairs, in terms of the constitution, will have to go to the military, while their budgets will remain above civilian scrutiny. Then there is another vaguely worded provision, according to which the military can take over the government if it feels the country is on the verge of disorder.
These provisions indicate that the 2008 constitution was drafted in such a way as to retain the military’s control of the government. Even the military’s much-hailed democratic reforms of 2011 came against the backdrop of Western moves to haul the generals before a world tribunal for committing crimes against humanity. To stave off a UN commission of inquiry, the generals introduced sweeping reforms, restoring, to some extent, media freedom, releasing political prisoners, scaling down ties with China, improving relations with the West and allowing Western investors to gain a foothold in the country.
But Suu Kyi appears determined to change the constitution. At a pre-election news conference she said, “Constitutions are made by people, and they are not eternal. If the support of the people is clear and strong enough, I don’t see why we should not be able to overcome minor problems like amendments of the constitution.”
Rivalry between political parties is natural in a democracy. But in Myanmar, the rivalry is between a popular party and a powerful military that has been in the thick of affairs for more than five decades. So changing the constitution and bringing the army under civilian control are easier said than done.
The first test for Suu Kyi will come when parliament elects a President next year. Here, too, the military has a bigger say. In terms of the constitution, one of the candidates has to be nominated by the military block in parliament. The other two candidates are nominated by the upper house and the lower house. The two losing candidates become vice presidents. This means one of the vice presidents will be from the military.
Suu Kyi has said she will not pursue confrontational politics. She said hers will be a government of reconciliation and she will not probe the atrocities committed by members of the former regime.
She has also said she will be the power behind the presidency, guiding the government just as Sonia Gandhi did in India while Manmohan Singh was prime minister.
But will she be able to put the house in order and bring economic prosperity to the poverty-stricken nation? Myanmar ranked 149th among 186 nations rated in the 2013 United Nations Human Development Report. Yet, Myanmar is rich in oil, gas, precious stones and agricultural land with plenty of water. Widespread corruption is one of the reasons why the economy has failed to take off. On the Transparency International List, Myanmar was among the bottom-ranked nations.
Besides the economy, Suu Kyi is under pressure to solve the Rohingiya problem that had brought international shame on her country. Under the military-backed regime, the Muslim Rohingiyas were subjected to ethnic cleansing and targeted mass killings. Independent investigations have shown the military regime was hand in glove with groups such as 969 led by monk Wirathu in inciting violence against the Rohingiya people, who had no vote in last Sunday’s elections.
The separatist war in the jade-and-opium rich Kachin State in Myanmar’s north is another crisis Suu Kyi will have to deal with.
On the foreign policy front, she is likely to embrace the West. After all, it was the relentless campaign by the West that eventually won her freedom and helped her win last Sunday’s elections. Her country is at the centre of a major power game between China and the United States. China, which had even used its veto power at the UN Security Council to protect Myanmar from international criticism, had been the key supporter of the military regime that was ostracised by the West. Much of Myanmar’s oil is still sold to China. Beijing had invested billions in Myanmar’s development projects, but the public perception is that China was exploiting the country’s resources together with the corrupt military. The growing public discontent made even the military-backed government of Thein Sein to distance itself from China and revoke a US$ 1.5 billion dam contract awarded to a Chinese state-run firm.
China, which has now been reduced from ‘special’ to ‘normal’ status, appears to have no intention of abandoning Myanmar. China sees Myanmar as a key port in its multibillion dollar Maritime Silk Route project that connects the South China Sea with Indian Ocean littoral states all the way to Africa. Suu Kyi was China’s guest in Beijing in June. The invitation for the visit came against the backdrop of US President Barack Obama’s two visits to Myanmar and the military-backed regime’s increasing ties with the West.
Global Times, a Chinese newspaper linked to the ruling Communist Party, on Tuesday warned Myanmar that moving closer to the US would be “a witless move (that) would ruin the strategic space and resources it can obtain from China’s amicable policies.”
Can Suu Kyi who has little or no experience in statecraft meet these challenges and emerge as Myanmar’s goddess of democracy?