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Whither Myanmar

Whither Myanmar?

By Derek Tonkin

29 March 2014

A Speculative Assessment

After three years of remarkable progress, commentators are wondering whether the reform process in Myanmar might be running out of steam. Some Western politicians undoubtedly cherished unreasonable expectations about the pace of the transition to democracy. More generally, the outcome of the Arab 'Spring' has shattered many illusions. Transitions are seen to be fraught with difficulties.

There has been a concerted, possibly inspired campaign against the National Census which is due to start on 30 March 2014, counting the population as at midnight tonight. In some cases, I suspect an intention to destabilise, as there is never likely to be a good time for a Census in any nation in transition. It is on balance better that the deed were done now, rather than wait until later.

There is trouble in Sittwe. Almost 100 years ago in 1917, Arakan Commissioner RB Smart recorded the serious problems which Sittwe (Akyab) faced as a result of the influx of Chittagonians which, he feared, might well mean that "the Arakanese proper might not survive long". Today, however, it is the Rakhine who have driven most residents of Islamic faith from Sittwe, leaving the ghetto of Aung Mingalar as their last bastion, under constant threat.

There is a tendency among some Western Governments, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, to see reform of the Constitution as the essential precondition for further progress towards democracy, a view also held by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This is an ideological stance, but not practical politics.

The Myanmar Government faces many challenges, of which the negotiation of a peace deal and political settlement with the non-Burman nationalities and the management of sharply deteriorating relations between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority are the more serious.

Though some confidence-building measures are likely to be included in the constitutional review to grant recognition to ethnic aspirations, such as allowing Local Assemblies to select and appoint their Chief Minister rather than the President as at present, the renegotiation of the Constitution to grant a measure of federal autonomy could only follow the peace deal and political settlement which is currently under negotiation. The understandings reached then need to be enshrined in the Constitution. It cannot happen the other way round.

Nor are the relations between Buddhist and Muslim communities to be resolved through constitutional amendment, any more than reform of the Constitution help could be all that relevant to many of the other issues facing the country, such as the social disruption which increasing "land grabs" are causing and the urgent need to improve the living standards of the rural population.

The recent speeches by President Thein Sein at the conclusion of the parliamentary session and by Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at the 69th Armed Forces Day parade have made it clear that constitutional reform will be a long process and that the military will continue to play for some time yet the role in national politics which the present Constitution has defined. During the first five-year term of parliament, it never seemed likely to me that any substantive changes to the Constitution would be made. That could only be expected after the 2015 Elections, during the second term.

Some in the West - notably the United States and the United Kingdom - would seem to suggest that the only thing which now matters is the amendment of Article 59(f) of the Constitution which may debar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, not from being nominated as a presidential candidate, but from being elected if so nominated. Suu Kyi herself has vigorously lobbied for this amendment while overseas, though less so in Myanmar itself. The problem is that Suu Kyi's two sons have British citizenship, which apparently excludes her election. I say "apparently" because they were both issued with Burmese passports in 1988 on the basis of her registration of their births with the Burmese Consul in London. Though these passports were later withdrawn, the two sons may still possess latent Burmese citizenship.

This matter could be referred to the Constitutional Court in the event of a substantial electoral victory by the National League for Democracy at the elections expected in late 2015 and Suu Kyi's subsequent nomination as a presidential candidate when Parliament convenes, which might not be until 2016. But this begs the question of whether such a substantial electoral victory is in any case likely to occur.

Suu Kyi and the NLD would seem to be losing ground. An unwise discussion between the controversial monk U Wirathu and Win Tin of the NLD has led some to conclude that factions in the monkhood are not in favour of Suu Kyi's presidential candidature. Suu Kyi has in the past expressed her opposition to the proposed marriage and conversion laws as well as to the two-child policy for Rakhine Muslims which the local administration in Rakhine State has sought to promote. This may not have resonated well with some sections of the population.

The Daw Suu Foundation, recently registered as a non-profit organization in the State Of Delaware USA, with Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton as Honorary Co-Chairs, is not what you might expect from an aspirant to the presidential nomination in the sovereign Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

The policies of the NLD remain something of a mystery. Their senior organization is opaque. The management of the party is autocratic. They do not even have a website, neither in Burmese nor in English. The influential 88 Student Generation group remains generally apart from the NLD, though they are working together on constitutional reform. Rival 88 Student candidates at the 2015 elections could prove seriously divisive.

Is the NLD and Suu Kyi up to the rough and tumble of politics normal in South East Asia? Towards the end of this year we expect another round of by-elections to fill long-standing vacant seats in some 30 constituencies. In April 2012, the NLD had a virtual clean sweep, winning 43 out of 44 contested in 45 constituencies. This time there are 13 Lower House seats including 6 in States, 6 Upper House seats including 3 in States, and 11 in Local Assemblies including 5 in States. Those 14 seats in (ethnic) States are unlikely to be a walk-over for the NLD. I would expect them to win at least 60% of the seats overall, but the NLD are less than popular in the States these days and their main opponents, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are likely to put up a tougher fight than in April 2012.

The general elections in late 2015, on the other hand, will be keenly contested. The USDP will not allow the NLD to walk all over them as they did in April 2012. The USDP could resort to populist policies, which Thaksin Shinawatra found so electorally rewarding in Thailand. Clandestine vote-buying, which still plagues even Indonesia, could make its debut in Myanmar. Brash electoral promises could be made, with which the NLD may find it hard to compete. In these conditions of marginally “free and fair” elections, the NLD would be lucky to secure a simple majority of elected seats in any assembly. Even a two thirds majority of elected seats would only represent about 50% of total seats when the 25% tranche of military appointees is included. Indeed, the likelihood is that the NLD might not have an overall majority in either the Lower or Upper Houses and might not then be in a position to nominate Suu Kyi as a presidential candidate. Intriguing as it would be, I somehow doubt that the military would choose her as their presidential candidate.

The only conclusion I dare reach at this stage is that the political future of Myanmar is enigmatic. There are forces at work which could so easily upset the apple-cart, and especially Suu Kyi's ambition, so strongly but unwisely supported in the West, to be the next President of a country seated in the United Nations under an English name which she cannot yet bring herself to accept.

Some countries in the West could be heading for a big disappointment. Washington could resort to intransigence again, while London could lose interest, or worse. This would be regrettable, and assuredly counterproductive, though China would be delighted. But most Western countries are likely to maintain the full engagement which they are now pursuing.


This article was first published here.