Realism and pessimism have somewhat similar meanings in Myanmar. An optimistic interpretation of the 08 November 2015 parliamentary elections in the country is that of a step forward towards a full-fledged democracy. To a realist, however, the election was a landmark event but one that does not essentially constitute a turning point in history. The election results, in fact, reinforced what was always known – the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) popularity and the military's position as an illegitimate usurper of power.
While the NLD's popularity got translated into votes, the reality is that the unpopular military, which has appropriated a minority yet crucial position in the parliament, will remain the power centre, shaping the contents and pace of reforms. However, even with these limitations, the progress towards democracy would actually depend on whether the NLD views itself as an inconsequential majority or a crucial bloc that can indeed transform the popular support it enjoys into becoming an agent for change.
The NLD won 77 per cent of the seats, providing the party majority in both houses of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the Myanmarese parliament. Victory for the party was secured in all the regions and five districts barring two states, Rakhine and Shan. The military represented by the Union Solidarity and Development Party won only 117 or 10 per cent of the seats. The victory allows the NLD to form a government in February 2016 and then pick a president of its choice, other than its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still barred from becoming president by a controversial article in the country’s 2008 constitution. Somewhat reinforcing the reality, Suu Kyi declared that the massive victory would place her above the president.
The NLD-led government’s positioning of self vis-a-vis the all-powerful military will have a lasting impact on the course of democracy in Myanmar. The overarching dominance of the military includes not just 25 per cent of the total number of seats reserved for it in the parliament, but also the constitutional authority of the commander-in-chief who gets to appoint serving military officers as ministers of Defence, Home, and Border Affairs. Although the prospect of the military not transferring power or overthrowing the NLD government in future is remote, the civilian government in Myanmar will be constrained by the reality of the military being the de facto sanctioning authority on key decisions.
With that sort of an authority reserved for the military, the civilian government is not only programmed to remain perpetually weak but also will be a natural absorber of criticisms for all the unpopular and controversial decisions made by the military.
Suu Kyi wishes to overcome this difficulty by forming a national reconciliation government that includes the military. She is scheduled to meet the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing on 02 December 2015. Although the military has accepted the verdict and has promised a smooth transition of power, Gen Hlaing continues to maintain that the transfer of power would remain linked to “the stability of (our) country and people understanding the practice of democracy.” No regret has been expressed for the military annulling the 1990 elections which the NLD had won. The military continues to believe that the country is not yet ready for a civilian rule.
Given these limitations, the task for the NLD would be to demonstrate its capacities as a change agent, beginning with relatively less contended areas including economy. The economic reforms process must become inclusive and beneficial for a vast majority of people who continue to remain untouched by the process so far.
The NLD also has to emerge as a representative of both the dominant Bamars as well as the ethnic minorities. The latter have consistently been denied their rightful place in politics. This also includes the Rohingyas, who were denied the rights either to contest the elections or even to cast their votes. Similarly ending continuing clashes between the military and the ethnic armies representing the Shans, Kokangs and Kachins; and arriving at a nation-wide ceasefire agreement with a number of ethnic insurgent groups who are yet to sign the pact, remains a critical requirement. Only eight groups, mostly the minor ones, had signed the agreement on 15 October 2015 and Suu Kyi chose to be absent from the signing ceremony despite an invitation from the government.
In the past years, Suu Kyi's political posture has oscillated between defying the government and wooing the military to effect the necessary constitutional reforms that would allow her to partake in the elections and become the president. While remaining a critic of the economic reforms process on occasions, she has praised the military as her “father's army.” She has remained mostly silent on the Rohingya issue and has maintained an ambiguous stance on the peace process with the ethnic groups even though the NLD periodically reiterates its in-principle support for national reconciliation. Such a position has done little to bolster her standing as a national leader. If there was ever a suitable time to break free from this specter of ambiguity to a clearheaded statesman like approach, it is now.