Looking East

Can Suu Kyi Usher in True Democracy in Myanmar?

11 Dec, 2015    ·   4943

Wasbir Hussain explains the opportunities and challenges in store for the the winners of Myanmar's general elections, the National League for Democracy

Wasbir Hussain
Wasbir Hussain
Visiting Fellow
Very rightly, key world leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have not forgotten to congratulate President Thein Sein, the head of Myanmar’s quasi-military regime, for successfully being able to hold the 08 November 2015 national elections in presence of international observers. These leaders have, of course, also congratulated the chief of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, for her party’s landslide victory. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong told Suu Kyi, “the NLD’s victory reflects the support and hope that the Myanmar people have in you and your party.”

To be fair to the outgoing semi-civilian government, a largely free and fair election could be held because the people wanted it that way, and, more importantly, because the Thein Sein-led regime in Naypyitaw set the democracy ball rolling in 2011 by allowing Suu Kyi and her party to contest the 2012 by-elections that the NLD swept.

The people of Myanmar, a nation of 51 million, wanted a change, and the results showed precisely that. The NLD won nearly 80 per cent of the seats and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) came a distant second, bagging just about 10 per cent of the vote share. There is no doubt that it has been a mandate for democracy over authoritarianism, but the question now is, can Suu Kyi usher in true democracy in Myanmar, which, until recently, was a pariah state whose draconian military regime faced near global sanctions.

Suu Kyi may actually see her party assume office around March 2016, but she faces several odds. First, she cannot become the president herself because of a provision in the military-drafted 2008 Constitution that bars a person with a foreign spouse or offspring from assuming that office. Secondly, the Constitution reserves 25 per cent of the parliament seats for the military, and, therefore, Suu Kyi and her party will have to deal with the military in any case for any reform. Suu Kyi had made it clear even before the polls that she would run the government irrespective of whether she becomes president or not, meaning she would actually nominate a president from within her party who would simply follow her diktat, in some way similar to what Sonia Gandhi did during the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh.

Eventually, as she consolidates, she may work towards changes to the constitutional power structure. But, without the acquiescence of the Tatmadaw (the military), it would not be easy for Suu Kyi or the NLD to diminish the power of the generals. That may happen with time because one cannot forget that democracy icon Suu Kyi belongs to a military family – her father General Aung San is regarded as the ‘father of Burmese independence’. The military too is more than aware that these are different times and the people’s will have to prevail at some point in time, and the time may be actually now.

That the generals have realised this is clear because the permission to set up political parties given by the junta in 2011 was out of their own volition, and not a result of any Arab Spring-type mass street uprising. The Tatmadaw could also be actually wanting to change Myanmar’s economic profile and let the impoverished nation develop and make attempts to be at par with the rising East Asian Tiger economies in the nation’s neighbourhood. Since then, Suu Kyi has had very ‘cordial meetings’ with President Thein Sein and the nation’s military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and both have promised a smooth transfer of power. This in itself indicates the changing times in Myanmar.

It is a different matter whether Suu Kyi will eventually be able to alter the provision in the 2008 Constitution that allows the defence services to participate in the national political leadership of the state. More pressing questions, already raised by sceptics, is on how democratic is Suu Kyi herself? She is being accused of not promoting intra-party democracy; not approving a line of succession; being silent during the poll campaign, about atrocities committed on the minority Rohingyas etc. It is now being pointed out that she denied party tickets to as many as 17 members belonging to Myanmar’s adored ‘88 generation’ and that she failed in forging an ethnic alliance for the polls. It would also be a challenge for her to deal with the remaining ethnic rebel armies such as the United Wa State Army, the Kachin Independence Army and others who are out of the nationwide ceasefire agreement reached by the Thein Sein government in October 2015. Will the NLD government send in the military to tame them should the need arise?

These are tough questions, answers to which would be sought.

Without doubt, Suu Kyi’s titanic popularity brought that massive win for the NLD. However, one is unsure vis-à-vis the NLD’s agenda for Myanmar to make projections about the governance priorities of an NLD government. Will it be national reconciliation? Will there be a high focus on education and healthcare? What will Suu Kyi’s policy of industrial development vis-a-vis environmental protection be? How would she possibly deal with the Rohingya issue, which always hogs international limelight? How will she rule Myanmar if she does not manage to be president eventually? What be her neighbourhood policy be like—will Myanmar pursue a policy of equi-closeness with both India and China?

If the people of Myanmar or the world can wait so long to see democracy return to the nation, one would obviously have to wait for some time for answers to emerge. Indications, however, are that Suu Kyi would tread slowly and carefully in the following direction—list out leaders from her party who would play key roles she would assign them, consolidate her ties with the military and the officialdom, engage with the civil society, and, of course, chart out a course to take forward the process of ethnic reconciliation. Her biggest challenge is that she has only to move forward, not turn back.