SPEAKING FREELY Myanmar leaves old dichotomies behind
By Adam P MacDonald
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The rise of Myanmese President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government in 2011 was met largely with skepticism that his administration would be a continuation of military rule by different means. Such concerns were justified, as Thein Sein had served as prime minister under the previous ruling military junta.
First introduced as the "seven step roadmap" to democracy in
2003, the entire democratic "reform" process was designed and implemented exclusively by the ruling generals. The culmination of this process resulted in the staging and rigging of the 2010 general elections to ensure the victory of the military's political surrogate, the Union of Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by a number of recently retired senior military officers.
To be sure, the military's manipulation of the electoral process and new democratic structures has been obvious. The exact motivations behind the military's introduction of a new democratic order and move away from direct military rule are still unclear. The implication of such an extensive reconfiguration of the state is, however, significant in its own right.
New institutions and practices have changed the political system from a military regime of exclusive jurisdiction within a closed system, to that of a presidential republic with a parliamentary system determined by multi-party elections. These measures, whether intended or not by their architects, have opened up the political realm in unprecedented ways.
While political power has become more diffused, a combination of constitutional stipulations, electoral manipulations and close institutional and personal ties between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar's military) and the USDP-led government has ensured the continuation of military personalities running the state. This phenomenon is best described as a change, but not of the regime.
The military has withdrawn from running the day-to-day affairs of the state, but remains a powerful political actor through constitutional protections. A legally guaranteed 25 percent representation in parliament gives the Tatmadaw an effective veto of any proposed constitutional amendments.
It is also strongly represented in the cabinet through its role in appointing the ministers of defense, borders and home, and maintains a weighted majority on the National Security and Defense Council, the most powerful executive body in the country. Furthermore, the military has effectively cordoned off security portfolios from civilian oversight and is an autonomous entity not accountable to parliament.
Though comprised primarily of former military officers, Thein Sein's government has charted a new course, different in style and substance from previous military governments. He has undertaken extensive and intensive economic and political reforms, signaling a genuine desire to change the nature of Myanmar's state and society.
His government continues to build new working relations with once cast-out and persecuted entities, including the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and various ethnic rebel groups. It has also engaged Western nations, resulting in the suspension or rollback of economic sanctions that targeted the previous junta and made the country an international pariah.
This more inclusive style of politics is in part a function of, and has contributed to, the emerging multipolarity of Myanmar's politics. This shift is defined by diminishing barriers to entry into the political realm, the diffusion of power into new institutions and the establishment of new arenas of democratic competition.
This ongoing transition challenges the standard characterization of Myanmar's political system as a binary contest between democrats and reformers on one side, versus the authoritarian military and their proxies on the other. As political actors with changing identities and interests across a plethora of issues emerge, new relationships are creating areas of cooperation and conflict within and between these supposedly monolithic and mutually exclusive groups.
The USDP and Tatmadaw, as the two most interlinked and powerful actors, continue to maintain a strong relationship in support of the overall political architecture and the benefits it affords them. There is, however, a small yet growing divergence (though not open conflict) between these entities as they further develop new identities and roles in the political system, with different power bases.
The military seems content to remain on the sidelines as long as it continues to be an insulated and powerful political actor, acting as a veto player over proposed major political changes. For the USDP, on the other hand, electoral success now serves as the main avenue through which its members will access and maintain power.
As the 2015 election draws near, it is uncertain how long the USDP will continue to promote Thein Sein's reform agenda, particularly in regards to political liberalization, for fear of constructing a system which ultimately leads to its demise. If the 2012 landslide by-elections that catapulted Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders into parliamentary seats are any indication, the USDP faces not only defeat but potential electoral annihilation at the hands of the NLD.
The USDP therefore stands at a crossroads: continue reforms which may lead to their downfall, or begin to manipulate the democratic structures in place, to maintain its rule. At the same time, intra-USDP competition between Thein Sein and Parliamentary Speaker Thura Shwe Mann demonstrates not only personal tensions between the two former generals, but also how new institutional identities - in this case, the chief executive versus the head of the legislature - create sources of conflict between supposed military allies.
Having an allied partner in government is no doubt beneficial, but the military primarily wants to maintain political influence over the system at large and may not be willing to intervene directly to save the USDP. It is entirely conceivable that as long as the military preserves its veto power in parliament, it will allow a non-military, NLD-led government to take power if the opposition party wins the next election.
The USDP needs popular support (even in a rigged system), and may try to distance itself from the military to obtain it, projecting an identity of a competent and independent party focused on continued reform. The Tatmadaw's continued arms-trading relationship with North Korea is but one example of where Thein Sein's government appears to lack oversight, much less have control, over military activities which detract from his reformist image and agenda.
Beyond those in uniform, there is a tendency to lump the rest of Myanmar's political actors together as democrats and reformers, united in their determination to rid the political system of the military. And there is broad agreement about the need to eventually remove the military from politics, entailing a fundamental reconfiguration of civil-military affairs, as an essential requirement in the continuation of the country's democratic project.
This focus, however, often overshadows and marginalizes the complexity inherent in the country's still-deep ethnic divisions. Myanmar is home to hundreds of ethnic minorities representing around one-third of the population. They are largely settled along the borderlands, which have experienced decades of ongoing violence and conflict with the Tatmadaw.
Thein Sein's government has made it a priority to broker ceasefire agreements with the few remaining hold-outs, but many ethnic groups still have tense relationships with the military over human-rights abuses and land seizures. Victimized by military aggression and marginalized by an ethnic Burman majority, many minority groups advocate autonomy and the establishment of a federal system. The Tatmadaw remains cool to such suggestions, particularly calls for the creation of a "federal" military that would allow ethnic armies to keep their weapons.
The issue of ethnic inclusion not only affects the ruling USDP and the military, but also Myanmar's other Burman-dominated political actor: the NLD. Suu Kyi, a democracy icon and Nobel Laureate, is the face of hope and reform in Myanmar. She has an uncanny ability to walk a fine line between the advocacy of system change (especially with regards to the military) while working with the current power holders in keeping the current system functional.
On ethnic minority issues, however, the NLD has largely been silent. Only recently has Suu Kyi indicated her willingness to work with some ethnic parties in the promotion of a federal state, though the details of this political arrangement remain unclear. Such moves, however, have caused concern in some segments of the Burman population.
A number of outspoken and highly nationalistic Buddhist monks have doubted Suu Kyi's ability to protect the Burman majority as more ethnic minorities are included in the country's polity. The divisiveness of ethnic tensions is most apparent and troubling in the ongoing clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Burman Buddhists in Rakhine state. Neither the NLD nor USDP has developed a coherent plan or shown any desire to resolve the issue. Continued strife may be capitalized upon by the military as a justification for their continued guardianship over the political system, whereby the need for stability and national security outweighs democratic reform and ethnic inclusion.
Ongoing constitutional debates provide further evidence of the growing potential alignments and cleavages between Myanmar's diverse actors. In January, a parliamentary committee dominated by the USDP and military members recommended that no significant changes be made to the 2010 Constitution.
Both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann have advocated a further review, including in regard to the military's role in politics and allowances for "any citizen" to become president. These statements may be political rhetoric, but also highlight the USDP's focus on electoral palatability, even at the expense - to some degree - of protecting the military's position.
If the constitution is not amended, Suu Kyi will not be permitted to run for president in next year's polls. The question is rising whether the NLD will threaten to boycott the election, returning to the streets and mobilizing "people power" to force constitutional change. Such a move would erode the hard work done in recent years to build relations with the military after decades of confrontation.
There is a risk, therefore, that Suu Kyi and the NLD could be seen as obstructionist, including by certain ethnic groups, to the wider reform process if they boycott the polls. Constitutional recommendations of greater power sharing with ethnic groups, alongside recent statements by Thein Sein signaling that his government and the USDP are warming to the eventuality of a federal polity, have been widely viewed as positive steps.
From the perspective of ethnic parties, progress toward national reconciliation is now viewed as possible with either an NLD or USDP-led government in place. The continued pluralization and diversification of the political landscape reveals a collection of actors that is more messy than the past portrayal of democrats versus authoritarians.
For genuine reformers, the long-term goal should be to strengthen the current system's permanence, and its resistance to entities trying to manipulate it for their own benefit. In the short term, however, these motivations are creating the political space necessary for such a system to take root, as actors reconfigure their identities, interests and relationships with one another.
While reformers must for now reach out to their counterparts to work within the system, despite its flaws and bias towards those in power, they are simultaneously entrenching rules, institutions and norms that will ideally outlive the powerful individuals (military and civilian) who until now have largely dominated Myanmar's politics.
All of Myanmar's political actors should avoid polarizing matters to such an extent that the older and simpler divisions between them re-emerge. Such a polarization would only limit their willingness and ability to work with one another in the difficult task of simultaneously balancing system functionality alongside change.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Adam P MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax, Canada. He regularly comments on Myanmar's ongoing democratic transition via the East Asia Forum.