By Bhaskar Roy
April 01, 2012 did not go down as the ‘all fools day’ in Myanmar. It turned out to be a historic day in Myanmar’s modern political history. The small 45-seats by-election sent out a strong message which even the strongest of the military leaders may not chance disturbing. But it must also be kept in mind that the old military junta may not be unanimous in the move towards democracy mainly because of vested interests.
Although the size of the by-election was comparatively small compared to the size of the two houses of the legislature, it sent a very strong message. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi contested 44 seats and won 43. The seat that they lost was in eastern Shan state due to huge support for the local candidate of Shan National Democratic Party. The military sponsored USDP captured only one seat which was not contested by the NLD. Most importantly, the NLD won all the four seats in the capital Naypidaw where the voters are mainly government employees or otherwise connected with government.
Aung San Suu Kyi won her sat with landslide votes, and dedicated the victory to the people. The pattern of the voting suggested that people sensed an opening and grabbed it.
There were some violations of a totally free and fair election code as per reports. Suu Kyi herself said just before the election that she expected malpractice. But that malpractice was not enough to make any notional difference to the results.
Could the military have sabotaged the elections. Perhaps, they could. But they did not. Following the 2010 general elections under the military junta-written new constitution in which the NLD did not contest on protest, many things have changed, but very gradually ensuring not to upset the no-change hardliners.
Senior General Than Shwe and his cabal realised in recent years that they were on the wrong side of history. Under western sanctions, Myanmar was getting over-dependent on China and was becoming a captive state of China. Nor did the junta want to suffer the fate of dictators around the world when people’s power brought them down. Living as a pariah government was also getting difficult.
Than Shwe has gradually withdrawn into retirement quietly. He ensured that several corrupt military officers were quietly dismissed or sent on retirement. And he placed a group of his officers in crucial posts but with a check and balance among them.
The President, ex-general U Thein Sein, is described by some who have worked with Thein Sein as not ambitious, not decisive, not charismatic, but sincere. He is also known for not being corrupt and remain conscious of his humble beginning as the son of a Buddhist monk in a poor village. His wife and children avoid publicity and ostentatious behaviour.
Thein Sein’s personal characteristics will most definitely shape the future of Myanmar unless he is toppled. It is difficult to accept that he is indecisive. Last year he stopped work on the Chinese funded $3.6 billion Myitsone dam after Kachins protested that the project was an environmental disaster and would inundate an area of the size of Singapore. The entire production of the hydroelectric project was to go to China.
The test will be if the President will succeed in holding on to his decision in the face of intense pressure that the Chinese have mounted. The Chinese have their own supporter in the Myanmar government. It is said that Vice President-I, Tin Aung Myint Oo is sympathetic to China and supported the construction of Mystone dam.
The other critical player is the army chief Min Aung Hlaing. The official newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, recently revealed that Hlaing had been promoted as Vice-Senior General, the second highest rank in Myanmar’s military hierarchy. At 55, Vice-Senior Gen. Hlaing is a rising star in the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military. And the importance of the military in Myanmar’s politics needs no elaboration.
There were reports to say that Hlaing was opposed to Thein Sein’s democratic reforms, but Hlaing has dismissed the allegations. His view is that the army has to support the function of the government as the country marches towards democracy.
The army holds 25% of the parliamentary seats by nomination. The speaker of the upper and lower houses are ex-generals. There will be no runaway move to democracy. The international community must look at this policy in some depth. A sudden change can lead to chaos, because the anti-change elements in the Tatmadaw may revolt.
President Thein Sein is the architect of opening up to the west. He made the overtures to the US. He opened the doors to American and UN officials and even allowed some of them to visit the infamous Insein prison where political prisoners are located. Last year, the director of the President’s office wrote an article in the Washington Post saying (i) given the raise of China, the west needs Myanmar, (ii) cancellation of Myitsone dam signalled to world what President Thein Sein stood for, (iii) if the US neglected the opportunity Washington will part ways with the new order in the Indo-China region.
Myanmar is playing a very complex foreign policy game. With its move towards democracy it has garnered substantial support from the ASEAN. Many of the ASEAN countries are not paragons of human rights and democracy. They welcomed the elections at the recent ASEAN summit in Cambodia.
Naypidaw understands the subcutaneous strains between some of the ASEAN members and China, and America’s Asia ‘pivot’. It wants a relief from Chinese pressures and exploitations, but cannot get into a negative relationship with China.
Naypidaw is fully cognizant of China’s determination to force Myanmar play a strategic extension role not only in terms of its natural resources, but also thrust into the Indian Ocean. If it allows China’s navy to esconse itself in Myanmar’s waters, it is going to upset India and the US and other countries who use the Indian Ocean for vital maritime commerce.
Internally, the April 01 elections have brought new hopes for stability and development. In his first meeting with Suu Kyi last year in his office, Thein Sein was astute enough to display a photograph of Aung San, the father of Myanmar or Burma’s independence and Suu Kyi’s father. That impressed Suu Kyi who read it as an olive branch. It was Thein Sein who released Suu Kyi from a cumulative house arrest of nearly two decades.
Not only Thein Sein, but other leaders have acknowledged the importance of Suu Kyi and the weight she carries in foreign relations and domestic politics, particularly in relationship with ethnic groups.
Suu Kyi’s father made the first and only serious effort to bring Myanmar’s ethnic groups together in the Panglong conference. Suu Kyi is contemplating a second Panglong conference. This can happen if Suu Kyi as a member of Parliament becomes part of a government sponsored committee to talk to the ethnic groups. Without ethnic stability, all other developments would be fraught with danger.
The western countries, the ASEAN and China have all facilitated the outcome of the April 01 elections. But the west led by the USA are waiting for further democratic reforms, though some sanctions will be lifted to encourage the process.
Thein Sein is expected to address the issue of political prisoners. Many were released on the run up to the elections, but there are still many who remain incarcerated. The Chief Justice of Myanmar’s Supreme Court does not believe any of them as political prisoner or prisoners of conscience. In his view they are all criminals who had broken the law of the land. This illustrates the internal resistance to reforms.
Political reforms still remain at a nascent stage. More permanent reforms are required. Same is the case with the freedom of speech, association and the media. Each of these areas have seen movement, but none are permanent.
The main wall to irreversible reform is the 2008 constitution. It has provision that in case of serious differences the army chief has the power to declare emergency and take over power. It would be difficult to amend the constitution any time soon, at least not till after the 2015 elections . Hence, the stakeholders will have to tread carefully.
The April 01 elections is a first but firm step. Myanmar will now have to work the course but without too much pressure from the west for quick transition to full democracy. That will not happen. To hurry things will be counter productive and can reverse the gains.
About the author: SAAG
SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.