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Myanmar: Transition Within Transition – Analysis


The elections are over and the transition towards a democratic government in Myanmar is currently underway. However, the sailing isn’t as smooth. The NLD and the military are in agreement but are cautious at the same time. Myanmar promises to be a car driven by two drivers.

By Rajiv Bhatia*

Myanmar’s long-term transition from the 50-year old military rule to democracy began in March 2011, with a retired general as the president. As he prepares to demit office, the short-term transition between elections on 8 November 2015 and the end of President Thein Sein’s innings on 30 March 2016, has gained momentum. There are important developments that are unfolding and may impact the shift from the present ‘controlled democracy’ to ‘full-fledged democracy’ in the long run.

The Internal political scene has been dominated by two key issues: the new, emerging equation between the winner in elections–the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the military leadership; and ethnic reconciliation.

On the first issue, the deal is almost clear. The military and NLD are engaged in devising a mutually acceptable framework for power sharing. To begin with, it will be strictly in accordance with the constitution. This means that Suu Kyi will have a president of her choice (but not her as the constitution doesn’t allow) and may be free to define her relationship as ‘the leader’ of NLD with him. However, there will be no reduction in the military’s political role or powers. Besides, the new ruling party will need to cooperate with the new ‘Opposition’ (in the parliament), comprising a truncated group of USDP members and the military-nominated group of 166 MPs. The latter will be serving defense services officers, led by a major general in the lower and the upper house each.

The Myanmar polity promises to be a car driven by two drivers. It will move forward only through their mutual agreement.

The constitutional reforms that were aimed at increasing the quotient of democracy or re-define relationship between the national government and states/regions would have to wait for an indefinite period. Little progress on this dossier should be expected until sufficient trust develops between NLD and the military.

This trend became clearer with the issue of ethnic reconciliation. A a conference was convened by the outgoing government, in the capital Naypyitaw from 12-16 January 2016, and attended by 700 delegates. The conference, building on the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed last year, furthered the process of political dialogue for bringing reconciliation and peaceful resolution of problems among diverse ethnic groups, their political and armed wings.

Eight of the armed groups which had signed the NCA attended the conference, but seven of the invited groups (who had not signed the NCA), boycotted the peace conference. A notable feature remained the continuation of serious differences among ethnic groups, the military and NLD. They largely swear by a commitment to Myanmar as a ‘federal union’, but differ about the roadmap for achieving it. While the fear of secession has almost disappeared, the military remains distrustful of delegating more authority to states/regions, a common demand of most ethnic groups. NLD may, thus, find itself between a rock and a hard place.

Suu Kyi has stated that she is ready ‘to take responsibility’ for the peace process, in accordance with ‘the mandate given by the people.’ She can afford to alienate neither the military nor the ethnic minorities. However, if it comes to a choice, she – as a hard-nosed Burman politician and a strong leader by temperament – could favour the military’s viewpoint.

Foreign governments and businesses are anxious to know more about the incoming government’s economic policy. NLD has not been very articulate so far. Policies to liberalise economy, attract foreign investment, and establish special economic zones would continue. Suu Kyi will strive hard to enhance inclusiveness in development by expanding opportunities for agriculture, employment, health, education, skill development and use of IT for youth empowerment. Yet, she may find it difficult to fashion an economic policy essentially different from the policy pursued by outgoing President Thein Sein.

In the domain of foreign policy, however, the new government could face a major challenge. How to balance NLD’s perceived proximity to the West, especially the U.S., with Myanmar’s need for a good relationship with China, is a dilemma. This comes in the wake of Thein Sein’s successful endeavour in the past five years to arrest the expansion of Myanmar-China relations without endangering them, while simultaneously creating new space for cooperation with the U.S., EU, Japan and other countries. Though belatedly, but China has signaled that it would cooperate with Suu Kyi. The country, though, has its concerns. It needs to turn Myanmar more accommodative than it was under Thein Sein. By stressing that Suu KYi’s government would lay ‘more emphasis on its relations with neighbours’, she has indicated her readiness to be an active player in the new great game unfolding in Myanmar.

In fact, the next phase of the game has already begun. Anthony Blinken, deputy secretary of state of the U.S., has recently visited Myanmar to convey a complex but important message from the Obama Administration. He urged that political reforms should continue until ‘an elected civilian government is truly sovereign and all the country’s institutions answer to the people.’ The U.S. expected to work in ‘close partnership’ with the NLD government in pursuit of the identified goals – democracy, development and national reconciliation. Both Myanmar’s military brass and Beijing must have already noted the implications of this message from the U.S.

One should expect that a warmer phase in Myanmar-China relations may begin soon, possibly with a bilateral visit by the president of prime minister of China to Naypyitaw in 2016. But to paint Suu Kyi as ‘the Dragon’s Lady’, as a columnist has done in the New York Times, is unconvincing.. Top leaders and foreign ministers of other key countries interested in Myanmar would not like to lag behind. Eventually the new government may end up following a balanced foreign policy, much like the outgoing president did.

Two developments in April onwards will evoke considerable interest: which countries will send their top VIPs to visit Myanmar and which countries will be visited by Suu Kyi in the early months after the change of government?

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has been keeping a close watch on developments, and will no doubt make its moves at a suitable time.

As an analyst put it, Myanmar is heading towards ‘an unchartered political terrain.’ The expectation is that it will move forward with a blend of caution, calibration and some creativity.

About the author:
*Rajiv Bhatia
is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme at Gateway House, former ambassador to Myanmar, and author of ‘India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours’ (Routledge).

This feature was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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Gateway House

Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations is a foreign policy think-tank established in 2009, to engage India’s leading corporations and individuals in debate and scholarship on India’s foreign policy and its role in global affairs. Gateway House’s studies programme will be at the heart of the institute’s scholarship, with original research by global and local scholars in Geo-economics, Geopolitics, Foreign Policy analysis, Bilateral relations, Democracy and nation-building, National security, ethnic conflict and terrorism, Science, technology and innovation, and Energy and Environment.

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