March Of Democracy Will Continue In Myanmar – OpEd


By Pema Tseten Lachungpa*

The 2015 election proved to be a watershed moment in the history of Myanmar. It was a litmus test for Myanmar as it was the country’s first national elections that were held after a gap of almost 50 years. Its last free elections were witnessed in 1960. Though the 1990 elections did take place, but the constitutional power was never transferred to the National League for Democracy (NLD) by military Junta that reigned over the country up till now. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won a landslide victory, trouncing the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and ending nearly 50 years of military rule in Myanmar.

The transformation of military to civilian democratic government was a dream-come-true for the 53.26 million people of Myanmar who had been living under the tight control rule of military Junta for almost half a century. With NLD victory, a ray of hope seems to have spread across Myanmar, with people of this country pining for political, economic and social changes that had eluded them for long.

After more than 50 years, NLD was finally in power in Myanmar, and while it may have passed the initial test of democracy, the real challenge starts now. The new government under the leadership of Htin Kyaw has to address some pressing political, economic and social concerns to prove that its victory is the victory of democracy in Myanmar. The first challenge facing the new NLD government is to change the constitution of Myanmar drafted by military Junta in 2008. The constitution of 2008, in its form and content, constrains the NLD from translating its promises into actionable realities.

There are many clauses in the constitution that prevent NLD from realizing what it had promised to the people of Myanmar. First, Article 6(F) of the Myanmar constitution guarantees military a 25-percent seat reservation in the parliament, ensuring their continuous presence in the political structures of the country and thereby limiting the democratic quotient of the nation. In fact, the constitution reserves the key subjects of governance – including home, defence, and border affairs – for the military. Second, Article 59(f) of the constitution of Myanmar states the qualifications of the President and Vice Presidents and which prohibit any person, with legitimate children and spouse who are foreign nationals, from being instated to the said posts.

Accordingly, it debars Aung San Suu Kyi from the post of presidency since she is married to a foreigner and her children are British nationals. Third, Article 436 states that for any amendment to the constitution, a prior approval of more than seventy-five percent of all the representatives is required, making it almost impossible to alter the constitution in line with the democratic aspirations of Myanmar. Thus, as seen from the constitutional clauses, it seems likely that the dominance of the military in Myanmar will continue at least into the near future.

Moreover the National Defence and Security Council, the highest body in the government, is dominated by unelected military personnel who have the authority to declare a state of emergency at any time.

The second complex challenge to the newly installed government is the Rohingya issue. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority ethnically related to the Bengali people, living for centuries in the north of Rakhine State in Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh and includes the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. But, notwithstanding how long they have been in the country, the Burmese authorities consider them undocumented immigrants and do not recognize them as citizens or as an ethnic group of Myanmar. Their name does not feature in the government lists of 135 national races classified by ethnicity and dialect, of which the biggest groups are Burman, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.

As such Rohingya are de jure stateless, according to the 1982 Burmese Citizenship law and are viewed as a source of instability in the country. Thus, being stateless, without citizenship and ethnic groups’ recognition, the Rohingya are viewed with suspicion and deep-seated hatred. They continue to face persecution and are subject to discrimination through targeted restrictions (like family size) and requirements (unpaid forced labour for security forces). With NLD landslide victory led in effect by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, human rights advocates have hoped that she and her party would change the country’s stance towards Rohingya, even as her party was disturbingly noncommittal on the issue during the elections. It is hoped that NLD will take steps dismantle the repressive mechanisms that have been in place against the Rohingyas for long.

But Suu Kyi is caught in a dilemma over the issue. She has remains largely silent on their plight, out of fear of losing popular support as she knows that taking up the cause of the beleaguered minority would carry a political cost for herself and at the other end the reform-minded new government of Myanmar could also face a major backlash from the leaders of the world and international institution and agencies. Moreover ,NLD’s constitutional power to address the issue is also highly contested since it is a shared one with the military junta. Therefore forging a consensus to address the rohingya issue requires Suu Kyi and her party to maintain military leaders’ cooperation since she do not want the transition to democracy to be reversed for one particular issue.

In the light of the complex internal challenges, the new government led by Suu Kyi is making some smart moves to address the issue slowly by increasing its friendly relations with the military leaders. Suu Kyi knows very well the essence of coming to power after nearly a decade and she does not want to lose this opportunity at any cost. This is clearly seen from her ways to seek answers.

After her party came to power, speculation arose about how she would proceed. It seemed conceivable that she might go for outright defiance, taking it as an opportunity to challenge the former military leaders. But Suu Kyi cautiously decided not to go toe-to-toe with the military leaders. Instead, she had herself named to three different cabinet posts, including foreign minister and minster to the presidency. She also chose a proxy president who is expected to defer to her. Having done all that, she went a step further and had her party create the new state counselor job for her.

As such, the transition of government in Myanmar is more important to Suu Kyi and she is not keen to rush through changes lest she loses power that she had struggled long for. She knows the consequences of confronting the military leaders directly since they hold the key portfolios. She has, therefore, chosen not to confront military leaders directly; instead she decided to outmanoeuvre them by creating a quasi-presidential role outside the official presidency, thereby respecting the constitution and its clauses while also subverting it.

The two complex challenges will be addressed within this parameter knowing the importance of democracy as a mean to address its objective and role of military’s importance since they are constitutional powerful holding important posts. Besides a successful democratic constitution is that in which the institutions of government function; that the political actors reach compromise with the opposition on how the state will run; that the voting public finds the whole thing to be legitimate, and that regular elections and free politics keep the government honest. Therefore, Myanmar in this situation might find itself facing a dilemma, but its course will be favoured by the interplay of ideologies; democratic ideology of Suu Kyi and autocratic ideology of military leaders of Myanmar.

*Pema Tseten Lachungpa is pursuing his PhD in International Relations at Sikkim University, Gangtok. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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