The elections in Myanmar finally come to a close with Suu Kyi-led NLD’s landslide victory. The military establishment has accepted defeat. Suu Kyi, who can’t be the president, has made it clear that she would be ‘above the president’. How should India read Myanmar now and act to safeguard its interests?
By Rajiv Bhatia*
Even though the military in Myanmar has accepted defeat, a mixture of uncertainty and concern prevails as to which way the country will move now.
At the time of writing, results for only three seats in the bicameral parliament are yet to be announced. The National League for Democracy (NLD) has won 387 out of 478 seats. The party has already claimed credibly, based on its direct association with the counting process, that it was set to win over 75% seats.
The real uncertainty pertains to likely decisions by the two most powerful men of the present dispensation – President Thein Sein and Commander-in Chief (C-in-C) Min Aung Hlaing. But the central point is that neither man could be very happy today. Once again, as in 1990, the army leadership has been caught by surprise by the decisive nature of NLD’s victory as well as the power and magic of Aung San Suu Kyi’s charisma.
What does the military plan to do now? Some clues may be discerned in the comments made by the two leaders during the months preceding the election. Here are some of the key points:
- Two days before the election, President Thein Sein urged all parties to accept the results ‘with magnanimity.’ He asserted that the government and army would respect the outcome. He also said that to ensure peace after the elections, he would hold talks with leaders of political parties to find ‘solutions for any potential issues.’
- On 20 October the C-in-C cautioned military personnel and their families to vote for the ‘correct candidates’ who can protect ‘race and religion’ and are free from ‘any influence of external organizations or foreigners.’ This was seen as a subtle appeal to vote against NLD and its leader.
- In an interview on 22 August, the C-in-C pledged to accept the outcome of the elections, but he made it clear that the army’s role in politics would continue as before. ‘Whichever party takes control of the government, it must act within the framework of the constitution,’ he stated.
- In an interview with BBC on 20 July, the C-in-C gave no signs to reduce the military’s grip on Myanmar’s political life, indicating that this would have to wait until ceasefires and peace deals had been concluded with all of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups. ‘It could be five or ten years – I couldn’t say,’ he revealed.
The anxiety level of the establishment may have increased considerably by the consistent reiteration by Suu Kyi that she will be ‘above the president’ or, in effect, a de facto president. The NLD presidential nominee, as she sees it, will be a president in name only, while she takes all the decisions. Experts have, in this context, pointed to a stipulation in the constitution that the President ‘takes precedence’ over all others in the Republic. This could be a major fault line in the new era. Another would be the military’s inability to even get one of the two posts of vice president, given that NLD will have an absolute majority in the parliament.
Some suggest that, instead of fashioning her role as an extra-constitutional authority, Suu Kyi should, as an interim measure, sit at the cabinet table as a Senior Minister-Mentor, guide the new president and help him to work smoothly with the military. While her recent statements leave little room for this scenario, it is possible that hers is an opening gambit. She has people’s power and the mandate; the generals have firepower and a lock on much of the state machinery.
Our main conclusion is that the people in Myanmar have spoken. They want real democracy under Suu Kyi’s leadership, but the constitution under which the elections were held, does not cater for this eventuality. The nation faces a fundamental clash of political visions, one favoured by the army and the other by the pro-democracy movement. This clash can be resolved only if both sides agree to cooperate constructively in the public interest.
Confronting an array pressing challenges, both internal and external, Myanmar cannot afford dual centers of power or confusion within its government. What it needs is a strong, stable, democratic and inclusive government, not one riven from within. It is to be hoped that the meeting requested by Suu Kyi with the president and other high dignitaries will begin to develop a credible roadmap.
A few voices in India’s civil society have boldly suggested that the Indian government should promote reconciliation between the army and Suu Kyi. This stems from an unrealistic perspective. No one has asked for New Delhi’s assistance, which remains committed to non-interference in a neighbour’s internal affairs. Myanmar offers an extremely complicated wicket, and those authorised to play are from that country alone. The solution needs to emerge from within. What India can do is to voice its commitment at the highest level to deepen its multi-dimensional cooperation with Myanmar.
About the author:
*Rajiv Bhatia is a former ambassador to Myanmar. His book India–Myanmar Relations: Changing contours has recently been published by Routledge.
This feature was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.