Burma: Has It Changed? – Analysis


By C. S. Kuppuswamy

“In spite of the protestations of some Burmese democrats and their international supporters that nothing has changed fundamentally, change has come to Burma.” — EBO Analysis Paper No. 2/2011


Much water has flown through the Irrawaddy since the November 2010 elections held after two decades in that country. However the question that looms large is – Has Myanmar changed? The general opinion is that structural changes have taken place while qualitatively the change is negligible. The other view is that what little change that has come about has to be encouraged for more positive changes to take place and prevent the country from going back to the old order.

The ruling military set-up called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has been abolished. The union parliament (both houses) and the regional parliaments were convened on 31 January 2011 and have had some regular sittings despite the fact they were very short with few opportunities for the opposition to voice their views. A new “civilian” president has been sworn in along with two vice presidents, one of whom is an ethnic national. A new cabinet has been formed with 30 ministers though the key portfolios are held by military officers. Senior Gen Than Shwe and his deputy Vice Senior Gen Maung Aye have stepped down.

U.S, Western Nations, the opposition and the media in exile have dismissed the new set up as “old wine in a new bottle” since the power continues to be with the military officers while China, India, ASEAN and a few others consider the transition as significant for democracy to be ushered in.

The Events:

November 7, 2010 Multi party general elections held after two decades. About 3000 candidates from 37 political parties participated in the election. The main opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi boycotted this election.

November 13, 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest without any conditions.

November 18, 2010 Election results announced. The regime backed Union Solidarity Party (USDP) won 883 of 1154 parliament seats (including the regional parliaments).

November 27-28, 2010 Vijay Nambiar, UN special envoy to Burma visits Myanmar, meets the foreign minister and Aung San Suu Kyi.

January 20, 2011 The Union Election Commission announced the list of nominees reserved for military (25 % of the total seats) at the three levels of parliament – 110 for the lower house, 56 for the upper house and a total of 217 for the 14 (regional/state) parliaments. The nominations were made by the Commander in Chief.

January 31, 2011 The first parliament sessions for both houses as well the regional/state assemblies were held. Thura Shwe Man (No.3 in the military hierarchy) and Khin Aung Myint were elected as speaker of the lower and upper houses respectively.

February 4, 2011 Outgoing prime minister (Ex. Gen.) Thein Sein elected as President, Tun Aung Myint Oo (Ex. Gen.) as Vice President-1 and Sai Mauk Kham (an ethnic Shan) as Vice President-2.

February 9, 2011 Three military generals were appointed to key ministerial posts.

Defence Lt. Gen Ko Ko

Home Affairs Maj. Gen. Hla Min

Border Affairs Maj. Gen. Thein Hlay

In addition Wanna Maung Lwin (a former military officer turned diplomat) appointed as Foreign Minister.

March 30, 2011 The State Peace Development Council (SPDC) which was ruling the country for over two decades was officially dissolved.

Thein Sein was sworn in as President of the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar” along with the two Vice Presidents. Thirty ministers were also appointed.

The Legislative Assemblies

Consequent to the elections, the seats held by the regime backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and the main opposition party, the National Democratic Force (NDF), a breakaway faction of the NLD, in the different houses are as under:

Upper House Lower House State/Region Total

USDP 129 (168) 259 (325) 496 (881) 884 (1154)
NDF 4 (168) 8 (325) 4 (881) 16 (1154)

The figures in brackets indicate the total number of seats for which elections were held in each legislative body.

In addition the military appointees, mostly made up of junior officers in the ranks of captains and majors occupied the 25 percent seats in each house reserved for the military under the constitution. Taking into account these reserved seats, the USDP combine is holding 185 (129 + 56 reserved)– about 82% in the 224 member upper house and 369 (259 + 110 reserved)– about 85% in the 435 member lower house.

Both the lower (Pyithu Hluttaw) and the upper house (Amyotha Hluttaw) as well as the regional/state legislatures were convened simultaneously on 31 January 2011. At the out set the speakers and the deputy speakers of both houses at the national level and in all the regional legislatures were elected. On that day the union parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) or the combined national legislature formally brought the 2008 Constitution in to effect. Suffice it to say that all the positions of Speakers/Deputy Speakers at all levels are being held by the USDP representatives.

On 4 February 2011, Thein Sen, former Prime Minister and an Ex-General was elected as President by an electoral college consisting of members both houses. The two Vice Presidents elected are Tin Aung Mint OO (an Ex General) and Dr. Sai Mauk Kham (a medical doctor and an ethnic Shan).

The President’s Address

President Thein Sein delivered his inaugural address to the combined houses of parliament on 30 March 2011 wherein he made reference to most of the critical issues faced by the country as on date.

The issues he raised and the topics he touched upon were wide ranging. The important ones are:

Safeguarding the Constitution

Supremacy of the tatmadaw (Armed Forces)

Causes for non-disintegration of the union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty

The three types of might-political, economic and military





Foreign Affairs

Though most analysts were skeptic and quick in disposing it off as mere rhetoric, the European Burma Office has come out with an objective analysis of his speech (EBO Analysis, Paper no, 2 of 2011).

The EBO’s report indicates that he made an impressive speech. It appreciated his willingness to amend the constitution when required and his accepting the fact that the country is faced with problems on many counts. This is a clear departure from the line adopted by the earlier administration. He is open and transparent. However the analysis is rather cautious in concluding that he may not have a free hand in dealing with these issues and that the military may not be in such a hurry to lose its grip.

Economic Sanctions

Since the conduct of the elections a continuing debate is in progress in Myanmar media in exile and in the international media as to whether the time has come to review the economic sanctions.

Some are of the view that to overcome its excessive dependence on China, the military junta had gone ahead with the reforms and formed a civilian government to enable the US and Western nations to review their policy of sanctions. Some newly elected opposition parties joined together and proposed a review of the sanctions as it is hurting the common man and ASEAN joined the band wagon.

However, Aung San Suu Kyi clarified that the sanctions are hurting the regime more than the common man and hence the US and Western nations should not be hasty in lifting the sanctions before any meaningful reforms are initiated and the political prisoners released.

The International Crisis Group in an update briefing titled “Myanmar’s Post Election Landscape” brought out on 7 March 2011 reiterates that it “has long believed that sanctions are highly counter productive”. The report adds that sanctions, have a significant negative impact on the Myanmar population, undermines vital economic reforms, and polarise a situation that requires reconciliation. The report recommends lifting of sanctions in a graduated manner beginning with removal of restrictions on developmental assistance, on technical assistance and restrictions on UNDP and other UN agencies.

Benedict Rogers has criticised this report as “naive and ill considered analysis from an otherwise highly respected and intelligent organisation”. He is recommending “more humanitarian aid for medial care, livelihood provision, emergency relief and poverty alleviation” and not for development projects funded by international institutions. There is vehement opposition to the views of the ICG in the Burmese media in exile also.

Than Shwe’s Exit Strategy

Senior General Than Shwe (78) has stepped down and is no longer the Head of State but has he retired? He has also relinquished the post of the Commander-in-chief to 55 years old Lt. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and has stopped meeting foreign dignitaries such as the Chinese leader Jia Qingling (the chair person of the National Committee of the CPPCC) who visited Myanmar in April 2011 to congratulate the President and had wide ranging talks with him.

There is a general feeling especially in the Burmese media in exile that he will be “remote controlling” the Government from behind the scenes like Gen Ne Win. However he has been shrewd to dissipate the centralised authority which was vested in him to more than one entity. This is being called as his “exit strategy” by the International Crisis Group in its report (earlier referred to in this paper).

The report indicates that the new four key centres of power are, the Presidency (under the President), the Military (under the Commander –in-Chief), the Parliament (under the speaker of the lower house – a former powerful General) and the Party (USDP under the party chief). Besides the National Defence and Security Council headed by the President (with 11 members of which six are from the military) is an all powerful executive body with wide-ranging powers under the Constitution.

The Irrawaddy (February 10, 2011) also reports the setting up of an eight member extra Constitutional body called the State Supreme Council which will be led by Than Shwe and will include Vice Senior General Maung Aye, the President, the speaker of the lower house, and some senior generals. A subsequent report (The Irrawaddy, April 2, 2011) calls this body as an extra-constitutional “board of consultants” which met at the capital prior to the President’s inaugural address.

The report adds that this will be highest body of the state which will be influential and performing an advisory role.

Thus the role of Than Shwe consequent to the formation of the new Government is still unclear. He has placed his loyal generals at important positions and has managed a balance of power between them. In the eyes of the world he has handed over the reins. It remains to be seen as to how long his followers remain loyal to him and do not give him the same treatment he meted out to Ne Win.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD

The gusto, fervour and the enthusiasm displayed by her for some days after her release on 13 November 2010, is no longer there. The crowds thronging to meet her are also reducing. Without a political vehicle (the party), she is not able to show case her initiatives and views to the common man. She has been rallying the youth to form networks using the internet.

Her party, National League for Democracy (NLD) has been fragmented consequent to the boycott of the elections. The breakaway faction– National Democratic Force, participated in the election though it did not fare well. The party has been officially dissolved on 14 September 2010 by the military leadership. Her appeals to the higher courts to reinstate the party have failed. The party is currently involved in social welfare projects like digging wells, opening clinics and schools with limited resources.

The military leadership while continuing to monitor her activities had given her enough latitude to meet the diplomats, the political party leaders, the ethnic leaders and even visiting foreign dignitaries. However the military leadership has not responded to her repeated calls for dialogue. The junta has been indirectly criticising her in the official media for her insistence on the continuance of economic sanctions. The Election Commission has warned all existing political parties not to make contacts with any illegal organisations (The Irrawaddy, April 19, 2011).Though specific mention of NLD has not been made, it is being interpreted by most political parties that the new government warns them to cease contacts with the NLD.

Her address to the World Economic Forum in Davos in February 2011 wherein she had suggested “that foreign investment was needed provided that it took account of the rights of workers” has evoked mixed reactions even from her party members. Since then she has been clarifying her stand on sanctions every now and then.

Her current plight has been aptly summarised – “Aung San Suu Kyi has to steer a course between offending her hard line loyalists and attracting back the support of those who feel that she has been overtly stubborn and inflexible, focused on constitutional more than livelihood issues” (Asia Sentinel.).

The Military Leadership and the New Government

Despite all the pressures from the outside world, the military junta has completed the seven step road map to democracy and has handed over power to a civilian government.

Even before the Civil Government has settled down it has made a bid for the Chairmanship of the ASEAN in 2014 and wants this issue to be taken up in the ASEAN summit in Jakarta in May this year. (It may be recalled that Myanmar had to give up its turn to chair the ASEAN in November 2004). However U.S has already reacted that it will not interact with ASEAN with Myanmar in the chair.

It had stage managed the elections as well as the formation of the new government. It outmaneuvered the NLD in the election process by helping the minor and ethnic political parties in joining the new set up. The biggest hurdle is to bring the ethnic cease fire and non-cease fire groups into the main stream. The ethnics have been pacified to a certain extent by the establishment of the state assemblies in their respective areas and creation of six self administered areas for certain ethnic groups under the new constitution. The military leadership had intentionally suspended the military operations (in view of the elections) to transform the armed groups in to border guards. It will now be the headache of the new Government to resume the process.

The military leadership had hastily passed some laws before the parliament was convened to preclude these laws from being discussed in the parliament. Law No. 27/2010 pertains to conscription approved by SPDC on 04 November 2010 but made public in early January 2011. Another law enacted in end November 2010 restricted the freedom of speech of new parliamentarians, in that the speeches should not endanger national security, unity of the country or violate the constitution. On 10 January 2011 a set of 17 new laws were enacted pertaining to state seal, election of president and vice president and other procedural matters in the conduct of the proceedings in the parliament, judiciary etc.

The military junta also privatised most (about 90 %) of the State Industries by the end of the year 2010. The move was obviously to benefit those close to the Government who had bought these industries.

The national budget was also announced in early March 2011 before the parliament was convened. The budget earmarked 20 billion kyat (about $ 22 million) for the office of SPDC, 1.8 trillion kyat ($ 2 billion) about 23.6% to Defence, 99.5 billion kyat (about 1.3 percent) to Health and 314 billion kyat (about 4.13 percent) to Education sector.

There was also a media report (The Irrawaddy April 4, 2011) to state that SPDC “transferred ownership of over 1000 acres of rubber plantations, jade mines and gold mines to junta Chief Senior Gen Than Shwe and his family”.

Thus the military leadership had cleared the deck and ensured that all privileges enjoyed by them under the SDPC are continued in some form or other even after the new government is in place.

Reactions of the International Community

United States: The US dismissed the so called transfer of power in Burma as “immaterial” and that military leaders remain in control. The State Department, the report said, will continue pressing a two track strategy of engagement with Burmese authorities and sanctions to try to promote real reforms. In the first week of April 2011, the Obama administration has nominated Derek Mitchell, principal assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security, as a special envoy to Burma. The nomination is yet to be confirmed by the senate. This has been welcomed by the NLD and other opposition parties. (Till date there is only a U.S Charge d’ affaires in Myanmar).

China: China sent Jia Qinglin the chairperson of National Committee of the CPPCC, to Myanmar in the first week of April 2011 to express its support to the new government. He met President Thein Sein and had wide ranging talks including border security which is of concern to China.

ASEAN: ASEAN has welcomed the formation of the new Government. It had even recommended lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar. However ASEAN has been surprised by Myanmar’s bid to chair the ASEAN in 2014. It has sought the concurrence of Myanmar to allow an ASEAN delegate to visit the country and assess the situation before taking a decision on the matter.

Thailand: Taking advantage of the transfer of power to a civilian administration in Myanmar, Thailand wants to close down nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border and repatriate more than 140,000 Myanmar refugees. Both the UNHCR and the ethnics are against the move for the reason that the repatriation should be voluntary and not compulsory.

News Analyses

Indonesia was in a similar situation in 1998 when Suharto was ousted out of power. Today it is a full fledged democracy even though a retired general is at the helm of affairs as the President.

In the case of Myanmar, the transition may take a longer time but there is hope.

Of the 30 ministers in the new cabinet only four are genuine civilians – hence there is no denying the fact that the new government is military dominated. However it is a new set of military leaders.

In the new set-up power is not concentrated on one individual or authority. The executive, judiciary and the legislative branches are now distinctly separated and some democratic norms like parliamentary committees have been established for conduct of business.

The opposition party that swept the polls in 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD), having boycotted the polls and officially dissolved, is losing its relevance day by day. It requires much more than Aung San Suu Kyi’s charisma, perseverance and political acumen. There is a call from within the party for early revamping, restructuring and bold measures in building up a more united opposition.

The other opposition parties that contested the polls and had gained entry into parliament is a negligible minority and will in no way be able to influence the government.

The new government will be in no haste for national reconciliation by initiating a dialogue with the NLD and the ethnic groups. Nor will it heed the call for a second Panglong type of conference..

If the new Government manages to rev up the economy, improve the human rights situation and keep the on-going civil war at a low key as it is now, the international community may be tempted to lift the sanctions and start engaging with the new set-up. However the views of Suu Kyi will always be taken into account by U.S and other nations before revising their policy of sanctions.

Myanmar has changed from a military to civil government but does it have the political will to implement radical changes both political and socio economic? Not yet.


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.

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