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Aung San Suu Kyi looks set to be the backseat driver of Myanmar’s next government. Unravelling a half-century of military control and cronyism now awaits her. By Hamish McDonald.

Myanmar power plays ahead for NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi

National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on her way to vote last weekend.
Credit: AFP

Retreat is the hardest military manoeuvre, it is said. This week the Tatmadaw, as the powerful military in Myanmar is known, took time to acknowledge the resounding defeat of its proxies in the country’s first free election in a quarter of a century.

The electoral commission slowed the pace of announcements after early results showed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy heading for a sweeping win in last Sunday’s vote. But by Wednesday night, Thein Sein, the former general who moved from military junta to ostensibly civilian president in a stage-managed election five years ago, conceded the NLD win. “We will respect and obey the decision of the electorate,” Minister of Information Ye Htut said. “We will work peacefully in the transfer [of power].” As significantly, military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing congratulated Suu Kyi for winning a majority of seats.

Thein Sein’s political career is now ending, and the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that put him into power is shattered and exposed as having no popular roots. “We lost,” said Htay Oo, a retired major-general and the party’s chairman who has lost his own seat in parliament, along with most members of the current government standing for re-election. 

“Our USDP lost completely; the NLD has won,” admitted another senior party member and retired army officer, Kyi Win, from the party headquarters in Naypyidaw, the grandiose new capital built up-country by the former junta as part of the civilian camouflage operation that began with promulgation of a new constitution in 2008 and the 2010 elections. 

In interviews early in the week, Suu Kyi said she was confident of the NLD winning about 75 per cent of the elected seats in the national parliament. Unofficial results coming in from party officials and observers watching the count in local centres were confirming that. 

Such a result gets the NLD past the first obstacle: the 25 per cent of seats in both the lower and upper chambers of the parliament reserved for serving representatives of the Tatmadaw. They turn up in uniform and vote as ordered by their commander-in-chief.

Under the 2008 constitution, this military faction and the majority elected parties in the 440-seat lower house and 224-seat upper house each put forward a candidate for the presidency when the new parliament convenes on January 31. Sitting together, the two chambers then choose the new president by simple majority, with the two losing candidates becoming vice-presidents. The mathematics are that a two-thirds majority of elected seats would allow Suu Kyi’s NLD to pick the president.

The booby trap for Suu Kyi in the constitution is that it can’t be her. It bars anyone married to a foreigner or with children holding foreign nationality from the top executive position. Her late husband, the scholar Michael Aris, was British, as are their two sons. Any constitutional amendment requires a vote of more than 75 per cent of the parliament, so the Tatmadaw has that blocked as well. Having wrested power from civilians in 1962, the Tatmadaw is giving it back only in small measures.

Suu Kyi seems resigned to her own version of proxy rule. In statements before and after the election, she’s said that with a parliamentary majority, she would be able to pick the president. “I make all the decisions because I am the leader of the winning party,” she told Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia. “And the president will be one whom we will choose just to meet the requirements of the constitution. The president will be told exactly what he can do.”

The assertive tone is understandable after obtaining what should normally be a second mandate to rule in a democracy − 25 years after the first, in 1990, when the Tatmadaw refused to recognise the NLD’s election win and then put Suu Kyi through two decades of house arrest and other restrictions.

However, assuming the NLD emerges with a majority, it still faces a Tatmadaw occupying the commanding heights of the political system. The constitution reserves the ministries covering defence, home affairs and border protection for military officers chosen by the commander-in-chief. The home affairs portfolio gives the Tatmadaw supervision of the police as well as the civilian bureaucracy. The border portfolio includes substantial paramilitary forces. 

The commander-in-chief has autonomous power over military spending and operations, and can even declare a state of emergency and suspend civilian rule in certain circumstances that might be relatively easy to engineer. Military personnel are immune from prosecution for past human rights abuses. 

This raises the strong possibility of conflict should an NLD president try to tackle two of Myanmar’s most deep-seated problems, the continued existence of which help justify the political status quo for the Tatmadaw. 

One is the insurgencies that have raged since independence from Britain in 1948 among ethnic minorities on the peripheries of the central areas dominated by the ethnic Burman, Buddhist majority. In mid-October, Thein Sein’s negotiators coaxed eight out of some 40 minority armies into a truce. Shortly after, 12 holdout groups convened separately in the rebellious ethnic Wa and Kokang regions in the far north, where conflict with the Tatmadaw has recently spilled across the border. 

Devolution has been the obvious solution since founding Burmese army leader Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi, negotiated an accord promising autonomy in 1947. He was assassinated not long after by a political rival, and his army successors have consistently equated federalism with chaos.

The second problem is the huge off-budget money flows controlled by the Tatmadaw and its cronies, much of them from plunder of timber, rubies and semi-precious stones, in addition to conventional businesses run by two military holding companies. In October, the British-based campaign group Global Watch estimated a staggering $US31 billion worth of jade is extracted each year from remote mines in military no-go zones, much of it smuggled directly into China. 

“It will be a government with very limited powers,” says Bertil Lintner, a Swedish writer who has closely followed events in Myanmar for decades. “The military will remain the country’s most powerful institution, and, in this context, it is doubtful whether the NLD will be able to live up to people’s expectations, which are very high after this election.”

Of forced necessity, the NLD’s new politicos include few with political experience, except at the barricades or in prison. In one Naypyidaw electorate, a poet has ousted a former army general and defence minister.

Recent statements by Tatmadaw chief Min Aung Hlaing suggest the generals think the country still needs another five or 10 years before it can be entrusted to a fully civilian government, says Andrew Selth, a former Australian diplomat and intelligence analyst now at Griffith University. 

“They may be prepared to countenance a government dominated by the [NLD], but Aung San Suu Kyi’s current confrontational approach, by claiming a position above the president, does not augur well for Myanmar’s future political order,” Selth said in analysis for Perth think tank Future Directions International.

“The Tatmadaw is likely to be slow to accept the constraints on its power that will be required for Myanmar to become a genuine democracy,” Selth adds. “Any perceived challenges to Myanmar’s unity, internal stability and sovereignty – critical factors in the minds of the country’s military leaders – will inevitably delay the process. They could even halt it.”

Yet the world has changed around the generals. Myanmar’s civilians are more empowered by mobile phones and wider exposure to other countries. A military fallback into isolation would thwart hopes of joining the rest of South-East Asia in prosperity, and return Myanmar to exploitation by China.

Western powers still hold the lever of economic sanctions. A reminder came this year when United States banks backed off further trade finance when it was realised most cargoes are shipped through a port facility in Yangon run by the Asia World conglomerate founded by the late heroin trafficker Lo Hsing Han whose heir, Steven Law, is still among about 100 individuals and companies subject to American financial sanctions.

Hillary Clinton, as Barack Obama’s secretary of state in 2011, was quick to pick up on Thein Sein’s strategic switch from isolation, signalled by his suspension of a massive dam being built across the Irrawaddy River by Chinese companies and Asia World, and his invitation to Suu Kyi to freely contest political power. With Clinton the frontrunner in next year’s US presidential election, Washington will maintain support for Myanmar’s election winner.

Thant Myint-U, a historian whose grandfather U Thant was a government minister during the short democracy period after independence and later United Nations secretary-general, sees Myanmar now poised to advance or remain in ambivalence between democracy and military control. “It’s only five to 10 years from now, looking back, that we’ll know if these few months were a big step forward for democratic change,” he said in a message to contacts this week, “or a period which locked in a quasi-civilian system.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2015 as "Power plays". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.