Argument

The Lady Rallies the Masses Once Again

The Lady Rallies the Masses Once Again

The big question in Burmese politics these days is whether the military will allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the presidency. The current constitution, which was drafted and passed by the old military regime, bars her from the job. Article 59F of the constitution states that any Burmese who has a foreign spouse or children who are foreign nationals can’t become president or vice president. Aung San Suu Kyi’s two sons (from her marriage with the deceased Oxford professor Michael Aris) have British citizenship, so she needs to change that rule before she can qualify for Burma’s highest office. Burma’s military rulers included that rather peculiar condition precisely in order to prevent her from taking power.

During the third week of May, Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters gathered for two mass rallies in Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma’s two biggest cities. (The demonstration in Mandalay, the most important commercial city in upper Burma, drew an estimated 25,000 supporters.) Both rallies called for amending Article 436 of the 2008 constitution, which essentially gives the military a veto over any amendments. The article stipulates that any amendments require the support of more than 75 percent of members of the parliament, where unelected military representatives control a quarter of the seats. Aung San Suu Kyi’s camp have to get rid of this provision before they can amend the article that prevents her from holding the presidency.

There’s no doubt that Burma’s constitution is deeply flawed. The excessive power that it grants the military and the obstacles it places in the way of amendment are only two of the most obvious problems. Ideally, of course, these provisions can be changed or abolished. In reality, matters are a bit more complicated. The 2008 constitution was the result of an effort to reduce the military’s direct control of the state as part of the country’s transition away from the previous military dictatorship. For all its flaws, the constitution has enabled the political opening that continues in Burma today.

At the rallies, Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters called for replacing the 75 percent requirement with a simple majority parliamentary vote. After spending the past two years lobbying for a constitutional amendment, the Lady (as the Burmese often refer to their revered opposition leader) has finally lost her patience with the military, which failed to respond to her request for a formal meeting with key political players, including President Thein Sein, House Speaker Shwe Mann, and Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Speaking to thousands of supporters at the rallies, she ultimately resorted to some highly charged, shame-and-name rhetoric: "I challenge the military…" "Soldiers must be brave enough to face reality… "The military was founded as the Burma Liberation Army, not as the Army for Repressing Burma."

The crowds were suitably fired up. They also applauded her decision to team up with the 88 Generation Group, the most influential activist group in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi’s own party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to organize these mass rallies and launch a nationwide campaign to petition for constitutional reform.

The question is whether this show of political influence will achieve its professed goal. The short answer is "no." In all likelihood, the campaign will end up serving merely as part of the broader political effort to garner support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, ahead of the 2015 elections. There are at least three reasons to assume this outcome.

First, what is the Lady’s broader game plan? What will she do if the military rejects her call for constitutional reform? Will she launch a campaign of street protests? Judging by her statements to date, she has no plans to go that far. She insists that she’s planning to reform the constitution in compliance with parliamentary procedure. Will she boycott the 2015 elections? Also unlikely. Such a move would leave her and her supporters in the political wilderness once again.

So what’s left? The 2008 constitution does not provide any path for translating public opinion into policy apart from regular parliamentary elections and the right of voters to recall elected officials. (A controversial bill that would translate the latter principle into law remains on hold.) So long as Aung San Suu Kyi is committed to pursuing constitutional change according to the military’s rules, it’s hard to see how her strength on the streets can translate into actual reform in the parliament.

Meanwhile, the military and its associated political party are becoming savvier in dealing with the challenges posed by the opposition. Consistent with their strategy of co-optation, the ruling elites do not reject anything outright. They typically respond to opposition demands by making partial concessions and preventing full-blown confrontation. On May 21st, the parliamentary Joint Committee for Reviewing the Constitution (JCRC) announced that its members had agreed to amend Article 436, saying that they will submit a proposal to parliament for a final decision. Though the incumbent-dominated JCRC did not reveal details of the proposal, it almost certainly won’t do anything to help the opposition get what it wants. Moreover, the military chief recently made it clear that any constitutional changes have to be passed according to the existing amendment procedures. In short, even if the military agrees to make concessions, the opposition will find it virtually impossible to pass a corresponding amendment.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to resort to full-on street protests or election boycotts, the main effect of her current campaign for constitutional reform will be to motivate her base to vote for her party in the 2015 elections. Even so, the effort does come with a substantial risk. The campaign could spark conflict with pro-government activists such as the Buddhist nationalists who have already declared their support for the incumbent president and Article 59F. More importantly, military leaders might view Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for soldiers to sign the charter reform petition as a ploy to divide the military. It’s precisely such fears that fuel continuing suspicion of the democratic forces among the officer corps. The Election Commission, for its part, issued a warning to Aung San Suu Kyi, chiding her for using language "challenging the army."

Whether or not the Lady has the stomach to pick another intractable fight with a new generation of military generals is a question that has to do with a second concern: the credibility of the constitutional reform campaign.

Given the country’s complex ethnic makeup and its continuing civil war, minority groups are among the most important actors in Burmese political conflicts. So far, however, their representatives have been conspicuously absent from the stage at Aung San Suu Kyi’s public rallies (even though the Lady has paid lip service
to the federalist cause in her speeches). This seems odd, considering there’s no way to build enough support to reform the constitution that bypasses the ethnic groups (whether inside or outside parliament). So the exclusion of the ethnic groups from the current campaign merely reinforces the conclusion that the NLD constitutional reform campaign is really just a way of preparing for the 2015 elections. Instead of the ethnic groups, the Lady has brought in her informal sidekick, the 88 Generation group. Observers agree that most of the group’s leaders do not entertain electoral ambitions, so they have no plans to field candidates against Aung San Suu Kyi — at least in the 2015 elections. 

Finally, even if Aung San Suu Kyi throws all of her energy and resources into the campaign, the current political context does not seem to favor her. The current government’s liberalization process might appear inclusive, but the reality is quite different. While the new regime has accepted Aung San Suu Kyi as a valid spokesperson in certain areas, it still refuses to give her any real power over policy. And there is little she can do to change that now, having given the government her blanket endorsement early on. The lady’s public announcement of trust in President Thein Sein and his "genuine wishes for democratic reform" in 2012 granted the new regime much-needed domestic and international legitimacy; she may well regret that decision now, but what’s done is done. Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim nationalist movement is preparing to push back if the Lady dares to launch a full-scale confrontation over the issue of constitutional reform.

The promise of the Arab Spring has ebbed. Turkey’s once-promising democracy is torn between chaos and rising authoritarianism. And now Thailand has once again succumbed to military rule. Under such conditions, it’s hard to imagine that the international community will wholeheartedly throw its weight behind the unpredictable Lady. The countries of the West, who have generally taken Aung San Suu Kyi’s side, insist on categorizing Burma as a success story not only because of the presumed success of its "democratization," but also due to geostrategic interests. Here, for example, is what President Obama, said about Burma in his recent speech to graduates of the U.S. military academy:

…[W]e have seen political reforms opening a once closed society; a movement by Burmese leadership away from partnership with North Korea in favor of engagement with America and our allies…. If Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.

Given its ambiguous endgame, its weak credibility, and the changing domestic and international context, the opposition’s amendment campaign is likely to fall short of its declared goal before the 2015 elections. The leader of the campaign, however, may have a very different perception of what counts as success.