How Do You Say ‘Gridlock’ in Burmese?

President Obama is arriving in Burma amid a crisis in the country's democratic transition.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

RANGOON — Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who leads Burma’s opposition, summed it up during her press conference last week. The country’s transition to democracy, she said, has “stalled.” She didn’t specify who was responsible for the failure to push through advertised reforms. But many of her compatriots didn’t find it hard to imagine whom she had in mind.

President Thein Sein, the ex-general who launched the country’s liberalization process four years ago, is increasingly under fire for his inability to deliver on promises of change. Just before U.S. President Barack Obama and regional leaders arrive for a major summit, Burma faces a deepening political crisis that raises fundamental questions about its future stability.

Even as officials talk of accelerating reforms, Thein Sein’s government appears to be virtually paralyzed. Perhaps most strikingly of all, the president appears to be incapable of bringing an end to a lingering civil war that continues to thwart progress on other fronts — despite the Burmese leader’s repeated claims that he is determined to end the conflict.

The lack of action comes at a moment when domestic political tensions are deepening ahead of next year’s general election. The executive branch and lawmakers are at each other’s throats. Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), and key powerbroker Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house of parliament, have joined forces to block the government’s legislative plans (ostensibly in an effort to press the president and his cabinet for more accountability). Whatever their motives, their actions are serving to exacerbate a crippling sense of gridlock. “This power struggle between the president and the speaker is certainly affecting the administration, preventing much-needed reforms being implemented,” said Ma Thida, a writer and influential political activist.

“Ministers are very cautious because of the parliament’s role in monitoring and reviewing their activities,” said Zaw Oo, one of Thein Sein’s many economic advisors. “They are worried about the reaction from MPs. Now ministers don’t just have to get the president and the cabinet’s approval, but parliament’s too.”

Activists say that, despite the outward appearance of liberalization, well-entrenched elements of the old military junta continue to exercise considerable power. Civil society groups complain of rampant illegal land seizures and widespread violation of basic rights. Last month saw the arrest of five journalists, while another recently died in custody.

Equally ominous, though, is the government’s failure to make good on promises of economic reform. Plans to privatize key companies have run aground, a major problem for an economy still dominated by well-connected cronies of the old regime. U Myint, the president’s chief economic advisor, has publicly complained about the lack of notable progress in financial and banking reform; foreign investment has dried to a trickle. “In the lead-up to the elections, and in the jockeying and positioning before it, economic reform in Burma has more or less come to a halt,” said Sean Turnell, a Burma specialist at Australia’s Macquarie University. The agriculture sector — the source of livelihood for some 80 percent of the population — also awaits urgently needed restructuring.

This government administrative inertia is in part the result of the campaign to change the current constitution, which reserves key levers of power for the military and effectively bars the opposition leader from becoming president. Amending the constitution is also virtually impossible — given, for example, that any changes have to be approved by 75 percent of the parliament, which is still overwhelmingly dominated by representatives of the armed forces.

In the meantime, feeling besieged, Thein Sein has become a virtual recluse within the halls of government. According to high-ranking officials, the president sees few visitors — including his own ministers — and is becoming increasingly erratic. He leaves most decisions now to a handful of senior aides, known as the “super cabinet,” who control the president’s office.

Only Soe Thein, Thein Sein’s top official on economic issues, can see him without an appointment. A select group of six ministers in the president’s office, originally set up to improve coordination within government, have become the real power, according to a former minister. They, he says, are the ones effectively running the government on a day-to-day basis. Otherwise, even those advisors who report directly to the president’s office rarely receive an audience with the leader.

“They are as dictatorial as Than Shwe ever was,” said a senior civil servant, referring to the general who ran the country’s military junta in the years before Thein Sein. Anyone who crosses this group can expect to find himself in trouble, perhaps even out of a job.

“Everything is stalled as ministers are having trouble making decisions,” admitted presidential advisor Zaw Oo. “Although ministers are still powerful, they are now more answerable than in the past to the president and the ministers in the president’s office that is overseeing them.” This has left many ministers nervous and indecisive, he added. They are now more reluctant to push their policy ideas through.

“There is no such thing as a real reformer in the cabinet,” said a senior media editor close to the government, on condition of anonymity. Ma Thida, the writer and activist, said that Burma has yet to embark on a genuine transition to democracy: “The best that can be said is the government is trying to reform.”

Some experts say that the current standstill merely shows that the Thein Sein government was never really committed to democratization and economic liberalism. In this reading, Thein Sein and his colleagues had only one main mission: to get Burma accepted by the international community and to roll back sanctions. Having done that more quickly than expected, they were then at a loss to know what to do next. “There is no overall strategic plan; everything is done on an ad hoc basis,” said one presidential advisor, who declined to be identified.

The current priority for the government seems to be achieving quick wins that can be presented to the electorate as evidence of its ability to deliver, thus improving the chances of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the forthcoming polls.

Ministers are also seeking help from foreign businessmen who come with possible joint ventures, and asked if they could also invest in projects in their constituencies in order to bolster the ruling party’s local popularity. One minister recently asked some visiting international agrarian business representatives if they could assist in establishing a winery in his constituency.

Many aid organizations and donors — including the Asian Development Bank, U.N. agencies, and the World Bank — have experienced pressures to agree to fund projects that will be completed and have a visible impact on the country before the end of 2015.

In the meantime, there is a continuing power struggle within the ruling USDP over Thein Sein’s successor. Two key candidates have emerged: Shwe Mann, the parliamentary powerbroker, who, as party chairman, also controls the USDP apparatus; and the current army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who reportedly continues to count on the support of the military (and, behind the scenes, Than Shwe, the former junta leader, who gave way to Thein Sein in 2011).

“My greatest fear is that the 2015 elections will be postponed, perhaps indefinitely,” said a businessman who has close contacts with the current regime as well as with the family of Than Shwe.

The current constitution allows the army chief to take administrative power for reasons of “national security.” Late last year, when a senior member of the USDP central committee was asked if Min Aung Hlaing could become the next president, he responded: “My fear is he won’t wait that long.” But whether or not he seizes the opportunity, Min Aung Hlaing is rapidly becoming the man to watch.

Any hope of Thein Sein running for re-election has finally been put to bed. His recent erratic and indecisive behavior has alienated many in government and in the USDP; even ministers in his office believe that he has lost the capacity to govern. And, it is widely rumored, he now no longer has the support of Than Shwe, either.

This leaves a significant power vacuum at the top. Although Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are likely to be the big winners in next year’s election (provided it is free and fair), the current constitution makes it almost impossible for them to gain a majority of the seats.

So now the field for the future president is wide open. The real question is whether the elections will actually be delayed until 2016 or postponed indefinitely. The former option seems most likely, and this could mean Thein Sein staying on as interim president until the elections are held. The risk of such a scenario is that it will merely postpone the current malaise.

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