Burma’s Painful Democratic Rebirth

For the first time in five decades, a democratic government is taking power in Burma. But there are plenty of problems ahead.

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Back in 1988, when high school student Win Maw Oo was shot by security forces during the popular protests against Burma’s military dictatorship, she lived just long enough to make a final wish: She asked her parents to skip part of the traditional Buddhist rites at her funeral. Usually, the relatives of the deceased perform a “merit-sharing ceremony,” which aims to liberate the dead person’s soul and guarantee a better life in the cycle of rebirth. But Win Maw Oo insisted that she wanted to see the victory of democracy before she moved on to her next life, so she asked her family to make sure that her soul would remain bound to this plane of existence until that happened. When I attended the six-month commemoration of her death in early 1989, I saw how her parents fulfilled their daughter’s wish by refusing to carry out the traditional merit-sharing ritual.

On November 8, 2015, Burma’s pro-democracy opposition, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in the country’s first national election in recent memory. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 79 percent of the contested seats, giving it a sufficient majority in the national assembly to enable it to form the next government. This wasn’t exactly your average election. For the people of Burma, who have suffered the abuses of military rule for decades, the NLD victory was a matter of life and death. A few weeks after the vote, on December 6, Win Maw Oo’s parents finally performed the merit-sharing rites for their daughter, setting her spirit free.

I remembered that story earlier this week, on February 1, when the newly elected lawmakers were sworn in at the first session of the new parliament. Many Burmese greeted the news with tears of joy. The NLD now controls both chambers of the national assembly, which will enable the party to choose the next president and one of two vice presidents in the weeks to come.

So far, at least, the transition from five decades of military rule appears to be going well. Both the president and the army chief met Aung San Suu Kyi and promised a smooth transfer of power in March. The government and the NLD have created a joint eight-member committee to prepare for the handover. We will see how well that has worked in just a few weeks, when the NLD lawmakers appoint their new government — a dramatic step forward toward democratization.

Yet two key issues remain unresolved. First, there is the question of whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be the country’s next president. The current constitution, which was drafted by the previous military junta, bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because she has two sons who hold British citizenship. Unless she has the approval from the military, which controls 25 percent of the seats in parliament, she won’t be able to make any constitutional amendments, which require more than 75 percent of the votes.

Second, the current constitution imposes severe constraints on the power of the elected civilian politicians. Even as the NLD shapes the new government, the military and its business cronies will continue to maintain their hold on many of the key levers of real power. It remains to be seen whether the elected civilian politicians can meet the public’s high expectations despite their limited ability to act.

My sources in the military say that the armed forces are willing to cooperate with the incoming NLD administration while strenuously rejecting any attempts to reform the constitution. “Everything will be done constitutionally and legally,” one senior officer said. When it comes to amending Article 59 (f), which prohibits Suu Kyi’s presidency, the military signaled its position in a cleverly timed op-ed article published in the army-run newspaper, Myawady Daily, on the day the new parliament convened. The military makes several arguments for denying her the presidency. The generals never tire of declaring that her foreign connections (via her two sons) will translate into undue external influence on the country’s national security. In private, though, they admit that their main concern is her strong alliance with the ex-general and former parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, who the military purged from the ruling party last August — apparently out of the fear that Aung San Suu Kyi might use his influence to split and weaken the military.

Short of reaching some sort of grand bargain with the military (which seems unlikely), Aung San Suu Kyi has two other options. First, she hopes that she will soon be able to meet the army chief for a third time to start a negotiation on possible constitutional reform. If that conversation doesn’t take place, or if it proves unproductive, she could use her parliamentary majority to temporarily suspend 59 (f) and clear the way to the presidency. A legal adviser to the NLD has said that such a move is “theoretically possible with the support of a majority of MPs.”

But a senior government official told me that such an attempt would lead to a constitutional crisis, inviting intervention by the Constitutional Tribunal, which, according to the constitution, can theoretically make a final and conclusive decision on the matter. If the generals are unhappy with its verdict, they could become directly involved: Article 20 (f) of the constitution stipulates the armed forces “bear the main responsibility for safeguarding the constitution.”

Alternatively, Suu Kyi could appoint a puppet president, someone who can be counted on to do what she wants without question. Just a few days before the election, she famously declared: “I’ll be above the president.” In case anyone didn’t get the message, she added, “I’ll make all the proper and important decisions.”

The army, for its part, regards this as a blatant violation of the constitution. On November 16, in an apparent response, army chief Min Aung Hlaing bluntly said, “No one is above the law. Violation of law and acts of ignoring or playing tricks with the law are punishable if these actions breach the law” [sic]. Though Aung San Suu Kyi has since refrained from making any more such provocative statements, the military is clearly worried that she hasn’t given up the idea.

But the military faces a quandary of its own. As expressed with devastating clarity in the election, public opinion is firmly on the side of Aung San Suu Kyi. As long as the generals prevent her from taking the office most Burmese believe she is entitled to hold, the public will continue to regard the armed forces with contempt — thus indefinitely postponing the improvement in civil-military relations that the army chief longs for. It is no exaggeration to say that the NLD owes its election victory solely to Aung San Suu Kyi. The citizens voted for the party because they wanted to see her leading the country. The armed forces should respect their wish.

Although the military might worry about Aung San Suu Kyi’s “unpredictability” (as several officials put it to me), allowing her to assume the presidency wouldn’t necessarily diminish the power of the military and its business allies. Their prerogatives, after all, are already solidly entrenched, both economically and constitutionally. In addition to the 25 percent military quota in parliament, the constitution also allows the army chief to appoint three key security ministers and to dominate the National Defense and Security Council, which actually wields ultimate power in the country.

Moreover, the army could cripple the new government through the General Administrative Department, the government agency that runs most public administration under the direct control of the military-appointed Minister of Home Affairs. The GAD controls a broad range of everyday government functions, ranging from tax collection to land management to the issuing of licenses and certificates. On top of that, the military continues to play a dominant role in almost every sector of the economy, through its own business conglomerates as well its allied private tycoons (though some of them are still under U.S. sanctions).

And just to complicate matters, the armed forces also have an enormous political stake in the continuing peace talks between the government and the ethnic rebel groups. These negotiations, which are aimed at ending the country’s 68-year-long civil war, led to a nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight of the fifteen rebel groups last October. The military often justified its half-century of dictatorship with the argument that it was the only force maintaining the country’s territorial integrity. Given their years of insistence on this principle, the generals are determined that a permanent peace agreement stay within the boundaries of what they deem acceptable.

When Aung San Suu Kyi and army chief Min Aung Hlaing held their second meeting on January 25, the general, military insiders told me, spent two-thirds of the time explaining the importance of the peace process. The military is likely to link any attempt at fundamental constitutional reform with the success of the peace negotiations. They will almost certainly refuse any compromise on the former front as long as the outcome of the latter remains unclear. The army will only leave politics for good once it feels that it has successfully addressed the country’s lingering ethnic conflicts.

Optimists might argue that this offers Aung San Suu Kyi a crucial point of leverage. If she can use her influence to achieve an agreement with the rebels to ensure the sort of clearly defined federal and democratic state that they would like to see, this would have positive repercussions for the rest of the transition. Much will depend on the NLD leader’s skill at finessing a deal that will satisfy both the generals and the rebels. If she can pull it off, she will be in a good position to ensure that progress toward democracy is irreversible. Perhaps then, after so many decades of anguish, the restless souls of Burma’s past — like Win Maw Oo — will finally find the peace they deserve.

Photo credit: YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

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