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Myanmar: On the Cusp of Change: Resolute or Confused

Rajiv Bhatia reviews the Himalayan challenges ahead for Nobel-laureate Aung Suu Kyi after her party NLD’s landslide victory in neighbouring Myanmar

Rajiv Bhatia
Publish Date: Nov 28 2015 6:38PM | Updated Date: Dec 1 2015 4:58PM

Myanmar: On the Cusp of Change: Resolute or Confused

It is routine in a democracy for the party winning an election to come to power. But in Myanmar ten days after the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD), there are no signs yet of a meeting between the winner and the present government headed by President Thein Sein. 


Political Scene


The country with two names - ‘Myanmar’ favoured by the government and ‘Burma’ preferred by NLD - is not yet a full democracy. However, the largely free elections to the parliament and regional assemblies on 8 November represent a major milestone on the road of transition, begun in 2011, to democracy. In the short-to-medium term, the present constitution will prevail, which provides for limited democracy, entailing power sharing between the Tatmadaw (military) and elected representatives of the people. 

Recent elections, the freest since 1990 (when NLD won a landslide victory which was rejected by the army), have introduced a material change. They have thrown up a clear answer to the question: do the people want full democracy? Manifestly, with NLD winning about three-fourths of contested seats in the parliament and thus enjoying a clear majority despite 25 percent of total seats reserved for the army, the people have signaled their preference for a big shift to a democratic set-up under Suu Kyi. 


President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing have pledged to respect the election results, but they are yet to agree to Suu Kyi’s request for a meeting to begin discussions on transition arrangements. The change of government, as per the constitution, is not expected until March 2016. 


Two other issues need to be addressed here. Firstly, why did NLD win and was it a surprise? Although some experts had spoken before the elections about a decisive victory, few were expecting it. Many, however, rated NLD’s chances as high for emerging as the single largest party, just short of majority. NLD faced multiple opponents: the ruling party USDP; the military; radical sections of the Buddhist clergy which extended their support to the status quo; the ethnic parties which seemed strong in their regions; and Muslims who were angry due to various reasons. 


Nevertheless, the electorate voted for a real change, which only Suu Kyi had promised. It favoured her charismatic leadership, appreciated her immense sacrifice for the nation and, in particular, it disapproved of the long military rule and the army’s dominant role in politics. 


In this backdrop, apprehensions are being expressed in Yangon whether the army would really allow NLD to form its government. Tin Aye, chairperson of the Union Election Commission, asserted that election results must be ‘accepted.’ When a correspondent asked him: ‘What if they are not honoured? he replied forthrightly: ‘I don’t think the leaders of the current government are that irrational.’  


Challenges for Suu Kyi 


Suu Kyi and her party NLD now face numerous challenges. The most daunting is the heavy burden of popular expectations. People want democracy, reconciliation and inclusive development. To achieve these goals, she will need, first, to work with the military leadership. The constitution gives to the military not only 25 percent seats in the parliament but also the right to appoint three key ministers (defence, home and border affairs), the privilege of autonomy in respect of the army’s budget and operations, the right to impose emergency rule and a veto on constitutional amendments.


Secondly, she needs to take ethnic parties with her although they lost in most constituencies of ethnic minorities that account for nearly 32 percent of the population.  


Thirdly, Suu Kyi has to decide her own future role carefully. She has declared that she would be ‘above the President’, considering that the constitution bars her to be the president on the controversial ground of her (late) husband and children being foreign citizens. Ideally, she should be ‘the friend, philosopher and guide’ of the new government, without holding a formal position. She could also be the speaker of parliament and continue as the party chairperson. Which path will she take? 


Fourthly, NLD has to find a suitable candidate for the presidency – someone who has respectable credentials, is fully trusted by Suu Kyi, and is also acceptable to the army.  


Finally, the new government will need to strike a balance between change and continuity concerning the outgoing government’s reform strategy, ethnic reconciliation that culminated in a (partial) National Ceasefire Agreement, and management of economy which needs to do better. 


An NLD government is likely to obtain only a half loaf of power. But by using it patiently, it can pave the way for full democracy in a few years. 


Whither Foreign Policy? 


While professing to follow ‘an independent and active foreign policy’, President Thein Sein’s immediate predecessors allowed Myanmar to become increasingly dependent on China in political, economic and defence domains. Interestingly, what Thein Sein did was to retain the old label but create a new pattern of balance involving the two major neighbours – China and India, the West (with US in the lead) and Japan. As a result, while enjoying a cooperative relationship with Beijing, he put a break on its further expansion by suspending the Myitsone Dam and putting up with the Chinese president’s failure to visit Myanmar during the former’s presidency. 


Will the new government continue Thein Sein’s foreign policy? Perhaps some changes are inevitable. The biggest interest would be to see how the next team balances between China and the West, considering that Suu Kyi enjoys close relations with leaders of several western nations. She might leverage that proximity to attract greater political support and flow of foreign investments. 


The objective factors which compel Myanmar to stay on the right side of China will not change: the asymmetry in power, ethnic linkages, Chinese support for Kachin and Wa insurgent groups, the vast presence of Chinese companies in infrastructure and other fields, and the close relationship between the Tatmadaw and China's military. Suu Kyi’s visit to China in August demonstrated that both sides are keen to open a new chapter. In a recent interview to Xinhua news agency, she pledged to pay ‘special attention’ to ties with China and to make Myanmar’s relations with neighbours ‘smooth, effective and clear.’  


With Suu Kyi in-charge in Myanmar, Japan will feel especially happy. Through her father, Aung San, who was trained in Japan during WWII and returned to establish the country’s army, the Japanese feel a close bond with her. In view of NLD’s political triumph, Japan could be expected to show more financial magnanimity. Tokyo is keen to curb China's influence and win the on-going geopolitical competition. The US is making a common cause with Japan to restrain China's growing assertiveness in the region. The new Myanmar government can be banked upon to resist being sucked into ‘the Great Game’, while encouraging its major partners to help it in pursuing its own agenda. 


Relations with India  


Suu Kyi has a personal fondness for India. She lived and studied in Delhi for a few years. She has many friends in India. She articulates her deep admiration for Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as well as for India's democracy and development model. She claims to have overcome her ‘sadness’ over New Delhi’s change of policy in the  early 1990s when it normalized  relations with the military junta. In the past three years, India's contacts with her have multiplied. Consequently a cordial relationship has been sustained, providing a strong foundation for increased cooperation in the future.  


India's relations with Myanmar are multi-dimensional and growing in strength, especially since 2011. There is, however, considerable potential for further cooperation in political, economic, border security, connectivity, and people-to-people relations. High-level visits have become a regular phenomenon. (See box.) An NLD government may be particularly interested in expanding linkages at the parliamentary, cultural and civil society levels. 


A Personal Connection 


As India's ambassador in Yangon during 2002-2005, I was privileged to have known Daw Suu Kyi. My substantive meeting took place when she was under house arrest. I also met her during her visit to India in 2012 and again in 2013 at Naypyitaw. At an hour-long meeting, she gave us - a delegation of scholars -useful insights about her country. She invited Indian business leaders to come into Myanmar as ‘responsible’ investors and to be ‘respectful of the Burmese sense of dignity.’ 


Myanmar stands at the cusp of a major change. The next 100 days are crucial. If the political class is resolute and clear-headed about future directions, a smooth transition will happen. But if the political elite is confused and riven internally, the consequences can be too grim to contemplate. 


As a friendly neighbour with age-old ties, India looks forward to the emergence of a stable, strong and democratic government in Myanmar - ‘the Golden Land.’ -- Rajiv Bhatia is a former ambassador to Myanmar, former director general of the Indian Council of World Affairs, and author of recently published book ‘India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours’.