Democracy and expectations in Myanmar

Myanmar is currently passing through a crucial period of political debate, against the background of an era marked by rapid economic growth and international openness. The successful November 2015 parliamentary elections capped a landmark year for the country. Myanmar has undergone changes that only a few years ago might have seemed unlikely, if not impossible. These events come just after a decade since the government began moving on its “Roadmap to Democracy”, and three years after the country’s most famous former dissident, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, took her seat in Parliament.

Much has changed in recent times, with discussion continuing on Myanmar’s next steps. The role of powerful and important institutions, such as the military and the priesthood, is still evolving, while the country also possesses one of the most ethnically diverse populations in South-east Asia. Balancing the needs and expectations of these different groups is undoubtedly one of Myanmar’s greatest political and humanitarian challenges.

With the outcome of the elections now decisively decided in favour of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the country also faces the task of finding the most efficient and equitable way to translate surging investment, economic activity and international goodwill into sustainable growth. This is also happening at a time of heightened popular expectations of rapid change – both in terms of standards of living and political and economic freedom. Myanmar’s political arena thus looks likely to continue to be a vibrant one in 2016.

Early History

While the Ayeyarwady River and its wide plain have long dominated the geography of Myanmar, this 2170-km-long waterway has also proved instrumental in the country’s history and politics. It was into this fertile region that the Pyu – the first recorded inhabitants – arrived from Yunan back in the 2nd century BCE, bringing Therevada Buddhism with them. Another group, the Mon, then colonised the southern regions of the river plain, to be joined in the 9th century CE by the Mranma, or Burmese, who created the Bagan Empire.

This early medieval state was the first to establish wider control over the Ayeyarwady, while also bringing into its boundaries some of the more mountainous territories on the river’s periphery. This lasted until 1287, when repeated invasions by the Mongols finally brought the empire down.

In the years that followed several other dynasties and kingdoms came to battle for control of this lucrative region. One of the most successful was the Taungoo dynasty, which re-established the Bagan Empire and expanded it further, incorporating the Shan States, the region of rugged mountains and forests in the northern and eastern parts of modern Myanmar. The Taungoo also occupied parts of modern China and Thailand until 1752, when the Mon rose up in rebellion, taking Ava (Inwa), the capital, and establishing the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom with the support of the French.

British Rule

This was to be short-lived, however, with the Konbaung dynasty re-establishing its control in 1767. This lasted until 1885, by which time three wars with the British Empire – then in control of neighbouring India – had resulted in the downfall of the kingdom and the beginning of British colonial rule. Thibaw Min, the dynasty’s last king, or “Lord of the White Elephants”, abdicated in November 1885.

British rule lasted until 1948 and was resisted by many people in Myanmar. Some took this as far as alignment with Japanese forces in the second World War. This included Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, who led the pro-Japanese Burma Independence Army, later the Burma Defence Army and finally the Burma National Army (BNA), during the Japanese occupation of the country from 1942. As the tide in the war turned, however, and Japanese promises of Burmese independence failed to crystallise, the BNA launched an uprising against the country’s new rulers in 1945, joining the Allied side.

Independence

The war ended with the British re-occupying the country, a move met by widespread protests and calls for independence from all sectors of Myanmar society. An executive council, bringing together nationalists, socialists, communists and liberals, began negotiating with the British government and colonial authorities, culminating in the country’s independence on January 4, 1948.

Yet this was far from a peaceful transition. Assassinations, including that of General Aung San; insurgencies by rival communist factions, buoyed by the Chinese communist victory in 1949; and incursions by defeated Chinese Kuomintang armies gave the country a violent early start.

In 1962 there was a military coup, led by General Ne Win, who instituted the “Burmese Way to Socialism”, a path that involved the nationalisation of industry and isolation of the country from global markets and international aid. Many dissidents were expelled, imprisoned or killed, while conflicts continued with the Karen National Union, the Rohingya Muslims and the Parliamentary Democracy Party, based amongst exiles over the border in Thailand.

Tough Times

In 1988 a major uprising occurred, followed by a fresh coup and martial law, administered by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989 the SLORC then changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar and in 1990 it convened multi-party elections for a constituent assembly, in which the NLD, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide. However, the military did not allow the assembly to convene, kept NLD leaders under house arrest and cracked down on opponents and the press. In 1992 General Than Shwe took over as leader of the regime. Conflict continued with the KNU, although peace settlements were reached with the Wa and Kachin hill tribes, the Kokang and several of the warlords controlling parts of the Shan States. In 1997 SLORC was replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which, in 2003, announced a seven-step Roadmap to Democracy.

Two years later, a constitutional convention was called, but the NLD and other opposition groups were not invited. In that year, the country’s capital was moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw.

Another major uprising occurred in 2007, led by Buddhist monks, which was brutally suppressed. However, the SPDC then announced that a constitutional referendum would be held, along with elections, by 2010. The referendum did indeed take place in 2008, while the country was being battered by Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 130,000 people. Nonetheless, the SPDC announced that the constitution was approved, and a general election was held in 2010 under the new rules. It was won by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but was also dismissed by the opposition, with the NLD boycotting the ballot.

Yet clearly, 2010 marked a watershed moment in Myanmar’s history, with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest and the pace of reform quickening. In 2012 the NLD took part in a series of by-elections, winning 41 out of 44 contested seats across the two houses of parliament.

In November 2015 Myanmar held groundbreaking parliamentary elections. Once again the NLD won the election by a substantial margin, winning nearly 80% of contested seats. The military is guaranteed a quarter of all seats in the parliament under the constitution, but a civilian government headed by the NLD is poised to take control of the reins of power in Myanmar for the first time in decades. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will sit in parliament for her Kawhmu constituency in Yangon, but is still constitutionally barred from holding the presidency. The elections were hailed as free and fair by outside observers and signalled a significant policy shift by the military, which has traditionally held absolute power.

Myanmar has already begun to benefit from its transition to democracy. The US announced that it was lifting sanctions on shipping hubs in Myanmar in 2015, with further easing of sanctions by the US and other countries expected if the transition to democracy in the country continues smoothly.

New Constitution

Under the 2008 constitution, the president is the supreme executive power, head of state, and head of the cabinet and government. A special clause in the requirements for eligibility as president states that a president’s spouse or children may not owe allegiance to a foreign power, a clause that appears intended to rule out Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy for the position, given that she is the widow of a UK citizen and her children have UK citizenship. The outgoing president is U Thein Sein, who comes from Kyonku in the Ayeyarwady delta. He holds the rank of lieutenant general in the Tatmadaw, the popular name for the military.

The president is elected indirectly, via the Presidential Electoral College. This is made up of three sections, or committees, with the first section drawn from members of parliament (MPs) representing each region or state, the second from MPs representing the population at large and the townships, and the third from MPs appointed by the military. Each committee nominates a candidate, and then the parliament, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union – AU), convenes as the electoral college to decide the winner, with the two runners-up becoming vice-presidents (VPs).

President

According to the constitution, the president serves a five-year term and may be re-elected only once. He or she then chooses the cabinet, except for the ministers of border affairs, home affairs and defence, who are chosen by the Tatmadaw. The president has wide powers of appointment elsewhere, however, which can be extended by declaring a state of emergency. The head of state may be impeached by a two-thirds majority of the AU, with the VP who received the highest number of votes from the electoral college taking over if such a circumstance were to occur. The AU, meanwhile, consists of two houses, the lower, Pyithu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly, PA) and the upper, Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities, HN). The PA has 440 representatives while the HN has 224. Both houses are made up of 75% elected MPs and 25% MPs appointed by the military.

The speaker of the PA is U Thura Shwe Mann, while the speaker of the HN is U Khin Aung Myint, who is also chairman of the combined AU. These positions are sure to change once the newly elected parliament convenes in February 2016.

People’s Assembly

The 330 directly elected PA members represent population and township constituencies. The 2015 elections saw the military-backed USDP lose its status as the largest political party, a position it had secured at the 2010 balloting, with 212 seats. The USDP’s numbers plummeted from 222 in the AU to just 29. The NLD’s candidates captured 238 seats in the AU, a testament to its popularity and double that of its closest opponent.

Many of the parties have an ethnic base – such as the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), with nine seats, the All Mon Region Democracy Party, and the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO), both of which hold three seats. Many of these parties are also the political wings of former armed groups that have signed peace agreements with the government – the PNO, which controls the Pa-O People’s Special Region 6, is an example. The 168 elected representatives of the HN, meanwhile, are divided into groups of 12 from each region or state, and include one representative from each Self-Administered Division (SAD) or Self-Administered Zone (SAZ). The military-appointed members of the HN – all of whom are Tatmadaw personnel – are appointed in groups of four for each region or state.

Local Levels

Myanmar divides into a patchwork of local-level administrative units, each with their own regional leadership. There are seven regions or divisions – Ayeyarwady, Bago, Magway, Mandalay, Yangon, Tanintharyi and Sagaing – and seven states – Chin, Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Kayah, and Kayin. In addition, there is one SAD – the Wa SAD within Shan State – and five SAZs, four of which are also within Shan, and with the fifth in the Sagaing Division.

In general terms, the regions and divisions in Myanmar tend to have an ethnic Bamar majority, while the states, SAZs and SAD have non-Bamar ethnic majorities. The states and regions have their own local governments – either state or regional Hluttaws – which are unicameral bodies, composed of two elected members per township, as well as ethnic representatives and military appointees. The president selects a chief minister for each state or region, with this choice then having to be approved by the local Hluttaw. The chief minister then chooses cabinet ministers, whose portfolios are assigned by the president. Local security and defence officials are appointed by the Tatmadaw. The division of powers between central and local authorities varies, with the self-administered areas enjoying greater local responsibility.

Judiciary

The third estate is headed by the Supreme Court, with U Tun Tun Oo currently serving as its head, the chief justice. The legal system is based on a combination of English common law, dating from colonial times, and subsequent decisions of the Myanmar authorities. The hierarchy descends from the Supreme Court down to the state and division high courts, the SAD and SAZ courts, then district, township and other local courts. There is also a Constitutional Tribunal to hear matters concerning constitutional law, while a military courts-martial governs the Tatmadaw.

Outlook

Much of the current political debate concerns amendments to the constitution. This has become particularly acute in the aftermath of the 2015 elections. The Tatmadaw also continues to exercise great power and influence within the political system, with its future role by no means certain. For constitutional change to occur, a 75% majority of the PH is necessary – a figure that was achieved by the NLD in the most recent elections– followed by success in a referendum. This 75% threshold had the potential to put a considerable break on future moves towards reform, however with the NLD capturing the necessary amount of seats, constitutional reform could happen rapidly. At the same time, ethnic and religious conflicts will continue to present a challenge to any government in Naypyidaw.

Yet Myanmar has advantages, including a commitment to reform among its large and youthful population. It is also home to significant natural resources, as well as a great deal of international good will. As such, 2016 may turn out to be a key moment in the country’s progress, with much at stake – and plenty of opportunities still left to play for in the future.

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