Where to now for Myanmar?

Two dysfunctional semi-democracies held national elections in the first week of November. The USA and Myanmar.

Most international attention – and Australian attention – focused on the first elections, on 3 November in the United States of America. The second elections, on 8 November in Myanmar, attracted far less interest. The results in the United States offer some hope of some change from the chaotic last four years. The results in Myanmar promise more of the same there.

The Myanmar elections were the third conducted under the military-designed 2008 constitution. The constitution preserves the role and powers of the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, reserving to it a quarter of the seats in parliament and three key ministries, defence, home affairs and border affairs. The constitution also gives the military complete independence from civilian control and direction.

The then main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the charismatic icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, was not permitted to participate in the 2010 elections. It did participate in the 2015 elections and won an overwhelming victory, with about 80% of the popular vote and about 60% of the seats in the bicameral parliament, an absolute majority. This gave the NLD control over all law-making except in relation to the constitution itself. For the past five years, the NLD has been able to repeal, amend and enact legislation as it wishes. As a result of its absolute majority, the NLD was able to create the new position of State Counsellor, virtually Prime Minister, and put Daw Suu into it as she is constitutionally barred from the office of President. The NLD has also been able to control the office of presidency and all ministries other than the three reserved for the Tatmadaw.

For the past five years, then, Myanmar has been ruled by a de facto NLD-Tatmadaw coalition government. There is little doubt that the coalition partners dislike and distrust each other and that their leaders, the NLD’s Daw Suu and the Tatmadaw’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, loathe each other at a personal level but the forced marriage has held up, because it is mutually beneficial.

This month’s elections produced one small surprise for me but otherwise the results were entirely predictable. The NLD was expected to retain its absolute parliamentary majority and it did. In fact it increased its majority slightly from 390 to 396 seats out of the 476 non-military seats in the parliament elected this month. The military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has done even worse than it did in 2015 and has lost some of its few seats to the NLD. It won only 33 of the 476 non-military seats in the new parliament, three less than in the parliament elected in 2015. The Tatmadaw was hoping the USDP would make up some ground in this election as a basis for defeating the NLD in the next election, in 2025, by which time Daw Suu will be 80 and will have been in office for 10 years.

And the one small surprise for me? Daw Suu and the NLD, on the other hand, and Min Aung Hlaing and the USDP/Tatmadaw, on the other, are the principal players, the main game in town, but they are not the only players. The principal players compete for the support of the Bamar ethnic majority, which comprises almost 70% of Myanmar’s population. Many ethnic minorities comprise the remaining 30% of the population. Officially (and completely arbitrarily) Myanmar has 135 ethnic groups, including the Bamar. The minorities have many political parties that seek to represent their interests both within the minority areas and nationally.

In 2015, the minority communities threw their support overwhelmingly behind the NLD, not their own ethnic minority parties. At those elections, Daw Suu promised a new Myanmar, a pluralistic, federal, democratic republic. The minorities had long suffered at the hands of the Tatmadaw and they saw Daw Suu as their best chance for relief – for the peace and prosperity that she promised. As State Counsellor, with her absolute majority in parliament, she has simply failed to deliver on her promises and the minorities’ expectations. I expected that the minorities across the board would abandon her this year.

The result, however, was mixed. Some minorities left her and others stayed. The NLD held its own against ethnic minority parties in Chin, Kayan and (most surprisingly to me) Kachin States, while those in Rakhine, Shan and Mon States secured their positions.

In part this surprising result can be attributed to the cancellation of voting in a number of ethnic minority areas. The Union Electoral Commission deemed voting too dangerous, due to conflict, in a number of areas, while permitting voting in nearby NLD-dominated areas to proceed. Some of the areas where voting was cancelled were relatively peaceful and it was suspected that the decision was part of the wider government discrimination against ethnic minorities. Be that as it may, the result is clear: 1.5 million voters, predominantly from ethnic minorities, were unable to cast their ballots and 22 parliamentary seats have been left vacant.

Even so, 11 ethnic minority parties won a total of 47 seats and so, if they work together, would constitute a larger bloc in parliament than the USDP. If by-elections are held in the 22 vacant seats and the minority parties win them, they will constitute a significant force in the parliament.

More broadly, however, it seems that many ethnic minority voters have not yet given up on Daw Suu, that they continue to see her as their best hope – or at least their least worst option – in the conflict with the Tatmadaw. Given her track record over the past five years, that surprised me.

So where to now?

First, the Tatmadaw. The military and their Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing have clearly suffered a setback in their long-term plan to regain complete control. They were clearly hoping for significant gains now with a view to defeating the (possibly post-Daw Suu) NLD in the 2025 elections. They went backwards in 2020 and their prospects for 2025 are bleak. But they don’t give up easily.

The Tatmadaw’s position is complicated further by uncertainty about Min Aung Hlaing’s immediate future. He turned 60, the usual retirement age, in 2016 but he was extended in office then. Others in the military have had their careers blocked by his continuing in office and are becoming increasingly anxious to ‘get their chance’. He’ll be 65 next year and there is wide discussion that he will not be extended further.

One option for the Tatmadaw is a coup. Some analysts have argued over the past five years that the international community must support Daw Suu because the Tatmadaw may stage a coup and topple her and her side of the government. I have never agreed with this analysis for a simple practical reason: why would the military bother? Its interests have not suffered in any significant way through the coalition with the NLD. On the contrary, Daw Suu has offered the military domestic and international cover while it has continued its longstanding domestic wars and furthered its business interests. Indeed, she has enabled the military and its leaders to benefit substantially from the increased economic activity – trade and investment – that her legitimacy has brought to Myanmar. Staging a coup would be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Another option for the Tatmadaw would be a continuation of the current uneasy but highly lucrative coalition with the NLD, with Min Aung Hlaing leaving the Commander-in-Chief position and taking on a new role as one of the two Vice-Presidents. Under the constitution, the military-USDP are assured of one vice-presidential position. If Min Aung Hlaing became Vice-President, he would be well place for a presidential bid in 2025. And in willingly leaving the position of Commander-in-Chief, he could cement support from others in the military high command who would gain promotions as a result.

Second, Daw Suu and the NLD. These elections have been the triumph for Daw Suu that was expected. That does not reflect the success of her first term. Rather, it reflects her continuing hero status among the Bamar majority and also the lack of any viable alternative. Her first term was notable for the expansion of conflicts, scant progress in a new political and constitutional settlement and barely modest economic growth. And the destruction of her and the NLD’s international reputation. It was a wasted opportunity. As I have said, the NLD controlled the parliament and could have embarked on a program of substantial law reform. It wasted its position of power. Domestically, Da Suu remains an icon for the Bamar majority and a disappointment for the ethnic minorities. Internationally she has made herself a pariah.

Daw Suu may have no more than five more years to leave a positive mark on Myanmar. That may be too little time after the waste of the last five years. She needs urgently to address the country’s almost overwhelming problems: peace after 70 years of internal wars; inclusion and pluralism for all in Myanmar, including the Rohingya, within a federal, democratic state; economic development and equitable distribution for the people of a once rich country ruined by a half century of avaricious dictatorship.

Then there’s also the matter of the NLD itself. Daw Suu has been an autocratic leader within the NLD who has tolerated no internal opposition or even any internal debate. She has shown herself incapable of developing other leaders, especially among the younger members of the party and especially among NLD women. It’s essentially a one-woman party, in spite of its broad mass base. And its operations reflect the intolerance of the Bamar majority towards minorities. In 2015, the NLD did not field one Muslim candidate for election among the 500 it endorsed. This year, it had only two – neither of them Rohingya, of course. The NLD is in urgent need of dramatic internal reform and re-construction so that it can become broadly led and not only broadly based, truly reflecting the diversity of Myanmar. This is a much bigger issue for the party than merely developing a succession plan.

All these issues, confronting Myanmar as a whole and the NLD itself, constitute a very tall order for any political leader, even the most competent. I wonder whether Daw Suu and her NLD are up to the task.

Chris Sidoti was one of the three International Experts who led the UN’s Independent International Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar from 2017 to 2019.

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Chris Sidoti is a lawyer and international human rights consultant. He served as Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner and is a former member of now dismantled Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

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