An historic, but still fragile, milestone for Myanmar

James Kendall
November 24, 2015

Aung_San_Suu_Kyi_myanmarOn Sunday, November 8, the people of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) went to the polls for the first free election in 25 years. It is now clear that the long-repressed opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi, achieved a landslide victory over the incumbent, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development (USD) party.

The NLD won a whopping 387 of 478 seats in parliament, securing an absolute majority. This is despite the fact that the Myanmar military, per the constitution it authored in 2008, holds 25 percent of the seats in both houses of parliament and retains control of key defense and security ministries. Equally significant is the fact that current President Thein Sein, himself a retired army general, publicly acknowledged his party’s loss and pledged to ensure that a transfer of power will take place “calmly, peacefully, and smoothly.” Assuming that Thein Sein and the army keep this pledge, the transition will precipitate the most significant change in Southeast Asia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

In the wake of this momentous development, there are steps that the United States should take to help nurture the success of the fledgling government.

Since a successful transition will require the acquiescence and forbearance of Myanmar’s military, the U.S. should reach out to the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, after the NLD-led government assumes power. Military-to-military contact should be initiated with an emphasis on education in civil-military relations. Myanmar should be invited to send cadets to U.S. service academies as well as professional military education institutions, such as the National Defense University. Note that any educational exchange should focus on leadership and principles, not military tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Since the military coup in 1962, Myanmar has been ruled by its armed forces in one form or another.

The Tatmadaw also might be invited to participate in regional exercises, such as Cobra Gold in Thailand, RIMPAC in Hawaii, and the Pacific Partnership. Such “mil-to-mil” contact can help to acculturate Myanmar’s military to the wider world, boost its prestige, and ensure that it gains both recognition for its part in the reforms and a stake in their success. The United States should also start referring to the country as Myanmar, instead of Burma, which would be a change of the current U.S. policy to retain the name of Burma since the military government imposed the name change to Myanmar in 1989.

All of these steps would be meaningful to the generals in Naypyidaw, and help to ease their transition to civilian control of the government — and perhaps, one day, their acceptance of civilian control of the military.

In addition, all outsiders must carefully manage their expectations for progress in Myanmar. This starts by understanding the recent election in context.

Since the military coup in 1962, Myanmar has been ruled by its armed forces in one form or another. The military-led regime practiced a homegrown form of socialism, tinged with xenophobia, and was allied with such countries as North Korea. Under successive military regimes, Myanmar was associated with grave human rights abuses, including human trafficking and use of child soldiers. Dating almost from its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, it also has been wracked by civil war between the central government, representing the Burman majority, and ethnic minorities in the country’s interior.

The press is freer than at any time in recent memory, and the NLD was allowed to compete fully in the November election.

In a first attempt at democratic reform, elections were held in 1990 in response to civil unrest. The NLD won handily, but the military junta, baulking at handing over power, ignored the election results, commenced a crack-down on dissent, and placed the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest. Hence, the skepticism with which many viewed the November 8 election.

Nevertheless, things are different this time. Starting with heavily controlled elections in 2011 that led to the current, quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein, democratic reform has proceeded apace.

The press is freer than at any time in recent memory, and the NLD was allowed to compete fully in the November election. Aung San Suu Kyi even stated in a post-election interview with the BBC that the elections were free — although not fair. Her characterization presumably reflects the prerogatives given to the military in Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, and the fact that many, such as the Muslim Rohingya minority, were denied the vote.

Foreign direct investment in Myanmar has boomed along with economic and humanitarian aid. Myanmar is no longer a pariah state and has gained international political recognition for its reform efforts, including a visit by President Barack Obama in 2014. Many of the international sanctions on Myanmar, although not all, have been relaxed. Since any backsliding by the Tatmadaw would take place in the full glare of the international media and erase the impressive material and moral gains made in the past three years, it seems likely that Thein Sein will keep his promise, and the NLD will take control of the government next year. Aung San Suu Kyi, banned from the presidency under the 2008 constitution because she has foreign-born children, has stated she will appoint a president from her party and rule indirectly.

Myanmar is no longer a pariah state and has gained international political recognition for its reform efforts, including a visit by President Barack Obama in 2014.

As positive as the reforms are, on balance, we must keep in mind that the Tatmadaw will still have a large say in governing the country. Its 25 percent stake in the parliament and ownership of security-related ministries essentially make it a junior partner in a coalition government with the NLD. In addition, because the NLD has never been in charge, the new government will be run by amateurs. This coalition government of a suspicious, possibly cynical, military and the enthusiastic neophytes of the NLD will have to tackle Myanmar’s difficult economic situation, settle conflicts with heavily-armed ethnic minorities, such as the Karen and Shan, and keep an eye on populist Buddhist monks who insist on ever more draconian measures to “protect” the culture of Myanmar from “foreign” (mostly Muslim) influences. These will be stiff challenges.

Successfully holding an election and conducting a peaceful transfer of power are important milestones, but the objective is good governance.

It is not surprising that expectations within and without Myanmar for the new government are unrealistically high. Successfully holding an election and conducting a peaceful transfer of power are important milestones, but the objective is good governance. The new government will have a steep learning curve, and the reality of ruling Myanmar will soon take hold. It will probably be all it can do to steer the ship of state away from rocks and maintain the new system. Issues that are peripheral to the majority in Myanmar, such as the plight of the Rohingya people, will not receive as much attention as the international donor community would like.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a charismatic, Oxford-educated, Nobel Laureate and daughter of a national hero. She has waited over 25 years, much of it spent incarcerated, to achieve this victory. She should take care how she exercises power — especially as she will be doing so extra-constitutionally through a puppet president. Her greatest asset is her moral authority — she squanders that at her peril.

Perhaps the best role-model for “The Lady” is Nelson Mandela. His immense generosity of spirit, magnanimity in victory, and refusal to indulge in score-settling or self-aggrandizement helped to unify a deeply divided South Africa. The United States should encourage Aung San Suu Kyi in this regard, and join the international community in exercising patience toward the new government.

 

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