As Myanmar’s general election looms, David Watts considers the chances of opposition NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi taking the reins of government.
The world will record that it was the Myanmar military government that blinked first when it tried to postpone this month’s general elections.
Blaming floods and landslides and the resulting dislocation, the authorities called for a delay in the polling, only to be called out by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and several opposition parties. They noted that the devastation of Cyclone Nagis in 2008 had not stopped the conduct of a census.
Faced with a barrage of opposition, within hours the electoral bureau backed down and said the polling would go ahead as planned.
It was a measure of the regime’s nervousness that even at that late stage, it lacked confidence in its game-plan for what is billed as the nation’s first full elections in 50 years, though that description has to be heavily qualified.
The government’s principal antagonist, Suu Kyi, demonstrated no such lack of resolve, declaring that she is intent on using the election to become the country’s leader, even though she knows that is unconstitutional at this time.
No-one with foreign connections may lead the country under the present dispensation and Suu Kyi has two sons with British passports by the late Michael Aris, an Oxford academic who specialised in Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture and history. Since the two young men, Alexander and Kim, have not shown any interest in Myanmar’s politics, it is hard to image how they might have a negative influence on the country of their mother’s birth.
But xenophobia looms large in Myanmar’s laws, and they are aiding the cause of radical Buddhists while causing untold suffering to the Muslim Rohynghas in Rakhine State in the border areas with Bangladesh, who are rendered stateless as result.
It is no secret what made the generals quake in their plush offices in Nay Pyi Taw, their custom-built new capital: the latest polling showed Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was enjoying a tsunami of support which the military men could not hope to match.
As an earnest illustration of their good intentions to become a credible government in a new guise, a grandiose ceremony was held in the capital to mark what the authorities said was a ceasefire agreement with eight of the ethnic armed groups that have been opposing the central government since independence from the British in 1948.
The government billed it as a major forward step towards building peace in the country’s border lands but what was notable was the reality that perhaps the most significant of the rebel groups were not at the table.
Those signing were the groups to be found along the Thai border but not those along the vast stretch of border with China—notably the Kachin and the Wa—who have armies of followers numbering in the thousands and who have been fighting the central government in recent weeks and show no sign of letting up. There is no concrete ceasefire with the other groups, nor any agreement for them to yield up their weapons.
The generals appear to hope that the completion of successful elections might tempt them to join the party but even those signing have been given little indication of how any new power arrangement with the government might work out.
In any event, for most Myanmar residents the much more pressing issue has been their demand that the constitution be modified ahead of the poll to allow Suu Kyi to lead any new government. The military has a quarter of the 664 parliamentary seats reserved to itself and veto-power over any legislation, effectively leaving the real power with the army. Under current arrangements, changes to the constitution require more than 75 per cent of both houses of parliament before the motion is put to a national referendum, giving the military an effective veto over any changes.
A further handicap for Suu Kyi is that the president is not directly elected by the public, but chosen by MPs following the vote.
Changing this on the basis of domestic political power alone has never been a real prospect because the government knows that this is their last line of defence against being consigned to electoral oblivion, at least in the minds of the public. Not surprisingly, MPs voted against any change last month.
Thus Suu Kyi has been preparing for an election she can neither win nor lose in the conventional sense—she will run in the constituency of Kaw Mhu, a town outside the biggest city Yangon—and may have to content herself with building on her solid base of support in the country. Whether her supporters will be as philosophical about it is another matter.
But unless the world is able to see a real transfer of power to the person with the largest following in the country, few foreign observers are likely to dub it a ‘free and fair’ election.
Just as her followers face a testing period getting used to Suu Kyi the politician as opposed to the icon of liberty, she may need, if she has not already done so, to quickly build the skills and contacts needed to make allies, blocks and coalitions with the NLD in the new parliament to try and counteract the power of the military block.
The voters are already getting a sense that, rightly or wrongly, she goes along with many of her countrymen about being unwilling to allow displaced Rohingya on the borders of the nation to be given citizenship, and other human rights. This has surprised many outside the country but it should not have in reality: one has only to spend a morning on the streets of Yangon to see that she is merely reflecting a view widely-held among the electorate. Much more of this may be necessary if she is to build a position of substantial political power rather than merely being a headline-grabbing politician with little ability to effect real political change.
Not that there has not been substantial change since Myanmar started pushing through political and economic reforms in 2011, bringing the country out of decades of authoritarian rule and international isolation. There is undoubtedly much greater press and personal freedom and unless one is on a government watch list, most appear to be left alone to mind their own business.
Unless the authorities blow their opportunity in the most spectacular fashion, the vote is expected to be the freest since 1990, when the first multi-party election in decades was held. The junta refused to recognise the results. That election was won convincingly but the NLD boycotted polls in 2010 in protest at the rules barring Suu Kyi, though the party dominated the subsequent by-elections in 2012.
‘The NLD will contest the election but the prospect of (Suu Kyi) becoming the president is almost zero,’ according to Aung Zaw, editor of influential Burmese news magazine The Irrawaddy.
‘If the election is free and fair, the NLD is going to win the majority of votes,’ said Zaw. ‘But it is doubtful that they will be able to form the government. I think we have to look at post-election. There will be intense political negotiation among parties. The country (could) face indefinite political stalemate.’
Scores of political parties are expected to contest the vote. But the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) of President Thein Sein will be the NLD’s major rival.
As this magazine closed for press, the party had yet to identify its candidate for the presidency. But Zaw says the widespread perception that Thein Sein is preparing to seek a second term has triggered a power struggle within the party, between the president’s camp and supporters of influential Speaker of Parliament and party leader Shwe Mann, who was ousted in August and now appears to be under house arrest.
While the speaker’s faction appeared to be growing in power, said Zaw, the military seemed closer to the president’s faction.
‘I doubt the generals are prepared to be defeated. They have both economic and political power and it is naive to believe they will easily cave in.’
Analysts Roman David and Ian Holliday argue that ‘Suu Kyi needs to make a choice: whether to seek power by working with the diverse constituencies needed to stitch together a winning coalition in the coming election, or to promote tolerance by holding firm to the core values with which she has long been associated’.
A representative survey conducted in the final two months of 2014 in Myanmar’s two main regions, Yangon and Mandalay, and three of its states—Kachin, Kayin and Shan—confirmed that her domestic support remains solid. She is trusted by almost two-thirds of respondents, building clear majorities among men and women, urban and rural dwellers, and the well and poorly educated.
Across ethnic groups and in distinct parts of the country there is also trust for Suu Kyi. Moreover, the NLD was selected by 52 per cent of prospective voters, leaving far behind the governing (and military-backed) Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) with 19 per cent, as well as ethnic parties grouped together with 23 per cent.
The notorious Article 59f of the military-authored 2008 constitution denies presidential or vice-presidential office to citizens with close family members who ‘owe allegiance to a foreign power’. While in the Western world this provision is seen as unacceptable, the situation inside Myanmar is more complicated. Although 39 per cent of people dislike the clause, 25 per cent wish to keep it and 36 per cent are undecided. Seventy-eight per cent said they would not want to have a Rohingya neighbour and 12 per cent did not know. Sixty-three per cent supported the controversial interfaith restriction law-which bars inter-marriage, among other things-and 21 per cent did not know.
Interestingly, Suu Kyi is content to cede ground to radical Buddhist monks, possibly cognisant of the fact that, with 72 per cent trust among fellow citizens, they outrank her in public support.
The core problem she faces is that her popularity derives from her long-standing identification with democratic reform, rather than from her (assumed) support for ethnic and religious tolerance. But with leading Buddhist monks mobilising behind an agenda of narrow religious and nationalist identity, it could be that she will be forced to take a clear stand on this divisive matter.