What the new president can’t fix

A new leader has been elected in Myanmar, but with ethnic conflicts and a still-strong military to deal with, George Friedman envisages serious limits to his power.


On March 15, Myanmar’s one-time opposition party successfully chose its first civilian president to replace President Thein Sein, a former general. The accession of NLD stalwart Htin Kyaw to the office on March 30 will end the slow, planned transition from military to quasi-civilian rule, a process that began in 2010.

The country’s constitution, which the military drafted in 2008, bars candidates with relatives who have foreign citizenship from becoming president. This prohibition was aimed squarely at iconic democracy activist and NLD head Aung San Suu Kyi, whose sons are British citizens. Instead, Suu Kyi nominated Kyaw, a longtime aide, to act as a sort of president by proxy who answers to her. Kyaw was selected from among three candidates, and the runners-up, NLD candidate Henry Van Thio and military candidate Myint Swe, will become the two vice presidents.

The NLD’s main priorities are to continue economic growth and nascent industrialisation while rooting out corruption and cronyism.

The party has never held power and, perhaps because of its decades in opposition, enjoys high levels of popularity and a party brand that emphasises sound, Western-style economic reform. The NLD plans to push its technocratic image and to review 68 major government projects currently on hold because of public protests or corruption allegations—an effort in part aimed at securing additional relief from international sanctions.

It also plans to streamline the government by cutting the number of ministries from 36 to 20, and it will give 60-70 per cent of the Cabinet positions to apolitical technocrats. But the party will face challenges familiar to developing nations: to maintain party patronage networks and political stability, it cannot truly streamline Myanmar’s massive bureaucracy. Instead, it has specified that the employees of the 16 eliminated ministries will be given new positions in corresponding agencies.

PRESIDENT BY PROXY: Newly elected president Htin Kyaw (l) was nominated by Aung San Suu Kyi (r) and will answer to her
PRESIDENT BY PROXY: Newly elected president Htin Kyaw (l) was nominated by Aung San Suu Kyi (r) and will answer to her

This, though, is the least of the NLD’s problems. Its major institutional rival is the constitutionally shielded military, which ruled the country for six decades and created the roadmap for transition to a civilian system. Leading up to the changeover to civilian rule in 2010—and in the six years since—the military has deeply entrenched itself in the economic system, privatising former state-run industries and handing them over to allies. In addition, for the past five years, the military has steered the nation via its constitutionally appointed lawmakers and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, ensuring its continued power.

Though the military is virtually untouchable constitutionally—and the constitution cannot be amended without the support of the military, which controls 25 per cent of the parliament — the NLD does have some options for pressuring the military. It can simply shame the institution publicly, using parliamentary manoeuvres to point out its excesses. This could include continuously introducing constitutional amendments that the military would block. Considering that the public is largely aware (and cynical) of the military-backed transition, the tactic would likely shore up civil discontent with the military. However, the military also has spent decades shrugging off Western human rights criticism, so shaming and blaming is unlikely to have much effect.

It might be more prudent for the NLD to chip away at the military’s role in the economy.

The NLD has announced that it plans to reduce the economic role of at least one massive military conglomerate, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings. The NLD—with its control of the legislature—will also have ample control over the military’s budget, though the outgoing parliament already passed the 2016-2017 budget.

Controlling the periphery

Because the NLD is constitutionally unable to effectively control the military, it will find it difficult to deal with Myanmar’s core challenge: controlling the geographically fractured and ethnically diverse border areas. Ethnic minority groups constitute more than 30 per cent of the population and are mobilised in a host of different nationalist movements (armed and unarmed).

It was the desire to control this restive periphery—by force—that provoked the military coup in 1962. Although the military contained the violence, it was unable to incorporate militants into the new system because of ineptitude, corruption and disastrous economic policies. The NLD, by contrast, wants to fold the groups into the nation through political means, all the while maintaining the ability to enforce its central control. Since the 2010 political transition, solving the border problem has become infinitely more complicated: The NLD holds the political reins while the military has a monopoly on legitimate violence. One holds the carrot, the other holds the stick.

This division of power will make it particularly challenging for the nation to make progress in ongoing peace talks with armed groups. Ethnic militant forces number in the high tens of thousands and control huge swaths of territory. Thus, the NLD government’s tenure will be marked by continued ethnic conflict.

It will not be for lack of effort, however. The NLD’s choice of presidential candidates shows how important the ethnic problem is to meeting its goals: Kyaw is part ethnic Mon, and Van Thio is ethnically Chin—two key minority groups in the country. But the party has also made it clear that it does not plan to relinquish power to placate ethnic parties, which hold a small minority of seats at the local and national levels. Suu Kyi has said NLD party members, not appointees from ethnic parties, will hold all the chief ministerial positions at the state and regional levels (although the appointees themselves will likely be NLD politicians who are members of ethnic minority groups).

Border wars

On the other side of the constitutionally mandated divide, the military is ramping up its fight against ethnic insurgencies, focusing on those that control the Chinese border. Since 2011, this fight has resulted in massive civilian casualties. But instead of scaling back its efforts, the military is expanding them. As the military turns ethnic militants against one another, the reports of increasingly vicious proxy wars are becoming more frequent—a development that is sabotaging the NLD’s efforts to win over the groups.

The greatest threat to the Myanmar government’s sovereignty over the country is the loose network of ethnic militant groups strung out along the Chinese border: the Kachin Independence Organisation, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, two ethnic Kokang militias and the United Wa State Army. Like the cartels of northern Mexico, these groups control lucrative areas along the border with a dynamic economy. They have easy access to numerous small arms and cater to a growing Chinese market for opium, amphetamines and resources such as timber, minerals and gems. The Kokang and Wa, in particular, are mostly ethnic Chinese and purportedly have ties to the Chinese government (both local and national), acting as a sort of lever through which China can influence Myanmar’s government.

RAMPING UP: The military in Myanmar is bolstering its fight against ethnic insurgencies
RAMPING UP: The military in Myanmar is bolstering its fight against ethnic insurgencies

From 1989 to 1994, under pressure from sanctions and from the nascent NLD, the military brokered ceasefires with several militant groups, three of which (the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the United Wa State Army) were even given their own constitutionally mandated self-administered zones.

But the military’s alliance with the powerful Sino-Myanmar border groups was at best a marriage of convenience. Since the 2010 transition, it has pursued a strategy of containment and pressure. The ultimate goal is to uproot these groups entirely or, failing that, to force them to accept a role as closely controlled government paramilitaries, but that is easier said than done.

The military’s current strategy is one of divide and conquer, turning the numerous ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar’s northeast against one another. In October 2015, the outgoing government managed to sign a ceasefire with eight militant groups—fewer than the desired 15, but nevertheless enough to enable a good number of previously banned groups to engage in legitimate economic activities. The military has since used these groups, particularly the Restoration Council of Shan State, against other groups.

The ceasefire marked a new phase in the struggle to control the border. The seven groups that opted out of the ceasefire did so because they wanted the Sino-Myanmar groups included—a demand the military refused. Shortly after the October ceasefire deal, the military allegedly rolled out a plan to use the Restoration Council of Shan State as a proxy army against these groups.

In November, the Restoration Council of Shan State sent 200 fighters to the Chinese border, where they battled the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. In January, the group sent another 300 fighters and engaged in more clashes. In both cases, the government reportedly aided ethnic militants by affording them transportation and safe passage through checkpoints. The military has also been said to have been secretly involved in setting up a new ethnic militant group in Kachin state—the Shan-Ni Nationalities Army—to help undermine the powerful Kachin Independence Organization. And according to the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, seven of the Myanmar military’s ten light infantry brigades are currently stationed in northern Shan state.

The NLD will inherit this slowly unfolding conflict, driven by a military strategy it simply does not control. In many ways, the military’s push against the groups along the Chinese border—both directly and through militant proxies—is a continuation of its strategy since the early 2000s. The 2010 transition that brought the NLD to power was meant to open up Myanmar to the West and to balance against overreliance on China. Now the military is turning against China’s sponsored militant groups. As the NLD tries to control Myanmar’s seemingly intractable conflict, its credibility with ethnic populations—and the international community—will likely be questioned.

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