New dawn or poisoned chalice?

Justin Wintle weighs up the causes for both hope and concern following the NLD’s triumph in Myanmar’s November election, and considers the country’s democratic prospects.

Like many other analysts, I was wrong-footed by the outcome of the November 8 general election in Myanmar. At best, I thought Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party might scrape a working majority in the two houses of the national assembly, 25 per cent of whose seats are reserved for the military by the 2008 constitution. In the event, the NLD romped home, gaining close to 80 per cent of the seats available to be contested.
Surprisingly, the electorate voted for the NLD in rural constituencies, where the military-backed USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) had been expected to prosper. Surprisingly too, save some local irregularities, the election was not only conducted fairly, but no attempt was made by the ruling militocracy to fudge or conceal the results, let alone brazenly ignore them, as it did with the 1990 plebiscite.
A new day, a new dawn? Certainly euphoria swept through large swathes of Myanmar on the morning of November 9, when, albeit unofficially, the scope of the NLD’s victory began to be known. Since then however the sheer weight of the challenges facing Aung San Suu Kyi has pushed to the fore. A narrower triumph, necessitating a spirit of pragmatic compromise, might paradoxically have augured better for the future.
Shortly before the election, Suu Kyi announced that in the event of an NLD victory she would be ‘above the president’. These were ill-considered words. She may have meant she would have a mandate to govern, but they suggested a disregard for the constitution. Also, it might be asked, which president: the current incumbent U Thein Sein, or the president to be elected by the NLD in early 2016? For the constitution does not allow Suu Kyi herself to become president: both her sons, fathered by the Englishman Michael Aris, hold foreign passports.
Since the election, Suu Kyi has offered a clarification of sorts. The NLD will choose a president according to the constitution, but whoever this figure turns out to be will act out her ‘instructions’.

CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE:  Thein Sein has never received proper recognition for initiating reform in Myanmar
Photo Opportunity: The Secretary-General with H.E. General Thein Sein, Prime Minister Myanmar

While the inference is she will not force a constitutional crisis by insisting she herself become president, her detractors say this is just another example of her increasingly autocratic attitude. While she is careful to avoid cross-examination by either the domestic or international media, within her party she brooks no dissent.
Visiting Britain after her final release from house arrest in 2010, she gladly accepted an invitation to appear on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, but not their Hard Talk. Typically she relishes addressing rallies, and mingling with ‘my people’ afterwards. The iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner too readily comes across as an adulation junkie.
With her advancing years (she turned 70 in June) and with chronic health issues, it is questioned whether she has the stamina to take on the military establishment, which dominates most aspects of Burmese life. The constitution guarantees the army control of the defence and internal affairs ministries, as well as Myanmar’s often troublesome border areas; large parts of the economy are in the hands of the military and its associates; and graft is endemic.
Through whatever puppet she chooses as president, Suu Kyi will also have to address a number of continuing ethnic insurgencies. Above all there is the vexed question of the greatly beleaguered Muslim Rohingya in the western province of Arakan, a people of mainly Bengali extraction who many Burmans—the majority population in Myanmar—would dearly like to see expelled from their country altogether.
Apropos the Rohingya, internationally Suu Kyi has lost street cred by failing to stand up robustly for their basic human rights, only expressing ‘sympathy’ for their plight and saying that ‘the rule of law should prevail’. Yet it is the enforcers of the rule of law, the police and the army, who are as guilty as anyone of making the lives of the Rohingya a misery.
There are many other challenges. How, for instance, will she fund a much needed overhaul of Myanmar’s public health and education programmes? Will she raise taxes, or attempt to reduce the size of the military? How, for example, will she set about establishing the independence of the judiciary, which is also currently in thrall to the army?
To date the NLD’s economic and social policies are, to put it mildly, obscure. As in 1990, the 2015 election was overwhelmingly fought around the figure of ‘Mother Suu’, as she is now called, greatly beloved of the peoples of Myanmar, though apparently not by army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who refuses to meet her.
Yet there are some reasons to believe, or hope, that Myanmar’s new dawn may fulfil some of its promise and deliver if not a root-and-branch democracy then at least a Turkish-style democracy pro tem. Not least among these is the outgoing president Thein Sein, the former army man who in September 2012 did agree to submit himself to the cannonade of Hard Talk, when he said that he would accept Suu Kyi as president if the people voted for her.
Thein Sein has never received the credit due him for initiating reform and, by opening a dialogue with Suu Kyi, for daring to deviate from the military’s hardline anti-Suu mindset. In retirement he will continue to exert influence, as his predecessor Than Shwe has done, and Suu Kyi would do well to regard him as a principal ally.
But Suu Kyi might do well to look to another ally. When she first burst upon the political scene in 1988, with a speech given at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, she insisted that the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, which was her father Aung San’s creation, was integral to the nation’s daily life. At this moment in time, any other thought is pie in the sky.

Justin Wintle’s many writings include Perfect Hostage, a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi.

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