Myanmar celebrates a civilian government; the generals carry on as before
Apr 2nd 2016 Economist
It was an extraordinary moment, and seen by many as a happy culmination to a long, often bloody and always wrenching story: this week Myanmar swore in a new president as the titular head of the first civilian-led, democratic government to take office after decades of military-backed rule. It followed a landslide win for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in a November election that made crystal-clear what ordinary Burmese no longer wanted: the army running their affairs.
And yet. Look more closely, and the army has not vanished from political life but still lies at the heart of it. Take the matter of the president, who is chosen by the national assembly. Those voting for the NLD in November were really voting for Miss Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s founding father, Aung San, and figurehead of the democratic movement during years of house arrest until her release in 2010. She would have been a shoo-in to be president had the constitution drawn up by the army not disqualified her, for having children with British passports. The ban on foreign spouses and children appears to have been written expressly with her in mind.
The result is that another NLD member, Htin Kyaw, has been sworn in as president. Mr Htin Kyaw, a close ally of Miss Suu Kyi’s, is a good egg. But Miss Suu Kyi has made it clear that she will be president in all but name. That is a far from satisfactory arrangement when stronger institutions, more transparency and greater accountability are needed to strengthen Myanmar’s weak governance, undermined by years of misrule. Also troubling is the fact that Miss Suu Kyi is taking the post of foreign minister as well—and the ministerial portfolios covering education, electricity and the president’s office (making her, in effect, chief-of-staff to herself). It beggars belief that anyone could do justice to so many briefs. The army is not to blame for Miss Suu Kyi’s appalling tendency to micromanage. But allowing her to be the formal president would have given the new, inexperienced government a better chance of being effective and accountable.
More worrying is what the army is holding on to in government. Army men fill three powerful cabinet posts, overseeing defence, border affairs and home affairs. They have government experience, and may run rings around the callow democrats. What is more, the army and its affiliated ministries dominate the National Defence and Security Council, which can disband parliament and impose martial law—the constant threat to Myanmar’s new dispensation.
What is it the army seeks by maintaining its influence? Foremost, perhaps, the generals do not want ever to be prosecuted for crimes and atrocities committed during their long dictatorship. Then come the material interests of the top 50-odd army families. They wish to hold on to their extraordinary and largely criminal wealth, including big property holdings in Yangon, the commercial capital, without fear of reprisals or confiscation. They will see as their protector the army’s appointee as one of the country’s two vice-presidents, Myint Swe. He is related through marriage to Than Shwe, a former junta leader. Head of the brutal military intelligence at the time of the bloody repression of a monk-led “saffron revolution” in 2007, he was also until recently chief minister for the Yangon region. Nothing like friends in high places.
The army looks likely to let the civilian government make the running in what one Burmese insider describes as a carefully fenced-off “sandbox”: matters of development, education, health care and the like—precisely the areas that for years it oversaw so dismally in this poverty-stricken country. Outside the NLD’s playpen, however, the army is unlikely to brook the democrats’ involvement. That applies to handling relations with Myanmar’s giant neighbour, China, which tweaks the generals’ tail by funding some of the myriad ethnic armies involved in low-level insurgencies, mainly in Myanmar’s border regions. And it applies above all to the so-called peace process that is supposed to end once and for all the conflicts between ethnic groups and an overweening central state, some of which have rumbled on since the country’s independence in 1948.
Resolving the conflicts is Myanmar’s most pressing task, since, for all the foreign investment and aid money putting a shine on Yangon, a dirt-poor country cannot develop without a widespread and deep-rooted peace. In the run-up to taking power, Miss Suu Kyi said that her priority was seeking peace and granting the full rights and benefits of citizenship to the disadvantaged ethnic minorities that are spread across a large part of Myanmar. She even called for a second Panglong, referring to the agreement negotiated with ethnic minorities by her father in 1947 but never enacted after his assassination by militarists.
Her implication was a federal union in which a hitherto heavily centralised state, dominated by the ethnic Burman majority, devolves powers. But that is anathema to commanders committed to defending a unitary state. In private they have made it clear they do not want the NLD involved in the army peace process (one that has only increased mistrust of the army among ethnic groups). Miss Suu Kyi has recently said less about a second Panglong.
In 2003, confronted by its failures, the junta unveiled what it called a seven-step “road map to discipline-flourishing democracy”—that is, democracy, but only on its terms. The democratic revolution that has swept Myanmar with such enthusiasm since 2010 may give the impression that the road map has been torn to shreds. And certainly the scale of Miss Suu Kyi’s victory took the generals by surprise. But the army’s continued presence at the heart of the political system makes it clear that Myanmar’s democracy is not guaranteed to move forward. The army still holds the power to turn it back.