This is a guest post by Roger Lee Huang, Academic Tutor, Macquarie University and Research Affiliate, Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong.
After nearly five decades of largely uninterrupted authoritarian military rule in Myanmar, Thein Sein was elected President on March 30, 2011, and officially began the process of transforming the state into what the 2008 Constitution refers to as a “disciplined multi-party” democratic system. Under the Constitutional framework, passed in a dubious referendum in May 2008, the president “takes precedence over all other persons throughout the Republic” and serves as both head of state and head of government. In contrast with Thein Sein, who was a particularly visible and active figure during his tenure, the incumbent, President Htin Kyaw, despite his constitutional powers, commands no real authority, and has a limited profile. Instead, formal state authority is asymmetrically split between the country’s powerful military, while the Htin Kyaw administration is ipso facto commanded by the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership the National League for Democracy’s (NLD), had previously rejected any attempt to join the military’s transition plan, and as recent as 2010, boycotted the country’s elections. However, a few months after dissolution of the junta, an olive branch offered by President Thein Sein began the process of reconciliation with Suu Kyi, paving the way for the NLD’s participation in the 2012 by-elections. This process enabled the military to consolidate its envisioned “disciplined multi-party” democracy.
Contrary to conventional presidential systems, Myanmar’s disciplined multi-party democracy was specifically designed to divide state authority between the military and elected civilian parties. Constitutionally, it is not the elected civilian President but the Commander-In-Chief, an active military officer that has direct control of the country’s military forces, including the police and all paramilitary units. In the legislative branch, twenty-five percent of the seats in the bicameral National Parliament are composed of active military officers directly appointed by the Commander-In-Chief. Further, irrespective of the electoral outcome, the country would always be governed by a coalition government, where the army is constitutionally mandated to play a permanent role in national politics, with direct authority over three key ministries – Defence, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. As a final safeguard to ensure this system is sustained, amendments to key provisions of the Constitution must meet a high threshold, which ensures that any changes to the political role of the military can only feasibly materialize with the approval of the military. In short, under Myanmar’s “democratic” system, the military remains insulated from civilian oversight, and continues to disproportionally play an expansive political role in the administration of the state.
Just days before the November 8, 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi had declared that in the event of an NLD electoral victory, she would be “above the president” despite Article 59 (f) of the Constitution specifically prohibiting her from the presidency based on her offspring’s foreign citizenships. The President is elected by an Electoral College composed of three groups of parliamentarians (the House of Nationalities, the House of Representatives, and military-appointed MPs). The landslide electoral victory meant that the NLD had enough votes to ensure that the next President of the Republic, and at least one of the country’s two Vice Presidents would be an NLD nominee. The relatively unknown Htin Kyaw was elected President based on the understanding that he would faithfully serve as proxy for Aung San Suu Kyi. Just days after Htin Kyaw’s inauguration, the NLD-dominated parliament was able to push through legislation establishing the new position of State Counsellor, specifically engineered to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to serve as the de facto leader of the NLD-led government, giving her prime-minister like powers. Along with taking on various ministerial positions, Suu Kyi also effectively appointed herself as Foreign Minister, the only legal path that would allow her membership of the country’s National Defence and Security Council, the highest institution composed of eleven members that determine all defence and security affairs.
It has been over a year since the advent of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led coalition government, and many of the country’s woes have intensified under the current administration. While much of Myanmar’s problems are historically rooted and structurally entrenched, the NLD-led administration has made little or no effort to overcome the legacy of military authoritarianism. In fact, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government has increasingly replicated the actions of its military predecessors.
Press freedom has lapsed significantly, with a rise in defamation cases filed against social media users and journalists under the notorious section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law of 2013. The NLD’s parliamentary majority has the ability to amend this legislation, yet Aung San Suu Kyi and her officials have made little or no effort to do so, and have remained largely silent in the face of continued persecutions against journalists. In effect, the government defended the actions of the military after they arrested three journalists in June using the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act of 1908.
Unite Nations officials who planned a fact-finding mission in response to increased violence in the restive Rakhine State, had their visas denied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a ministry under the direct control of Aung San Suu Kyi. Further fighting continues in the Shan State with the emergence of a Northern Alliance composed of four armed ethnic groups, while the military has also expanded its offensive against the Kachin Independence Organization in the Kachin State. The NLD government’s ability to negotiate and build peace through its much-touted Panglong-21 Conference remains doubtful, and beyond occasional symbolic victories, has so far shown no evident, concrete results.
Lastly, despite the United States finally lifting all remaining economic sanctions in October 2016, the initial rush of foreign investors has dropped, and economic growth in Myanmar has slowed.
The NLD may have won an election, and was able to install Aung San Suu Kyi in a position of power; the reality is that the military’s constitutional system remains unscathed and unchallenged. Even with the NLD’s huge electoral mandate and despite the popularity of Suu Kyi, the NLD was unable to amend Article 59 (f) of the Constitution, and have instead, avoided a constitutional crisis by manoeuvring within the confines of the military’s constitutional framework. Although the 2008 Constitutional system has created a new political reality where the military voluntarily shares state authority with a popularly elected civilian government, this is and has always been the military’s version of democracy – one where its civilian politicians are restricted in their control of the country’s bureaucracy and do not command absolute state power. Now in its sixth year as a disciplined “flourishing” democracy, the political clout of the military remains undiminished. The military remains the ultimate guardian of “national unity” and there remains no indication that the “disciplined” features of Myanmar’s democracy would be negotiable in the foreseeable future.