Myanmar Moves Into Uncharted Territory

6 MINS READNov 12, 2015 | 10:11 GMT
Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy gather in Yangon on Nov. 9.
(ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) appears to have won a landslide victory in the country’s historic Nov. 8 elections — the first nationwide general elections Myanmar has seen in a quarter of a century. The Union Election Commission has released official results slowly, but with nearly three-quarters of the races now decided, the NLD has taken more than 80 percent of the parliamentary seats up for grabs and dominated state and regional elections as well. The party's internal estimates indicate that it won 406 seats, which would give it control over 60 percent of the parliament — an impressive electoral feat, considering that Myanmar's Constitution reserves 25 percent of the seats for military appointees. Assuming the results hold, the long-sidelined NLD will control both houses of parliament and be in position to elect the next president.

The vote is a triumph for the NLD's leader, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent the better part of 20 years under house arrest. It is also a validation of the West's 2010 decision to abandon its strategy of isolating Myanmar's military government and begin engaging with the ruling generals to implement their "roadmap to democracy," an incremental and uneven process designed to democratize the country without undermining the military's role as the ultimate arbiter of power. Nonetheless, power in Myanmar is diffusing after five decades of authoritarian rule, and the next phase of the transition is unlikely to run smoothly. Now the NLD's task will be to forge a new power-sharing arrangement that does not alienate ethnic minority parties, ascendant grassroots Buddhist nationalist factions or military stalwarts.

The NLD won in similar fashion in 1990, the last time it contested a general election. But two months after the vote, the junta that had held power for the previous 28 years annulled the results, installed a fresh military government, and imprisoned much of the opposition. Suu Kyi's party is evidently concerned enough about the possibility of history repeating itself that it has discouraged supporters from celebrating and warned that "impostor supporters" might instigate trouble to give the military, in theory, a pretext for cracking down.

Military commander-in-chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and President Thein Sein, a former general, have said repeatedly that the military will accept the election results. And on Nov. 11, they released an official statement congratulating the NLD on its victory and agreeing to meet with Suu Kyi in the coming weeks. This sentiment largely stems from the generals' interest in giving the West every reason to lift its remaining sanctions and continue engaging with Myanmar. More important, the generals did much of the legwork needed to protect their power from the whims of politics long before the elections took place. 

In addition to the parliamentary bloc of military appointees, Myanmar's 2008 charter also guarantees the military full control over the powerful Defense, Home and Border Affairs ministries — none of which report to the president — not to mention its own budget. Military appointees in lucrative positions throughout both the business community and the bureaucracy further the generals' influence. Moreover, the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council remains the highest authority in the land, retaining even the right to temporarily assume control of the government in certain cases.

Meanwhile, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party — the quasi-civilian party established by the last military junta — will still have a chance to shape the landscape for the next government before the NLD takes charge. The current legislature will not expire until Jan. 30, 2016, and is set to convene another plenary session on Nov. 16. This will give the military a chance to preserve some of its influence and secure its interests, as it did in 2010 when it passed a raft of legislation three days before elections that it was confident it would win anyway. 

Whatever implicit power-sharing arrangement the NLD and the military forge will be tested most visibly in the fight to either re-elect or replace Thein Sein, the man credited with initiating Myanmar's reform process. This job will fall to the new parliament as each house nominates a candidate and the military picks a third. The winner is then chosen by a parliament-wide vote, with the two losing candidates going on to serve as vice presidents. Inauguration will likely take place by the end of March. 

With its new sway in parliament, the NLD will be able to unilaterally name the next leader and one deputy. Though Suu Kyi herself is barred from running by a clause in the constitution, she has stated emphatically that, given the chance, the NLD will elect essentially a puppet president who would answer to her. Depending on the final official tally of NLD seats, this president could be a major thorn in the military's side, especially if backed by enough of a majority to table constitutional changes. With 25 percent of seats, the military has the ability to harpoon such changes, though doing so would be risky as it would highlight the still-entrenched institution's role in an ostensibly democratic system. 

Uneasy Partners

In theory, according to the military, the constitution creates an arrangement that allows the two sides to tend to separate realms — the military fulfilling its self-styled role as protector of the nation, the NLD saddled with the more grim day-to-day tasks of nudging Myanmar into modernity. But it also raises the risk of prolonged standoffs between the two that destabilize Naypyidaw and cripple the ability of the next government to address important outstanding issues, most notably the intractable ethnic conflicts still raging in several parts of Myanmar’s upland periphery. Furthermore, it portends a tumultuous working relationship going forward on issues where military and government prerogatives overlap. Ethnic tension will be especially key: An October cease-fire agreement between the government and some armed groups is entering a period of negotiations over checkpoints, territory and arms. The military will naturally play a major role in these talks, and the NLD will have to work closely with it if it wants to maintain legitimacy and expand the cease-fire to more armed groups. 

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi has promised to form a reconciliation government, but constitutional reform is reportedly at the top of her agenda. As the NLD tests the limits of its newfound power, it will risk violating the military's vision of "discipline-flourishing democracy." If the party's vast popular mandate is seen as a threat to the military's core interests or unity, the generals will become more unpredictable.

Myanmar's economy lacks the institutions, governing experience and legacy of stability to shrug off a turbulent transfer of power, especially if the military feels goaded into some form of retrenchment. The country can ill afford a protracted fight that prevents the new government or its successors from building out Myanmar's nascent regulatory framework, banking sector and infrastructure. On the other hand, if the country's generals work to ensure a smooth transition, they will likely secure sanctions relief (even though continued conflict and human rights issues in the periphery will make this an uneven process) and be in prime position to reap the rewards of Myanmar's liberalization.

Indeed, a government headed by the NLD will make investment and engagement more palatable for Western investors wary of the military's human rights record, as well as those deterred by the uncertainty and complications created by the sanctions still in place. On Nov. 10, China warned the next government against embracing the West too closely. But the NLD will face the same imperatives that compelled the generals to begin moving away from international isolation in the first place: the need to balance relations among outside powers, including China, and court investment from all corners. Notably, Suu Kyi disappointed activists in 2014 when a commission she chaired supported the resumption of a Chinese-backed copper mine on the grounds that Myanmar cannot afford to discourage foreign investment or antagonize Beijing. 

Thus, all sides have an incentive to compromise on the most high-profile points of contention and push the country's reform process forward. But Myanmar is still an exceptionally fractious country that is moving into uncharted and uncertain territory, its historic display of democratic unity notwithstanding. 

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