Will Myanmar’s Military Sever Its Relationship With the Union Solidarity and Development Party?

By The Irrawaddy 28 November 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss whether there will be growing distance between the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military], whether the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Tatmadaw will grow closer in the post-election era and whether there will be political opposition to the powerful NLD in the future. Former information minister and political analyst U Ye Htut has joined me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

The USDP at first said it did not accept the election results. It said later that it had accepted the results but would still file complaints. At first, the USDP called for holding a fresh election with the involvement of the Tatmadaw. But after the Tatmadaw steered clear of that strategy, the party changed its tune.

This reminds me of the 1990 election when the Tatmadaw politically backed the National Unity Party (NUP), the [successor to] the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), but later distanced itself from the party after its election defeat. So, I wonder if the Tatmadaw is sending a message to the USDP, which has lost in two successive elections, by saying it wants nothing to do with the USDP’s call for a fresh election. What is your assessment of the relationship between the Tatmadaw and the USDP in the future?

Ye Htut: The relationship between the military regime’s State Law and Order Restoration Council and the NUP was different from the relationship between the Tatmadaw and the USDP in 2010. When the BSPP transformed itself into the NUP, there were no longer any military officials, who had staged a coup, involved in the new party. General Saw Maung and General Than Shwe, who were on the central executive committee of the BSPP, had to resign. Yes, ex-military officials remained in the NUP. The Tatmadaw might have had some tendencies [to favor the NUP] due to its ties with the BSPP in the past, but it didn’t politically back up the NUP.

Senior General Than Shwe had nurtured the Union Solidarity and Development Association since 1993. His intention was to establish a political force that has the same political ideologies as the Tatmadaw so that a political force would represent the military after the Tatmadaw withdrew from politics step by step. And the Tatmadaw transferred power to that political force after the 2010 election. The relationships are different.

But after two elections, the Tatmadaw has apparently come to the conclusion that its formula to promote its political leadership based on the USDP is no longer practical. The 2015 and 2020 elections have proven that people view the USDP as the Tatmadaw’s tool to take power back by one way or another.

Apparently, the Tatmadaw has the same view. So, when the USDP called for a fresh election in cooperation with the military, the Tatmadaw immediately responded that it did not agree and that it would accept the will of the people and the election results, as the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services had said. This is a signal that they will no longer dance to the USDP’s tune. Instead of saying that the Tatmadaw has stopped giving its support to the USDP, the Tatmadaw has instead changed its position, focusing only on upholding the Constitution and the three main national causes [non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and the perpetuation of sovereignty, for which the Tatmadaw believes it has responsibility] and no longer helping any particular party gain power. For the time being, it will not withdraw from the Parliament. It will stand as an independent entity.

YN: In elections, the results are decided by the votes of the people. Because the USDP lost in both the 2015 and 2020 elections, some people say it will fade away like the NUP over time. Do you agree with that?

YH: If it fails to carry out internal reforms and repair its image, it will receive fewer and fewer votes over time. My personal view is that what the USDP should do first is to commence a Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting and review the election results. Then they should convene a party conference and submit the report of the CEC meeting to the conference. Then, the conference should adopt a political strategy and elect a new CEC that can realize that political strategy. Then the new CEC should elect the new leaders.

And military officials should avoid taking senior positions in the USDP once they retire from the military. I don’t mean ex-military officers should not engage in politics. They can engage, but they should join the party as lower-ranking members and only rise through ranks with the support of rank and file members. If the party is only led by ex-military officers who take senior positions once they join the party after retiring from the military, not only will it be viewed negatively by the general public, it will also affect the motivation of ordinary USDP members. It will make them think that they can at best become CEC members while leadership positions are restricted to military officials.

If party leaders are chosen democratically within the party, members especially at the township and ward/village levels will feel politically more motivated. Currently, most of them have to do what they are told by higher-ups. Yes, there are active members. But until their voices can reach the leadership and the CEC and until an environment is created for them to speak out, the party will not come back to life. But what is certain is it will take years for the USDP to be able to form a government. It won more than 30 seats on Nov. 8, but the best it can expect is to retain or win a few more seats in the next election.

YN: The NLD won by a landslide in both the 1990 and 2015 elections and by another huge landslide in the 2020 election. The Tatmadaw has to accept this reality and has to negotiate with the NLD in order to protect its interests. How close could relations between the NLD and the Tatmadaw become? We have seen over the past five years that the Tatmadaw had to act as the opposition because the USDP was not able to play that role. So, to what extent will the Tatmadaw engage in give and take with the NLD? Do you think their relationship will pave the way for constitutional reforms in the next five years?

YH: Speaking of the interests of the Tatmadaw, we have to know what we are definitely referring to. It shouldn’t be viewed as individuals’ desire to gain power or the business interests of a group. I don’t deny there are such interests. But those are not the interests of the Tatmadaw as a whole, just the interests of some of its specific parts.

As an institution, it is concerned that the ethnic states will secede from the country. It does not want to see secession but peace-building. No Tatmadaw leader wants to be blamed for the Union breaking up or being put on the edge of a break-up because of his actions.

So, that is the primary interest of the Tatmadaw. Positions of power and business interests are interests of individuals and groups within the Tatmadaw. As an institution, its main concern is the risk of secession.

As a former military official, I can say that such concerns prevailed in our time and continue to exist among the next generation of military officials. This fact must be understood. The military holds a key position in the potential amendment of the Constitution, because the Constitution can’t be amended without its “yes” vote.

If it can be guaranteed that every potential change does not lead to secession or break-up of the country, [the government] will be able to negotiate with the Tatmadaw to have the Constitution amended, I think.

However, the widely held view is that the Tatmadaw does not want constitutional reform because of personal and business interests. And admittedly, the Tatmadaw did make certain mistakes that led to such a view. But in the next five years, the NLD has to think about how long it can accept the Tatmadaw taking a leadership role in politics. And the Tatmadaw has to negotiate [with the NLD government] a list of priorities for constitutional reforms. This is just my view. I feel sad these two major forces are not willing to cooperate with one another. It is a disadvantage for our country.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a crowd-puller and can attract international attention. The Tatmadaw has a good administrative and management system. If the political power and administrative power could be combined, it would create excellent prospects for our country. It could not be achieved over the past five years. There was no such issue under the U Thein Sein government. The previous government and the Tatmadaw worked together, and there was progress not only in the peace process but in other aspects as well. There was no such cooperation during the past five years. The NLD government doesn’t feel at ease in whatever it does. It is worried about how the Tatmadaw will respond. And when the Tatmadaw intervenes in some issues, people think it is doing so for its position of power and business interests, which mars its reputation. In the next five years, the two should engage in dialogue based on the Constitution. It won’t be practical to view national reconciliation simply as power sharing.

YN: After the NLD’s repeated electoral victories, some democracy advocates are concerned that there will not be a credible political opposition. Yes, the Tatmadaw holds 25 percent of seats in the Parliament. But the remaining 75 percent is dominated by the NLD, and there are concerns that it has absolute decision-making power. Not only the opposition party, but also ethnic parties have begun to have such concerns. Though the NLD has said it would negotiate with ethnic parties to address ethnic issues, those parties still have concerns. Before the election, you suggested that opposition parties should form an alliance. Do you think there can be a strong opposition party that can compete shoulder to shoulder with the NLD in the future political landscape?

YH: To exercise checks and balances on the government and for the government to heed the voices of the minorities during the next five years depends on the broadmindedness of the NLD because it won more seats than it did in 2015.

How will the party define its greater electoral victory? We will have to wait and see. If the NLD leaders think they won the election because what it did over the past five years was almost 100 percent correct, then there will be problems in its relations with ethnic parties inside and outside the Parliament. The party had its shortcomings in the past five years, and people are aware of their mistakes. If the party correctly understands that people supported them with the hope that they would correct their mistakes in the next five years, there will be some improvements. This will depend on the broadmindedness of the NLD.

Over the past five years, the NLD did not listen to the voices of other parties, saying that it had a mandate. That is partly due to its arrogance as the winning party. It had never been in power before. It won the election in 1990 but was not able to take office. It was able to take office for the first time after the 2015 election. As a result, it had numerous challenges in running the government. When someone pointed out its faults, the NLD did not view it as constructive criticism. Instead, the NLD viewed it as a threat. That mindset was quite obvious when it came to the Rakhine issue. Now that it has won again, it may have fewer concerns in the next five years. And the Tatmadaw and other parties, including political parties outside the Parliament, civil society organizations and the media will have to do more to exert checks and balances from outside the Parliament.

The Tatmadaw, which has a say in the Parliament, should point things out with impartiality in certain issues. And ethnic parties that are elected to Parliament and the USDP should focus on how to improve the current political environment, instead of working for the next election. Only then will the NLD be less concerned and cooperate more with others. This is the way things should be in our current situation.

There is a need to consider how to improve the representation of various groups, for example by changing the electoral system or changing electoral laws to reserve a certain percentage [of seats] based on gender and religion for lawmaker positions. Such options should be considered now. Whether they are elected or not is another part of the question. In selecting candidates, each political party should make sure to represent various groups. For instance, the constitutions of Latin American countries like Mexico and Bolivia guarantee equal seats for male and female lawmakers. Such a practice should be adopted in Myanmar. To change the electoral system is a matter of serious dispute. But it will be easier if parties select candidates representing different groups.

YN: Thank you for your insights.

You may also like these stories:

Will the Incoming Biden Administration Reshape US Policy Toward Myanmar?

How Are Myanmar’s Ethnic Parties Responding to the Cancellation of Voting in Conflict Areas?

Can Young Female Candidates Gain a Foothold With Myanmar’s Voters?