RANGOON — There is a Burmese phrase that has long been used by the country’s leadership, yielded with particular power by the military even today, roughly meaning “national politics.” The concept is more complicated than it sounds, evoking a sense of essential nonpartisan rule by uniformed men.
Amyotha nai ngan yay conjures a sense of national unity that is held together by the military, which—in theory—has no personal interest. The term dates back to the days of General Aung San, and has since become a fixture of Burma’s political rhetoric. In today’s political environment, as the country inches toward more democratic rule, the term has made a comeback in state newspapers, parliamentary discourse and pre-election public speech.
The idea of amyotha nai ngan yay stands in stark contrast to increasing partisanship in the country’s politics, as parties new and old attempt to forge distinct identities in the minds of the electorate. This nascent era of party politicking is perhaps best illustrated by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which seems to be struggling more than others to project a unified vision.
The USDP, a mildly rebranded version of the Union Solidarity and Development Association comprising military strongmen under the former regime, seems to be divided. While it is intrinsically linked to the objectives of the Tatmadaw, or Burmese Armed Forces, a faction within the party is trying to form a distinct agenda more focused on representative democratic ideas.
Some members of the USDP have projected an image—sincere or not—that they want to move away from militarism and carry out works that reflect the needs of the people while promoting unity among disparate ethnic groups. The Tatmadaw, and many of its USDP sympathizers, have performed no such pageantry, making no secret of their goal of protecting the Constitution over all else.
The Tatmadaw argues that it created a perfect set of rules, an airtight Constitution that allows some freedoms, but ultimately lets the military take full control when it needs to. This power, it claims, is meant to safeguard the Union. The military rulers, who ostensibly enabled the “democratic transition” to occur, point out that democracy is still fragile, that too much freedom could destabilize the Union. The army’s critics respond that the country was hardly stable before the transition; it has been at war with itself for decades and the junta had long driven the economy into the ground.
But while the branding of the military—which enjoys a 25 percent unelected share of the legislature—has been about strengthening the Union, parts of the USDP have focused instead on strengthening the party. As the military recedes from politics, next year or a decade down the line, the party will need to survive as a strong and distinct institution.
“The tension about the ideology of these two words [national and party politics] first appeared in Parliament,” explained Pe Than, a lawmaker for the Arakan National Party*. The rift became most apparent during recent discussions about changing key parts of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, a movement that was easily crushed by the Tatmadaw’s unelected voting bloc. Some members of the USDP solidly support the traditional thinking that the military needs to be involved in government, while others support a more civilianized ruling apparatus. “It has caused a crack within the USDP,” Pe Than said.
The military has recently responded strongly to this rift, which is becoming embarrassingly visible to the public eye. Lashing out at USDP members who have strayed from amyotha nai ngan yay, the military has often cast them as “dirty” politicians, opportunists and gerrymanderers with no loyalty to the Union.
“[The Tatmadaw] wants to show the people that they protect the country, that they work for the country. They want to show that they do not belong to any political party agenda, which they have cast as dirty politics,” according to Pe Than, who is himself in favor of increased partisanship. “But this isn’t true: People from the party [USDP] are pure.”
The ideological fissure between the ruling party and the military that essentially created it could widen in the coming months as party leaders’ electoral ambitions become more clear. Many within the USDP view President Thein Sein as being in the Tatmadaw’s camp, while Shwe Mann is viewed as more of a party devotee. While some mystery still surrounds whether or not the incumbent will seek reelection, the latter, Speaker Shwe Mann, has been more forthright about his interest in the nation’s top job.
According to USDP lawmaker Thura Aung Ko, their roles in the new government could are hardly cut and dry. While most speculative discussions center on a Shwe Mann versus Thein Sein for the USDP nod scenario, he said there might be an alternative way things could play out.
“I think [Thein Sein] will not take part in party politics, and will focus on amyotha nai ngan yay,” Thura Aung Ko said, predicting that Thein Sein “will not come back” to the party. If that’s the case, he said, he could potentially be chosen as vice president by the military, which would secure him a spot as one of the nation’s three top executives and pit him against Shwe Mann for the presidency.
In a further demonstration of the USDP’s bend away from the military, Thura Aung Ko and several of his colleagues recently proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would take away the Tatmadaw’s right to nominate a presidential contender. The military voting bloc unsurprisingly stopped the plan dead in its tracks. In defense of the ill-fated proposal, Thura Aung Ko argued that a nominee selected by an unelected portion of the legislature does not reflect the will of the people and is unaccountable to the electorate.
“A vice president or a president who is chosen only by [elected] lawmakers might have sympathy or could help civilians. They may not forget to thank the civilians whose votes helped them win,” he explained.
The fissure of loyalties—to the Union or to a party—is perhaps most evident within the ruling party, which is largely viewed as an appendage of the military. But as a multi-party system begins to take form, a more general shift toward partisanship is obvious. Parliamentarian Khin Mwe Lwin, a member of Burma’s leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), addressed the issue head on during a recent debate about charter reform.
“In our modern time,” she said, “there should be no competition between party politics and nationalist politics.” Speaking in favor of partisanship, she suggested that the concept of amyotha nai ngan yay was no longer “appropriate” for Burma, particularly as it has primarily been used to attack and thus weaken political parties that have not all yet reached maturity.
*Correction, Aug. 14, 2015: This article has been amended to show that Pe Than is a member of the Arakan National Party, and not the USDP as originally reported.