RANGOON — The legacy of 2014 will shape the year ahead. After many ups and downs—more downs than ups—this year, it appears likely that many of the high hopes we had for 2015 will not eventuate. This is not encouraging, but it’s realistic. As usual, Myanmar people will hope for the best but be prepared for the worst—an outlook they have grown accustomed to over generations.
Next year will be crucial for Myanmar with the general election scheduled to be held later in the year. The result, if the election is held as scheduled, will determine whether Myanmar turns a new page or reverts to the status-quo.
We still can’t say for sure whether the election will be free and fair. But judging by the current state of political affairs, the people of Myanmar are highly unlikely to see come to fruition what they have dreamt of for decades—a free, prosperous and democratic society.
Today Myanmar is recovering after almost 50 years under one of the world’s most repressive regimes which lasted from 1962 until 2011. But it remains in old hands. President U Thein Sein is no longer a general but he was one of the highest ranking members of the former junta. Most of his cabinet members are current or former military officials. In Myanmar’s new political order, the military retains its stranglehold over the executive and legislative arms of government.
The international community is convinced that Myanmar is marching toward democracy. But the majority of locals share a different view. For them, the country is travelling toward the “Burmese way to democracy,” much like the “Burmese way to Socialism” that the late dictator Gen. Ne Win introduced in the 1960s.
Snr.-Gen Than Shwe, who is the architect of the current reform process, called it “discipline-flourishing democracy.” President U Thein Sein, his successor, has evolved the rhetoric to suit international expectations, emphasizing the country’s progression towards “democracy.” What seems clear in all these conceptions is that the military retains its powerful political position.
The military-drafted, undemocratic 2008 Constitution helps safeguard the military’s political preeminence. Any proposed amendments which would undermine their central role will not be achieved without a fight.
Faced with mighty resistance from the establishment, attempts by opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other pro-democracy groups to amend the Constitution over the past three years have been in vain. They are losing the political battle.
The main task of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 43 of 44 seats contested in 2012 by-elections, was to amend the Constitution ahead of the 2015 election. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters had hoped to amend undemocratic clauses, including article 59(f) which bars her from being president because her two sons are foreigners.
These hopes now appear all but dashed. In November, lower house speaker Thura Shwe Mann, himself a former powerful military general, stated publicly that constitutional amendments would only be possible after the 2015 election.
In other words, the year 2015 won’t see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi become president even if her NLD party wins by a landslide in the election. In that scenario, the opposition leader doesn’t seem to have a plan B as to whom else within her party could take the lead. We haven’t yet seen any qualified candidate emerge.
Opposition groups in general have never been in a position of ascendancy in this political game with the ex-junta and the current nominally-civilian government. They have all been forced to compete and cooperate within a political framework designed by successive military governments.
Quite simply, at present, the military government is as strong as ever while the opposition remains weak—having been curtailed by the government, the military and the ruling party at every turn.
That’s one of the reasons for the international community’s policy shifts over recent years. They are convinced that the current power holders constitute the only institutions that can change the country. Many western countries are now working to coax the three key power bases, government, military and parliaments, towards gradual change. It’s not exactly an easy task.
Imagine if they can persuade the military to reform itself into a professional force, return to barracks and quit its current roles in Parliament and in the ministries. We can imagine—but clearly this is not the military’s aim or intention. A basic principle of the Constitution’s first chapter clearly states that the country’s abiding objectives include enabling the defense services to participate in national political leadership.
Myanmar’s military has never been fit to govern, but the country has had consecutive military leaders since the 1962 coup. If the military returned to the barracks, Myanmar might achieve something like normalcy. But this is unlikely to happen over the next decade.
Meanwhile, under this military-dominated leadership, attaining peace with ethnic armed groups is proving difficult. On Nov. 19, the government’s troops fired on an area near the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army, killing 23 rebel cadets and injuring 20 more in northern Kachin State. Given such a hostile attack, little ameliorated by the army’s subsequent apology, the peace process between the government and ethnic armed groups looks set to go nowhere in the near future. For the peace process to work, trust has to be built. At this point, many ethnic leaders do not seem to trust either the military-dominated government or the military itself which has long stifled their desires for autonomy.
President U Thein Sein, leaders of the military and house speakers recently held an unprecedented meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and a few other political leaders. But the gathering clearly wasn’t the dialogue many wanted. Critics saw the meeting as a show-off exercise ahead of US President Barack Obama’s second visit in November.
For people on the ground, economic reforms have delivered little so far. Former power structures remain largely intact. Military-owned companies and cronies still monopolize the most lucrative industries. Business concessions are still not transparent.
Still, we have to admit that today Myanmar has more room for all stakeholders than under the former military regime. It is something. At the same time, we know well that the reform process in 2014 no longer looks as promising as hoped. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in early November, “this reform process started stalling early last year.’’
Myanmar people do not expect miracles from the reform process that started in 2011. They just want to see gradual, genuine progress toward a democratic and prosperous nation. Such progress was lacking during 2014.
When the people of this country suffered from oppression for decades under the former ruthless military dictatorship, hope was kept alive by the philosophy that everything is impermanent. The unfinished struggle for a just society will carry on in 2015.
This article first appeared in the December issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.