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Why Burma is Heading Downhill Fast

Rivalries among the political elite are exacerbating divides and allowing urgent problems to fester. Can anyone stop the rot?

For the past few months, I’ve been unable to escape an ominous sense that the political situation in Burma is on the wrong track. There are two main reasons for my anxiety. First, Burma is undergoing a leadership crisis. Second, the possibility of large-scale social unrest is increasing.

Eight months ago, I wrote a post explaining why the deepening divisions within the country’s political elites were undermining my previous feeling of cautious optimism. I tried to describe a general state of anxiety caused by rising communal violence, widespread hate speech against religious minorities, worsening poverty and intensifying political rivalries. Back then, however, the substantive reasons for the disagreements within the troika of President Thein Sein, House Speaker Shwe Mann, and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi weren’t entirely clear.

But now the contenders have taken off their gloves, and their fundamental political differences are starting to come out into the open.

Suu Kyi and the ruling parties managed to work well together during the initial reform period. In 2011, a historic meeting between the Lady and Thein Sein paved the way for Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to run in the 2012 elections. That dramatic development encouraged the countries of the West to lift their sanctions on Burma. But now the two have fallen out, quite publicly, over whether and how to reform the 2008 constitution, which was written by the then-ruling military junta.

In 2012, Suu Kyi made constitutional reform one of her party’s priorities, although even then it wasn’t entirely clear what changes she wanted to make. In June of last year, she announced that she wanted to run for the presidency in the 2015 elections, noting: “For me to be eligible for the post of the presidency, the Constitution will have to be amended.” Suu Kyi was clearly referring to Article 59(f) of the military-drafted Constitution, which states that the president or vice president cannot have a spouse or children who are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi had two sons with her late husband Michael Aris, and both are British citizens.

So far, Thein Sein has not deigned to respond to Suu Kyi’s reform demands. In November 2013, Suu Kyi made an official demand for a meeting with key political players, including the president, the speaker, and Commander-in-Chief Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to discuss constitutional reform. The president rejected her request, however, and his move seems to have sharpened the sense of lingering antipathy toward him that the Lady has been expressing in her meetings with foreign dignitaries and local political elites ever since late 2012.

In his latest speech to Parliament on March 26, Thein Sein urged parliamentarians to pursue constitutional reform delicately and gently in order to avoid a political deadlock. Though he did not mention any possibility of top-level dialogue, the president noted, “The army still needs to be present at the political roundtable talks where political problems are solved by political means.”

If by these talks he means something more substantive than the usual parliamentary formality, it could signal that he is, in fact, open to the dialogue Suu Kyi requested, as long as members of the army are also at the table. Suu Kyi will need the military’s support to get the amendment through Parliament, and she believes Thein Sein is the only one who can persuade the military to bring its representatives to the table. In a press conference following the president’s speech, the Lady insisted that “only the president can make it [military cooperation] possible.” Organizing top-level talks might allow Thein Sein to win public points without having to strike a deal with Suu Kyi directly.

Political heavyweight Shwe Mann—who is not only House speaker but also chairman of the ruling party and, reportedly, one of Suu Kyi’s allies in the establishment—has said that amending Article 59(f) is not “the only priority” that his party will pursue. The ruling party has also proposed dozens of changes to the Constitution, including Article 59. Meanwhile, Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing remains tight-lipped, though many insiders believe that the army agrees with the president. This unresolved situation presents the risk of a leadership vacuum as Burma heads toward the 2015 general election. Who will qualify—both in terms of constitutionality and popular support—to run for president?

As long as the constitutional barrier remains, Suu Kyi’s chances are slim. The incumbent, Thein Sein, also doesn’t stand much of a chance, since his party appears to be under the complete control of his rival, the strong-willed Shwe Mann. More importantly, the ruling party is not likely to win enough seats to nominate a presidential candidate (whether it be Thein Sein or Shwe Mann) in the first place. Under the current Burmese system, the people do not directly elect the president: Parliament does, in a complicated procedure that gives disproportionate power to the military. Even though the current ruling party is unlikely to win both houses of Parliament in the 2015 elections, the military members of Parliament can still nominate its leader as their candidate for the presidency. So it’s entirely possible that army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who reaches retirement age next year, will enter politics and become the military’s nominee for the presidency.

And that, obviously, is a problem. The military has dominated politics in our country for the past half-century.

As long as the military continues to control the presidency rather than handing power over to a civilian leader like Suu Kyi, the legitimacy and stability of the political transition will be incomplete.

The looming leadership vacuum raises an important question for the country’s troubled transition. To be sure, Burma has plenty of other constitutional problems that need to be addressed. (Foremost among them: the broad, veto-wielding power of the military and the lack of ethnic rights.) But it is the question of reforming Article 59 that inspires the most passion these days, precisely because of Suu Kyi’s continuing popularity among the majority of the population. People tend to believe that having the Lady as president will automatically lead to the resolution of all the other problems that the Constitution poses. The uncertainty surrounding the 2015 elections has created a sense of insecurity among the top players, prompting each of them to regroup, mobilize their own constituencies, and prepare for the fights that lie ahead.

Suu Kyi has become increasingly vocal in her criticism of the president. In so doing, she has resorted to her time-honored strategy: pushing for change by wielding international and domestic pressure. She continues to urge her Western supporters to pressure the government for constitutional reform. Since early 2013, she has been using her foreign trips and meetings with foreign leaders at home to ask them to urge the Burmese government to accept reform. Recently, she teamed up with the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, the most influential force in Burma after Suu Kyi’s party, to use the “people’s power” to change the Constitution. In a speech at a mass rally on March 22, 2014, she called on the public to join nationwide protests for constitutional reform.

There is, however, a growing Buddhist nationalist movement that could serve as a counterweight to Suu Kyi’s reform attempt. Radical Buddhist monks have now succeeded in pressing the government to enact laws that prohibit interfaith marriage. Though Thein Sein might not be responsible for organizing the movement, he adopted its cause by asking Parliament to consider the interfaith marriage ban a few weeks ago. Reliable sources tell me that Thein Sein is in regular contact with the nationalist movement, including Ashin Wirathu, a self-styled “Burmese bin Laden” who is one of the movement’s most controversial leaders.

Some of the movement’s leading monks have indicated that they would not support amending Article 59(f), fearing that it might make Burma vulnerable to the threat of a Muslim or other non-Buddhist president in near future. Of course, these monks urge their followers to vote for Thein Sein instead of Suu Kyi, since they view her as too weak in her defense of nationalism and Buddhism. It is ironic to see Thein Sein, who was once reportedly tipped to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his reform efforts, slip into the embrace of ethno-nationalists.

None of this seems to impress Burma’s ordinary citizens much—which hardly comes as a surprise, given their continuing poverty and lack of rights. They are left to cope with the daily reality of unemployment, illegal land grabs, official corruption, ethnic tension and the inevitable outbursts of violence when government forces step in to suppress the resulting protests. Given the general atmosphere of tension, it is not hard to imagine how power struggles at the top might lead to partisan political protests, religious riots, or even terrorist attacks. Since the general level of trust and tolerance is so weak, and the capacity of the state so fragile, society could easily find itself in a situation even worse than Thailand’s recent bout of political polarization. No wonder the Economist projected that Burma is at high risk of social unrest in 2014.

Unless Burma’s leaders manage to reach a basic consensus about the speed and character of the transition, these risks will only mount. A few weeks ago I described the current situation in our country to some of my friends as a “slow-motion train wreck.” As one of those listening put it: “Yes. And we, the people of Burma, are inside the train.”

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Foreign Policy’s ‘Democracy Lab,’ where this article first appeared on March 28, 2014.