For Burmese, Little Hope for a Jokowi of Their Own

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 24 July 2014

When the Burmese people go to the polls next year, they are unlikely to get their own version of Jokowi, the new face in Indonesian politics and now the president-elect in that country.

The Indonesian Elections Commission on Tuesday announced that Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, had beaten his rival, ex-general Prabowo Subianto, in the election held on July 9.

The 53-year-old furniture businessman who will take office in October is seen as a clean break from the old political elite that has hung on to power in Indonesia despite the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998.That means the country’s people have had to wait for about 15 years, or three electoral terms, to have a new face as their leader.

As for Burma, it seems highly unlikely that the people will be so fortunate.

It might even take longer than in Indonesia to see a Jokowi-type leader in Burma, simply because the current political atmosphere is not creating space for new or different faces that are not from the military.

The country has scarcely had a new face in the political arena in more than five decades since late dictator Gen. Ne Win staged a coup in 1962. His authoritarian regime ruled the country for 26 years until 1988 when people power toppled its iron-fisted rule.

Right after the popular ’88 uprising, the Burma Socialist Programme Party appointed two Ne Win loyalists, Sein Lwin and scholar Dr. Maung Maung, as presidents of two successive governments. But demonstrations managed to remove both after very short tenures.

After that, the military made a comeback via a bloody coup, installing new leaders Snr-Gen Saw Maung and his successor Snr-Gen Than Shwe from 1988 to 2011.

In essence, the Burmese people have only had generals or ex-generals as their leaders since 1962.

The same elite institution that put these leaders in place continues to cling to power. In 2011, an ex-general, Thein Sein was picked by ex-supremo Than Shwe as chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and became president of the nominally civilian government. It was widely believed that the 2010 election, in which the USDP won a victory, was rigged.

Burma, in fact, has no shortage of new faces in the political arena.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Since 1988, many leading activists and politicians have emerged. Among them are Nobel Peace laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, prominent activists such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi of 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and other leaders representing ethnic people across the country. But these emerging figures have more often found themselves in prison or under house arrest than in key positions in government.

Though many of them were released after Thein Sein’s government started its reform process in 2011, they have very slim opportunity to become leading members of future governments, even in this new and more relaxed political atmosphere.

To give a significant example, the current Constitution bars Suu Kyi from becoming president on the grounds that she was married to a foreign national. Simply, therefore, despite her popularity across the country, she has no chance to become president under this Constitution.

This provision alone shows how the ex-regime calculatedly shaped the political environment, preventing the most popular leader in the country from leading.

Though there is no such a provision in the Constitution to rule out other committed political activists, they still cannot flourish in this political landscape.

According to the Constitution, the military still enjoys crucial political privileges, such as 25 percent of Parliamentary seats for its appointees. This bloc of lawmakers, handpicked by the military’s commander-in-chief, forms one of three representative groups in the Presidential Electoral College.

Burma has no direct presidential election. Instead, the Constitution reads: “The President shall be elected by the Presidential Electoral College.” The other two representative groups are formed by members of Parliament’s two houses. The three representative groups elect a vice president each, and the president is then selected from the three by all three groups.

It’s a complicated process, but guarantees that the military can choose at least one vice president, and have significant influence in the selection of the president—not to mention the power it wields through USDP, the current majority party in Parliament.

After the 2010 election, the Presidential Electoral College chose Thein Sein, an ex-general from the USDP, Gen. Tin Aung Myint Oo from the military, Sai Mauk Kham from the USDP as the three vice presidents. Two out of three vice presidents were generals and the other was from the military-aligned party.

This pattern of choosing the president is the likely scenario for the upcoming 2015 election, too.

Apart from that, the very first chapter of the Constitution guarantees the role of the military, saying “the Defense Services to be able to participate in the National political leadership role of the State.”

Under this Constitution favoring the military and in the current political atmosphere, designed by the current semi-military leadership, the Burmese people are extremely unlikely to see a new face as their leader in near future. Sadly, they are likely to continue to live under the military in disguise.