Beauty vs. the Beast: The Ongoing Battle for a True Democracy

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 1 December 2017

Here in Myanmar, a game is being played by one woman and all of the generals. Some call it “The Beauty vs. The Beast,” and it has been going on for almost 30 years.

In fact, it’s a longstanding battle between the people of Myanmar and military rule. The woman, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, happens to have led this battle from dictatorship to democracy with the mandate of the people, who resolutely voted for her party National League for Democracy in landslide victories in both the 1990 and 2015 general elections.

This battle seemed totally impossible looking back at its start – the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, when we students took to the streets facing troops and machine guns.

Pro-democracy activists fought military rule with their bare hands. And the military clamped down. Activists bounced back and then were crushed again. This has been the cycle of “revolution.”

Anyone who goes up against a concrete wall will be crushed. Among dissident families in Myanmar, there is a common saying: “Your head will be crushed if you hit the concrete wall.” And yes, countless heads were crushed.

Yet there has been clear progress thanks to those who sacrificed and their dedication.

It has been an evolution rather than a revolution over 30 years. And it’s not over yet.

The generals from dictator General Ne Win of an authoritarian regime to Snr-Gen Saw Maung and his predecessor Snr-Gen Than Shwe of a military regime to Thein Sein, a general-turned president for a so-called civilian regime, were unified against the woman and her supporters who constitute the majority of Myanmar’s population of 54 million – a democratic force when taken as a whole.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and thousands of pro-democracy activists faced lengthy prison sentences under the generals.

Today, 29 years later, the scenario is quite different. Instead of a political prisoner, she has become the de facto leader of the democratic government. Hundreds of ex-political prisoners are sitting lawmakers in parliament, and some hold executive positions in central or regional governments. Civil society groups have more room to strengthen society and the media is enjoying more press freedom after leaving behind the draconian censorship of before.

But there is a radical change left to happen – to remove the military from the political arena. This has been an impossible task from the beginning and it still proves to be so.

In past decades, the military held power by force. Today, the military holds power thanks to the constitution. Drafted by the ex-junta in 2008, it protects the military’s place in the political arena. The military protects the constitution.

Twenty-nine years later, the battle remains the same:  the people vs. military rule. The strategies and tactics have changed as the country’s political structure has changed from absolute military rule to partial military control in sectors from executive to legislative to economic.

Now, the NLD runs the country. But the reality is that while the NLD government is still overwhelmed by the mechanisms of the old system, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is stunted by former and current generals in day-to-day governing as well as long-term policy planning.

With the fundamental political structure remaining to be fixed, issues ranging from the nationwide ceasefire agreement to the Rakhine conflict to updating laws remain more complicated than expected. And these critical issues, given the political situation, have challenged the fledging democratic government.

These issues are unavoidable. And to fix these issues, an overhaul of the system and a political transformation must continue.

But the question is whether the current military leadership will let this political liberalization, which stated in 2011, go further. It all depends on their political will.

The political transformation to this point would not have happened without the generals’ will – the transfer of power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, the by-election in 2012 that allowed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD members to contest, and the free and fair election in 2015 that made the NLD a landslide victor and saw the party assume power.

But it’s unlikely that the generals will allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government to take further steps to amend the constitution of implement a new one – which has been a stated goal of the party since before the 2015 election.

In today’s state-run newspapers, the NLD-government announced its national objectives for the 2018, 70th Anniversary of Independence Day. One of the main objectives is “to strive hard to draw up a constitution suitable for the Union in accordance with democratic principles and norms for the emergence of a Democratic Federal Union.”

It is another hurdle in the unfinished battle between the military and the NLD government going forward.

To read the generals’ minds, they will be tolerant if this political transformation continues to take place within the framework of their 2008 constitution, which guarantees them executive and legislative privileges, plus full autonomy on security matters.

The military leadership seems intolerant to accept any further structural changes that will undermine their role in political arena.

To make it happen, they will need some convincing. Thus, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has emphasized national reconciliation, especially between her government and the military, to build trust with the generals. But for that, there is no formula.

For her as de facto leader, playing the game with both current and former generals is the art of politics.