Commentary

The US Voted for Change; When Will Myanmar Truly Be Able to Do the Same?

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 25 January 2021

Americans—along with the rest of their fellow global citizens—can now say that the Trump era is consigned to history. To the relief of all but his most fanatical admirers, Donald Trump left the White House on Jan. 20 without inciting any further insurrections or another siege of the Capitol.

The transition of power went smoothly in the end, though Trump skipped the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president on the steps of the Capitol. In one final break with precedent, he snubbed a tradition observed by every president for the past 150 years. In the eyes of many Americans, Trump and his administration inflicted huge damage, both visible and invisible, on their country, not only to its reputation, but also to its democratic systems and traditions.

Following the inauguration, two international magazines, Time and The Economist, devoted their covers to the mess Trump left behind as his administration’s legacy. Time’s cover featured a drawing of President Joe Biden standing in a vandalized Oval Office strewn with papers and debris, while The Economist depicted the president standing in front of a White House covered in filth, shouldering a mop and holding a bucket in one hand. They perfectly portray the US’ current situation and the task facing the new president from day one.

Trump’s administration may only have ruled the country for four years, but wielding the powers of a US president, someone like Trump can do massive damage, even in an established and developed democracy. Trump left America in a terrible mess.

Nonetheless, the Trump era is over—that fact is evidence of an established democratic country or system functioning as it should.

In that respect, sadly, the situation in the US stands in stark contrast with the experience of a country like Myanmar.

Like the US, Myanmar also held elections last November. And while Democrat Joe Biden eventually emerged as the victor in the US, the National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won Myanmar’s poll in a landslide.

The big loser here was the NLD’s main rival, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was formed by the previous military regime. The USDP is in lockstep with the current military leadership’s stance that the armed forces must continue to play an important role in the country’s political arena without the consent of the public. In fact, the USDP was created by the generals in 2010 as a political wing through which they could perpetuate their rule, which began when General Ne Win staged a coup in 1962. But the USDP has lost every election that has been even somewhat free and fair, and the latest poll was no exception; the NLD won unambiguously, and the USDP lost. That means that the generals, who are determined to play a role in politics, lost too.

But what Myanmar people can’t say is that the generals’ era is over. Far from it. Their party, the USDP, had already lost the previous election held in 2015—also to the NLD, and also in a landslide. But then, as now, no one here in Myanmar could say, “The generals’ era is gone,” or “The military’s era is over,” because it’s simply not the case.

Despite the electoral losses suffered by the military-backed USDP, the generals still claim “legitimacy” in the political arena on the basis of the Constitution drafted by their predecessors in 2008. The Constitution guarantees the military outsize roles in all of the country’s crucial sectors—particularly in the legislature (25 percent of seats are held by military officers appointed by the commander-in-chief) and in the executive branch (three key ministerial positions appointed by the commander-in-chief).

Back in America, the Trump era is over. Due to its established electoral system, the US suffered only a four-year disruption at the hands of Donald Trump. After four years under Trump’s administration, Americans still had the right to say, “Enough is enough.”

But here in Myanmar, the political disruption by the generals lasted for nearly 50 years. And that five decades refers only to the period of absolute control under the military regimes from March 1962 to March 2011. Since the junta stepped down, however, the military has continued to exert a degree of control. The lasting legacy of those military governments is the continued political power wielded by the armed forces. That’s the reality.

In America, some of the worst aspects of Trump’s rule departed with him; others will need to be expunged by his successor. On the first day of his presidency, Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders, some of which directly overturned actions taken by Trump. Many Americans seemed happy with it and the American media hailed the quick moves.

Such decisive action to undo the steps taken by the previous military regime, including the Constitution it left behind, was not an option for the NLD after it won the 2015 election and formed its own government for the first time in March 2016, and everyone here in Myanmar understood that. Any attempts to do so would inevitably have provoked the military into staging an immediate comeback—a course of action not available to Trump.

Five years later, the NLD was re-elected in an even bigger landslide. But it is still not free to declare a new era.

Then US Vice President Joe Biden and Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi meet in Washington in September 2016. / State Counselor’s Office

Of course, after the NLD first took office in 2016, many Myanmar people were tempted to say, or even shout—or in the case of we journalists, write—that “The generals’ era is gone!”

The former and current generals are still powerful, both officially and unofficially. If the military is to be sent back to the barracks where it belongs, pro-democracy groups and the general public know that the 2008 Constitution, which guarantees the military a continued role in the political arena, must be amended, if not totally rewritten. Attempts by the NLD and other pro-democracy parties, including ethnic parties, to amend the charter in Parliament in 2019 and 2020 failed in the face of vehement opposition by the military-appointed lawmakers and the USDP.

Realistically, no one can predict when the Constitution will be amended and the military will leave politics, even if the NLD or other pro-democracy parties continue to win elections. It will probably take years or even decades. Nothing would please me more than if my own analysis, headlined “Civilianizing This Militarized Nation Could Take Another Three Decades,” turned out to be wrong. So far, however, I have seen no evidence or political formula that rules out such a prediction.

The mess facing Myanmar is much bigger, and has been far more deeply entrenched by five decades of misrule and its legacy, than the one in Washington. In truth, there is no comparison with the situation in the US.

I enjoyed reading many columns on the last days of the Trump years in international newspapers. Among them, I particularly liked the headline for an article written by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “President Donald J. Trump: The End”, and its accompanying subhead: “This terrible experiment is over.” That’s exactly right.

I wish I could write a similar headline and subhead here for my country: “The Generals in Politics: The End” and “The military era is over.” Alas, it’s simply not true. I can’t write it—and there’s no telling how many more years I will have to wait until I can.

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