Guest Column

The Lady’s Predicament

By Wai Yan Hpone 31 March 2015

With general elections in Burma drawing ever nearer, questions arise over the future of the key political players beyond this exciting milestone. Many are convinced that the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has very little chance of securing another victory, while the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and other big ethnic parties are in the box seat. If this turns out to be case, and we see a primarily civilian government, what will next year’s political landscape look like, and how can we expect the relationship between civilian politicians and the military to evolve?

We have seen a new institutional framework emerge from the 2008 Constitution, in which a new generation took over the reins of government from a single strongman. We also saw that the new constitutional structures and decision-making forums did not yield any intense frictions among the new elites as they assumed key positions. This is no surprise, and it is not for nothing that the post-2010 government is seen as a continuation of the military regime in a civilian disguise.

There may be optimism that a post-2015 will be more dynamic, more democratic and more legitimate. Many are excited by the prospect of a new relationship between the cabinet, the parliament and the military, with hope the latter will withdraw from politics once its leaders become convinced their interests are no longer threatened.

I do not share this optimism, and increasingly I find my doubts echoed both here and abroad. In this, I am reminded of what a member of the NLD youth wing told me a year ago. Aung San Suu Kyi, the party’s chairwoman, revealed in a meeting with party cadres that she had come to realize the United States was prioritizing stability over democratization, and she now believed the US would prefer to see the USDP remain in power until at least 2020.

If this were true, it is necessary to ponder what concerns the US would have over a likely NLD victory. With a Constitution that protects their interests and is nearly impossible to amend, the USDP and the military arguably needn’t worry about an opposition takeover. Free and fair elections and a smooth transition of power would even bolster their reputation, potentially giving the USDP the political capital to contest future election battles and reducing criticism of the military’s continued parliamentary presence.

On the other hand, such concerns are not baseless. If the NLD wins, frictions are inevitable between their cabinet and the military. Any frictions that followed an opposition victory will be genuine and intense. An NLD-installed president and NLD-dominated parliament are very likely to try to make reform more democratic which will—despite a quarter of all parliamentary seats being allocated to military appointees—inevitably impact the interests of senior military personnel, former officers and their cronies, particularly their stakes in lucrative and monopolistic business enterprises.

Wai Yan Hpone
Wai Yan Hpone.

Another important thing to recall is that any future government will be excluded from decision-making in a number of substantial portfolios. Four ministers, including the Minister for Home Affairs, will be appointed by the military commander-in-chief under the terms of the 2008 Constitution. The next president will have no control over how security forces handle protesters, but will have to wear the blame for any violent crackdowns, and should the president try to exert control over military-appointed portfolios, he or she will be at loggerheads with the commander-in-chief.

Even darker possibilities loom. The Constitution allows the military to assume control over the government, should the president choose to declare a state of emergency. With the lingering threat of communal violence, such a scenario in the future is not beyond the realm of imagination. Perhaps there will be instances of vote rigging and electoral fraud, as was reported in the 2010 election. After the total drubbing given to the USDP in the 2012 by-elections, and the party’s lackluster attempts at campaigning in recent months, perhaps the incumbents consider ballot stuffing a necessity to ensure some token level of parliamentary representation, even as they tread gingerly around the prospect of engineering a victory so out of step with public sentiment.

It may be that the senior echelons of the USDP and the military do not believe they will face any serious reproach from the United States, now that the machinery of the recent détente between the US and Burma has assumed its own momentum. The current US administration has its own reasons for wanting to portray this country’s recent history as a success story, and in the past its leaders have shown an eagerness to reach accommodations with repressive regimes, including Burma during the time of Ne Win.

Against this backdrop, what does the future of the Lady and her party hold?

An opposition leader, stubbornly confrontational for twenty years, changed her mind and decided to play the game in 2012. After meeting President Thein Sein for the first time, she told diplomats that she believed he was sincere in his desire to reform, and on the back of Western endorsements, she decided to change tactics.

She contested the by-election with a vow to amend the constitution with “one brave soldier’s” support. Initially she had good relations with Thein Sein, who indulged her without conceding anything. She later tried to side with Shwe Mann, who gave ultimately empty promises of constitutional reform before the election. She has attempted to meet with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to no avail. No genuine political dialogue has ever come to fruition.

In return she has sacrificed her credibility in the hopes of courting the military, approving the Letpadaung copper mine project, staying quiet during communal violence, and refusing to support student protesters, resulting in domestic and international criticism. She is focused on the election, and overly cautious to ensure that her party’s prospects are not hampered by those developments, which in her view are relatively trivial matters that can be addressed once she and her party are in power.

Today, Suu Kyi needs to reconsider her strategy and calculations. Among those who are now wielding power, there are figures who are ready to do anything to retain their fiefdoms. The Lady’s mistake is in its essence that she believed there were honest individuals in the government who she could work with, notwithstanding their military pedigree. Of course, there may be honest dealers, but the ultimate decisions are not theirs to make.

Suu Kyi seems to have taken a path that leads up a blind alley. There is no confirmation that she has found “one brave soldier”. Western support is not unequivocal. In the months ahead she must deliberate carefully and make considered decisions about the future of her party. If her decision to trust Thein Sein in 2012 was wrong, then the price for putting the 1990 election behind her once and for all, in the process lending international legitimacy to a regime with a long pedigree of despotism and repression, would be unimaginably expensive. At the moment, it doesn’t seem she has many cards left to play.

Wai Yan Hpone is a freelance writer and translator living in Yangon. He has worked with several local media organizations and has so far published two translated books, as well as contributing to both local and international publications. The views expressed here are the author’s own.