Peaceful Transition Likely for Myanmar;
Military to Remain a Force

Jeremy Mullins, Asia Insight, November 13

The final tally in Myanmar’s landmark elections is not due for another week. Yet the opposition National League for Democracy has pulled so far ahead that the focus has already shifted to the dynamics between its leader, the hugely popular Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military, which has ruled the country either directly or indirectly for over half a century.

Early signs point to a peaceful transition. So far, both the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the military have said they would come to terms with an NLD-led government, an unthinkable scenario just five or six years ago.

Wednesday, Information Minister Ye Htut congratulated the NLD on behalf of President Thein Sein through international media and online statements. Ye Htut said the government wants a peaceful transfer and would honor the election outcome. Commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing also congratulated the NLD and said the military would cooperate.

Suu Kyi and senior officials, including President Thein Sein, have agreed to meet after the final poll results are announced.

The civility is a stark change from an earlier election in 1990 when the military annulled the results after the NLD handily won the vote even though its leader Suu Kyi was under house arrest. Many of her followers were imprisoned and Myanmar, ostracized by the global community, languished for years under the weight of international sanctions and domestic repression.

The transition began when a new crop of military leaders, apparently tired of the country’s pariah status, launched a remarkable shift toward democracy, starting with a new constitution in 2008. The military-backed USDP has been in power since an election in 2010, which the NDP boycotted.

“The former military regime has done what it can to catalyse these changes and I see little reason that even hard-line elements would want to stop the process now,” said Nicholas Farrelly, director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University.

Although it may have lost the vote, the military will continue to be a force. It will retain 25% of the seats in parliament, be able to select one of the vice presidents as well as control three important ministries – Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs.

The military is also big business. Eric Rose, lead director of Herzfeld Rubin Meyer & Rose Law Firm in Yangon, estimates the military controls 50% of the economy, with the so-called “cronies,” or tycoons heavily tied to the state, holding a further 20% to 25%.

According to the 2008 constitution, Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency due to her marriage to a deceased British citizen, and her two children, who hold British passports.

While the new government won’t be finalized until April 1, Suu Kyi has already given hints about her government. She has said she will be “above the presidency,” which is at odds with the role envisioned by the constitution, and is likely to irk the military.

Expectations are that she will install a loyalist in the position and make the important decisions herself. Tin Oo, a former defence minister turned NLD stalwart and a close confident of Suu Kyi, is an early favourite for the role.

Outside of the posts reserved for the military, Suu Kyi will be free to pick her own cabinet, though it remains unclear whether she will reach out to the ethnic parties or the moderates in the USDP in an effort to build a bigger tent and add much-needed governing experience.

Beyond the handover, Suu Kyi faces many challenges ranging from a military eager to preserve its turf to strained relations with the country’s Muslim minority and ongoing rebellion in the country’s north and east. Whether she can make the transition from democracy champion to leader of a complex government remains to be seen. 

The election itself was described as “competitive and meaningful” by the Carter Center, a U.S.-based non-profit agency. While there were some concerns over suspicious advance voting and names on voting lists, these appear to be localised problems.

Myanmar’s citizens are still rubbing their eyes, though. Some 30 million of the 51-million population were eligible to vote on November 8 and many woke up well before sunrise to queue for hours.

Said Sann Oo, a well-known local journalist, who voted for the NLD in Yangon’s Ahlone township:  “The USDP and the military have ruled for decades, but nothing good came of it for the country. So I voted NLD as I want change. Even if the NLD cannot bring good to the country, I want a say in choosing my own government.”

The NLD needs a total 329 seats between the upper and lower houses for a majority in the combined sessions of parliament to choose the president and control the legislative agenda. By Friday morning, the party was just two seats shy of that number, leaving no doubt it would reach the target.

The NLD has swept nearly all the seats in the Burmese heartland and outperformed ethnic parties in most of the ethnic areas. The USDP has won a handful of seats, largely in areas wracked by Muslim-Buddhist conflict and in some smaller and remote constituencies.  Significantly, it underperformed in rural areas in which it considered itself strong, underlining the strength of the push for change.  Ethnic parties also performed more poorly than some expected.

“I think it’s telling that in every quarter of Myanmar candidates have accepted their loss and congratulated the winners,” said Rose.

He said there are still several steps ahead in the democratic process, including establishing the new parliament.

 “We know that the people of Myanmar desperately want change,” Rose said. “What we do not know is what change will be offered them, and whether they will accept that change.”

It’s possible that Suu Kyi, or a post-election lame duck parliament, could attempt to re-write the constitution. Previous attempts to do this have failed due to the veto power held by the military in parliament, and she would again face an uphill battle.

A coup could also remain a low-level possibility for many years, according to Farrelly.

With the apparent success of the election, attention has shifted to the sanctions the U.S. maintains on some of the country’s most prominent figures. Rose said these sanctions add extra costs to international and domestic companies aiming to set up in the country and keeping foreign business away due to reputational concerns.

“Growth is around 8.5%, imagine what it could be without this chilling effect,” he said.

According to media reports, President Barack Obama called Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein on Thursday. He congratulated the former on her party's success and the latter for holding “free and fair” elections. Nevertheless, a decision to lift sanctions may be some time away.

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