[dropcap font=”0″]I[/dropcap]n most liberal democracies political institutions and traditions have taken decades, even centuries to develop and have achieved high levels of legitimacy and public acceptance. By contrast, a country like Myanmar is still in a fragile state searching for political form and institutions favouring democratization. In the aforesaid background, this article reviews crucial developments of the year 2014. However, the list of events is not exhaustive. An attempt is made to focus only on the significant happenings. It further looks at the prospects and critical variables of change and policy options for the current year 2015.
2014 in Retrospect
The 2014 has been an exciting and extremely important year for Myanmar as it took the rotating Chairmanship of ASEAN for the first time after joining it in last seventeen years since 1997. Credit goes to Myanmar for successfully carrying out its role as Chair of ASEAN despite its internal strife and volatility. It ended with the mega event of the Annual ASEAN summit and East Asia summit held in November at the capital city Nay Pyi Taw and handing over of the baton of Chairmanship to Malaysia for 2015. It was a rendezvous witnessing major world leaders visiting the country and making it the focus of international media.
The year also witnessed country’s first Census held after a gap of three decades since the last one held in 1983. In spite of the logistics and security challenges, it was successful enough in conducting this headcount. Notwithstanding the criticisms of its inclusiveness, it is going to effect the internal dynamics and policy prescriptions for economic growth in the country. The Census data will allow the government to accurately estimate key economic indicators and other socio-economic data for sustainable development and economic planning. Though, the preliminary results were declared on 30th August 2014, the detailed economic indicators and data on ethnic composition would be released by May 2015.
Internally, nevertheless, sectarian violence dominated the domestic politics in Myanmar in 2014. This was visible in the outbreak of riots in July in the heart and the second largest city of Myanmar—Mandalay. The ongoing sectarian violence, which has been flaring now since almost two years, is no longer an internal affair of Myanmar alone. The outburst of Buddhist nationalism in recent times may have a long term implications and its impact is going to be widespread influencing the security in the entire region of Indo-Pacific.
In spite of continuous effort in the direction of ceasefires and peace dialogues, infighting and skirmishes have continued in the Kachin state and northern areas of Shan state. Continued clashes between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and armed forces in Myanmar has displaced a large section of ethnic nationalities who have been demanding greater autonomy bringing forth the issue of humanitarian assistance and human rights abuse. Fresh violence at Laiza in November 2014 is a witness to the fact that peace process has a long road ahead and miles to go before it achieves substantial results.
The issue of Constitutional reform was also high on the agenda in 2014 with the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi carrying out signature campaign throughout the country in support of the Constitutional review process and amending Section 436 of the 2008 Constitution. This section deals with the constitutional amendment requiring the approval of over 75 per cent of parliamentary members. The petition by July 2014 was signed by around 5 million people and hailed as a breakthrough for democracy in Myanmar. Meanwhile, the Government had set up Constitutional Review Joint Committee to propose draft amendments to the 2008 Constitution, which has recommended changes to allow greater power sharing between the government and ethnic groups but largely remains silent on Section 436.
The issue of Proportional Representation (PR) also flashed up in 2014 as a part of electoral reforms in Myanmar. The proposal seeks to reform the electoral system from a first-past-the-post system to a proportional system before general elections scheduled for 2015. Proponents of a PR system argue that it would foster diversity in Myanmar’s nascent multi-party democracy and ensure that no votes would be wasted. Though, NLD and ethnic parties were firmly against such a proposal, it was strongly supported by the members of USDP. However, in a strange way in November 2014, Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann, announced that efforts to introduce proportional representation before the next general election were being quietly dropped. This was based on the advice of the Myanmar’s Constitutional Tribunal which suggested that the new electoral system would be unconstitutional.
Protest and contestations against the National Education Law in 2014 had been widespread on grounds of lack of autonomy for higher educational institutions and complete disregard for inclusive consultations. The provisions of the law have angered students and faculty who have held demonstrations in several cities around Myanmar. The law seeks formation of a National Education Commission, which is feared to grant the government too much control over the educational institutions in the country thereby eroding their independence and autonomy in the longer run. Last week also witnessed protest march in Mandalay, against the controversial law which is supposed to curb academic freedom and it is expected that rallies would continue in Yangon and other educational centres throughout the country.
Prospects for 2015
Although, the country is witnessing rapid transformation and reforms, but still, it has a long way to go. With the elections due in the last quarter of 2015, there is a ray of hope for establishment of durable democratic order in Myanmar. But the process is not free from challenges.
The reform process, however, in Myanmar is scared by the reformists and hardliners in the army. The hardliners have become more concerned after the last by-elections when military backed USDP could just get one out of the 45 seats. This outcome has caused alarm within the ranks of the military and raising speculation about a backlash by hardliners. The reformist-minded President U Thein Sein has given a signal by saying that “conservatives who do not have a reformist mindset will be left behind, while the country is on its path to change”. Even the Vice President Dr Sai Mauk Kham has also emphasized that “not only political, economic, administrative and social reforms are needed but there also needs to be a change to our mindset”.
The changing political dynamics with the entry of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in the Parliament is going to shape the future of political transformation in Myanmar. Her entry in the Parliament has been a means of legitimizing regime’s mandate to govern and enhance its own reform credentials. The regime needs her in the Parliament to bolster the authority of its own political system. However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi needs the military perhaps more than anyone else if she is to advance politically and amend the Constitution, given a quarter of seats are reserved for the military.
Furthermore, being the leader of the largest opposition party, the dynamics which she shares with other opposition party is going to be a significant factor so far as the results of 2015 elections are concerned. So far, several ethnic based and minority parties have embraced NLD in the legislature as its presence boosts overall confidence and their strength in the opposition. Together, they have taken up subjects such as health, education, social security and environmental issues in the Parliament along with national reconciliation including ethnic peace deals, rule of law, political and constitutional reform.
However, given the ongoing tussle emerging within the NLD, the political scenario at present seems to be in a pandemonium. The NLD party suffers from lack of professionalism, centralized structure and leadership vacuum. One of the most challenging exercises at this point of time is to revitalize the party and introduce inner-party democracy which has so long been dominated by the 88 generation and aging political leaders. As the leader of the party, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has to reinvigorate faith in the party which suffers from internal splits and schisms due to the ongoing cleavage between the radical and the reformist forces within the NLD.
Consolidating her position amidst the waves of sectarian violence and widening rift between Buddhist majority and Muslim minority is another formidable challenge faced by her and NLD before 2015 election. Given the rising expectations of the people of Myanmar, she has to keep up to all the potential challenges.
Nevertheless, resolving the ethnic issue will be Myanmar’s biggest challenge now. Overcoming of sixty years old ethnic conflict will not be easy and the government will have to do a great deal to build the trust necessary to move beyond temporary ceasefires to resolve the underlying political issues. These developments, therefore, have a significant implication for the dynamics of power struggle and future road map to the Presidency in Myanmar in the 2015 elections.
As for the possible leaders to appear in 2015, three are prominent: the reformist U Thein Sein, determined Thura U Shwe Mann and the charismatic Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Who heads the executive and who controls the legislature is an important issue vis-à-vis the current political landscape and the cleavages that exist between the reformists and hard-liners. The scenario, however, is complex.
The incumbent President U Thein Sein wants to remain clean and, therefore, there is a possibility that he would choose to step down. Health conditions have also been cited by some political analysts as a possible reason. Meanwhile, Speaker of the lower house Thura U Shwe Mann has been projected as a strong contender for the Presidency. Given the determination and strong conviction of Thura U Shwe Mann, if he takes up the Presidency, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will have no option but to remain contended with the post of the leader of the House herself. But given the possibility of a fractured mandate in 2015, she will have a tough time managing the house. There are concerns that the demand for federal and ethnic reconciliation will be stronger by 2015.
One of obstacles Daw Aung San Suu Kyi faces now is the absence of able administrators and team members in the leadership of the NLD, which at present is facing a generational crisis. It would be difficult for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to run the cabinet with inept colleagues in the already degenerating party. There are fears that she will be able to manage the executive and pacify the hard-liners in the military.
Another possible scenario is heading towards a coalition government with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi being the nominal leader and the face of Myanmar for the world. The cabinet, on the other hand, would remain dominated by the current ruling party USDP, while Thura U Shwe Mann would extend his control and consolidate his position in the lower house. This seems to be the most viable option which would help the country earn foreign investment and at the same time allow a focus on the internal reforms and transformation in Myanmar. But this could become a reality only through the constitutional reform process. Changing the current constitutional provision which bars her from contesting the Presidency and other stringent rules demands immediate deliberation and amendment.
This complex scenario of political change in Myanmar will be vital to the regional dynamics of Indo-pacific in the future.
(Sonu Trivedi teaches Political Science at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi)