Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:
Over the past several months, Myanmar has watched its political system enter uncharted territory. After over half a century of military authoritarianism, Myanmar’s citizens saw a democratic political party, the National League of Democracy, win a majority of seats in the national legislature last November . On Monday, Feb. 2, the new Parliament convened for the first time, fueling optimism for a new democratic direction for the country’s politics . Yet for the NLD and its iconic figurehead, Aung Suu Kyi, true democratization remains easier said than done. An array of challenges stemming from the country’s ongoing past have the potential to derail the democratic transition before it truly begins. How Suu Kyi and the new democratic government address these problems could make the difference between substantial reform and a cosmetic image-change.
The most immediate issue for the NLD government is who will serve as Myanmar’s next president. With their landslide victory in Parliament last November and their newfound control over the presidential nomination process, the NLD will have to decide who will serve as the executive counterpart to the country’s first democratically elected government in over 50 years. The next task of the newly convened Parliament will be to organize a series of meetings during which they will presumably select three presidential nominees by vote. Yet to complicate matters, the possibility remains that Suu Kyi herself will be able to run for the presidency despite a constitutional ban on any citizen with foreign national family members from holding executive office (Suu Kyi’s late husband and two sons are all British citizens). Suu Kyi is currently engaged in negotiations with Myanmar’s military chief over the prospect of repealing the constitutional clause in question, and early prospects of Suu Kyi succeeding are positive .
Yet without proper caution, Suu Kyi’s ongoing influence over the NLD may ultimately undermine the very democratic norms that her party and her country’s new government are trying to implement. Even if Suu Kyi remains barred from presidential candidacy, she will continue to cast a long and active shadow over the NLD-led government and the party itself. She has already vowed that regardless of whether or not she is granted presidential candidacy, she will not only be directly involved in the new government, but appropriate a definitive leadership role therein . Yet if Suu Kyi makes good on her promise, she may have to do so by undermining the vested authority of whoever actually becomes Myanmar’s next president. Regardless of how crucial Suu Kyi’s leadership and presence may be to the new government’s success, any efforts on her part to assume such leadership and presence by circumventing institutional norms may prove detrimental to the legitimacy of both Myanmar’s new leadership and the democratic culture that she and her supporters seek to foster within their country’s changing political and civil society.
Questions of leadership and legitimacy will not be the only major obstacle to a successful transition facing the NLD-led government, however. The military will remain a significant and concerning player in Myanmar’s politics in spite of its loss of power. This is most evident in its continuing control over the nation’s police and internal security forces. The military also retains influence over the national civil service. Yet the military’s most critical source of power as a player in Myanmar’s politics may be its remaining representation in the national legislature. The military still possesses 25 percent of the total seats in the parliament–an even more important tool given that a super-majority of over 75 percent is needed for constitutional amendments of any sort . All of this lends the military an array of means by which it can potentially make democratic reform an uphill slope for the NLD government. Any efforts to liberalize the country’s politics, implement democratic reforms, and address past abuses of power will likely require some sort of compromise with military leaders. To what extent the new government can or is willing to negotiate with the military on these issues will be a decisive factor in the prospects for success of democracy in Myanmar.
An even greater crisis of legitimacy for Suu Kyi and the new government relates back to the country’s most visible narrative of repression and neglect. The Rohingya, Myanmar’s largely Muslim ethnic minority, remain burdened by decades of targeted persecution and civil neglect. Since the 1960s, the Rohingya have suffered indiscriminately brutal treatment from militant Buddhists and government officials alike. International leaders and public figures including British Foreign Secretary William Hague and the Dalai Lama have urged Suu Kyi to champion the Rohingyas’ cause .
Yet, Suu Kyi has remained largely silent and noncommittal to supporting the Rohingya, limiting her responses to expressing regret over the situation and urging for “reconciliation between the Buddhist and Muslim communities” . By doing more, Suu Kyi would risk alienating powerful Buddhist nationalist groups upon whose support she and the NLD have depended . If this inaction is truly the result of cold, calculative reasoning on Suu Kyi’s part, it is all the more disconcerting given her stature as a global icon for human rights and freedom.
As troublesome as Suu Kyi’s passivity has been in its own right, it has arguably worsened open persecution against the Rohingya from some of her own supporters as well. Last summer, members of the so-called “Saffron Revolution,” the popular movement that included NLD supporters, took to the streets to openly protest the government’s decision to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, who in the eyes of the government are considered outside state recognition and protection . Prominent Buddhist monks within the country have also spoken against efforts to improve the rights of non-Buddhist minorities. This echoes instances of popular hostility against Rohingya before the rise of the new democratic government: in 2012, Buddhists monks organized marches across the country to support Rohingya deportations by the then-military government . In contrast to the egalitarian and just image that Suu Kyi’s supporters have created for themselves to the outside world, their continued persecution of the Rohingya belies the very principles they claim to uphold.
Democratic transition in Myanmar relies upon more than free elections and superficially popular rule. An intricate system of norms—respect for the law, protected individual rights, a spirit of pluralism, and checks and balances between critical power-holders—is vital for a fledgling democracy to survive the inevitable early obstacles and build momentum towards a stable future. While the rise to popular rule by the democratic NLD is a significant step for Myanmar, it merely represents the first of several institutional challenges that the party and its leaders must address moving forward. Questions of legitimatizing leadership, the relationship with a military that has historically embedded itself in politics, and ongoing human rights abuses are already confronting the new government and casting doubt upon its long-term prospects of reform. How the NLD and other pro-democracy public figures come to terms with these pressing and fundamental concerns will determine the viability of Myanmar’s political transition.