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Myanmar’s political landscape getting messy

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In Brief

For the past year constitutional reform has been a major political issue in Myanmar. Reform encapsulates far more than just getting those in uniform out of politics.

A parliamentary committee formally investigated possible amendments and submitted its findings on 31 January 2014. But the committee recommended keeping the main points of the current constitution — particularly the entrenched powers of the military and the amending formula.


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Still, this was to be expected as military members and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) dominated the multi-party committee.

But it was surprising that the committee cautioned against amending section 59F, which bars candidates from the presidency if they have a spouse or child who holds another citizenship. There were indications this was one area the government was considering amending as the section is seen as specifically targeting National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the new parliamentary Committee for Implementation is also weighted in favour of the USDP and military (holding 18 of the 31 seats) — making it unlikely they will deviate from the first committee’s recommendations. Although Lower House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann’s advocacy to review the amending formula, the military’s political involvement, and section 59F is a positive sign, the sincerity of his words and whether the USDP and the military will support these matters is uncertain.

Since 2011, the reform agenda of President Thein Sein’s government has largely sidelined skepticism that the government is simply a military proxy. It has enacted major political, social, cultural and economic changes. But as the 2015 election approaches the USDP may be less inclined to continue political reforms that may lead to its eventual demise. Though still aligned with the military, the USDP has established a separate institutional identity and is concerned about its survival, presenting a choice to its senior leadership: continue reforms and risk the real possibility of electoral defeat or begin to undermine their democratic substance so as to maintain power.

On the other hand, the military appears content to stay on the sidelines so long as it remains an insulated and powerful entity in the political architecture. It is hard at this point to envision the USDP and military, the two strongest and inter-linked power holders in the state, coming into open dispute over the future of reforms. But as the political landscape diversifies and the two entities focus on different power bases — the USDP on electoral success, and the military on the narrative of national security — these common interests may begin to unwind.

For the opposition, a number of things must be kept in mind.

First, it is unlikely that any constitutional recommendations will proceed to a referendum before the election. Second, while the NLD should continue to promote the ability of Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president, the reform process is larger than one person — even a democracy icon and Nobel laureate. Reformers need to continue to work within the system — despite its flaws and bias towards those in power — to entrench strong rules, institutions and norms which outlive powerful individuals (military and civilian).

So alongside constitutional reform the focus should be on ensuring a free and fair electoral process with an impartial monitoring component and international observers. This is possible even if there is no constitutional change before the election.

The one substantial constitutional amendment proposed by the parliamentary committee was to investigate greater power sharing between central authorities and their ethnic counterparts.

All too often, the litmus test of successful reform and democratic transition judges Myanmar on the removal of the military from the political apparatus. While this is an important condition, ethnic matters (which include military elements such as cease fires, human rights abuses and land seizures) are as great a challenge for Myanmar. The undertaking of a national census (the first since 1983) will not only be indicative of the government’s ability to conduct such a project but will illuminate ethnic representation in the country. Furthermore, Naypyidaw’s recent decision to temporarily halt all of Medecins Sans Frontieres’ work in the country, for alleged bias towards Rohingya Muslims over Burmans in Rakhine state, shows the ugly realities of ethnic politics. Discrimination and appeasing the ethnic Burman base outweighs working with aid agencies to improve basic health conditions in the most desperate parts of the country.

It is unclear whether any of the Burman dominated political players — the USDP, NLD and the military— are serious and capable of moving beyond the cessation of conflict towards real national reconciliation. In this respect Aung San Suu Kyi has reached out to some ethnic parties to find common political ground, including perhaps a future federated state structure. Still, such moves have caused a backlash not just from the military (which is weary of the idea of ethnic groups maintaining their arms in a ‘federated’ military) but as well from certain portions of the Burman population. A number of Buddhist (and highly nationalistic) monks have questioned Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability and willingness to protect the Burman majority if ethnic minorities are further included in the polity. The military may also use ethnic conflict as a justification for their continued political involvement — stability and national integrity outweighing democratic reform and ethnic rights.

As Myanmar continues its democratic project, the political sphere is becoming populated by diverse entities with newly emerging and conflicting interests. Binary characterisations of reformers versus authoritarians are being discarded — and this process shines light on the complexity inherit in the country’s transition.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada.

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