In Myanmar, political brands come and go, but behind the scenes the military is still pulling the strings.
Army role entrenched in Myanmar politics despite reforms
Today marks the 25th anniversary of Myanmar’s last military takeover. It was the third major military intervention in Myanmar’s political history, after previous incidents in 1958 and 1962.
The 1988 takeover marked the emergence of a new generation of leaders in Myanmar’s politics. How that transition took place is key to understanding the military’s present role in the nation’s politics.
The military first ruled the country under the Burma Socialist Program Party, then the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) with its official political party, the National Unity Party (NUP). The SLORC then transformed into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) with its political party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The SPDC was formally dissolved on March 30, 2011 with the inauguration of a new government led by President Thein Sein of the USDP.
Despite the military’s transformation, there has not been a real power shift. The present government was established in accordance with the 2008 constitution, which guarantees the military’s dominant role in politics.
Myanmar current political landscape is shaped by the outcome of the 2010 general elections and the 2012 by-elections. In 2010 elections, the USDP won 883 out of 1,154 seats in the entire national parliament and the seven state and the seven regional assemblies. In 2012, the National League for Democracy won 43 out of the 44 seats it contested.
Despite the NLD’s overwhelming electoral victory, the combined strength of all opposition groups in the parliament remains an insignificant force to challenge or threaten the USDP-led government.
All three branches of the government – executive, legislative and judicial are dominated by former military generals or the military-backed USDP members. Some of the significant privileges of the military are the reservation of 25 per cent of seats in parliament without election, the ultimate power to dismiss the government in case of national emergency and the requirement of more than 75 per cent of votes in the parliament for any constitution amendment.
Moreover, all security-related ministerial portfolios such as defence, home affairs and border affairs are held by members of the USDP. The National Defense and Security Council is the most powerful executive branch of the governments as enshrined in the 2008 constitution. Accordingly, even if the president, vice-president and speakers of both houses of parliament are elected as representatives of other political parties, the military will still have the ultimate authority.
The 2008 constitution also ensures immunity for the generals for their past actions and human rights violations. In July this year, the parliament formed a 109-member committee to review some of the major concerns about the country’s constitution in view of the upcoming general elections in 2015.
The committee includes lawmakers from the NLD and USDP, and representatives from the 25 per cent of seats allotted to the military. The committee, among others, is to address the two pressing electoral concerns – removing or modifying the clause that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the country’s president and allowing states to choose their own chief ministers.
The committee will submit a report of its findings to the union parliament before the end of the year.
Despite the recent tangible democratic reforms, it is still too early to suggest that the process is irreversible. The government has reached ceasefire agreements with most of the armed groups, but there is no guarantee of an amicable political settlement with ethnic minorities.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that the present government will amend the 2008 constitution to remove the inherent role of the military in politics. There is uncertainty about whether the 2015 elections will be free and fair. There is also no assurance that the guarantee of 25 per cent of parliament seats for the military will be amended.
Though it is still premature to predict the outcome of the constitutional review committee and how the military-backed USDP will approach the 2015 general elections, one thing is certain: that the military will continue to play a central role in politics.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia