In Myanmar’s first relatively free elections in 25 years, its three crores strong electorate has given a resounding mandate to Aung San Suu Kyi’s tiol League for Democracy (NLD). The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), created by the military junta and led by retired soldiers, has already conceded defeat. The NLD is on the verge of winning majority in both houses of parliament, as well as most regiol assemblies. But the military will retain significant, if not game-changing powers under the constitution it wrote for itself. This sets the stage for protracted bargaining between the NLD and the military in the coming days, with the new parliament expected to meet early next year and select a new president in March. Suu Kyi has already called for a dialogue with the three ruling figures — President U Thein Sein, Parliament Speaker U Shwe Mann and Army Chief General Min Aung Hlaing — on the basis of ‘tiol reconciliation, and calmly and peacefully satisfying the desire of the people’. President Sein has responded by saying that the government will respect the choice and decision of the people and will carry out ‘transfer of power calmly and peacefully’. So both sides are making reassuring noises, but all eyes will be on the military’s role if Suu Kyi is to fulfil her destiny of reshaping Myanmar’s political landscape from dictatorship to democracy. Under its present complicated polity, voters get to choose three-fourth of the representatives to the two houses of parliament, while the remaining one-fourth will be appointed by the armed forces. So the generals retain veto powers if Suu Kyi is entertaining any ideas of amending the constitution to strip the military of its political powers.
The military also chooses one of the three nominees for president, with both the houses of parliament choosing a nominee each. The runners-up serve as vice presidents. Suu Kyi is not eligible to be president, with the constitution barring anyone married to a foreign citizen or whose children are foreigners from holding the top post. It is strongly likely that Myanmar’s generals inserted this clause in the constitution to specifically keep out Suu Kyi, widow of a British tiol with both her sons holding British citizenship. On the campaign trail, Suu Kyi ruffled feathers among the USDP rulers for commenting that if her party forms the next government, she would ‘uphold the parts of the Constitution that are good’. She then rubbed it in by saying that she will become the country’s de facto leader, acting ‘above the president who will have no authority’. The NLD leader may have been indulging in electoral rhetoric, but political observers do not believe she will dare to rock the boat now. The memories of 1990 would still be fresh for the NLD leadership, when the generals denied it power despite a landslide win and cracked down with two decades of harsh military rule. It was only in 2011 that the military transferred power to a quasi-civilian government, but not before constitutiolly positioning itself as the ultimate power broker in the country. The army chief has the power to nomite the interior, defence and border security ministers, as well as the constitutiol right to take over the government under special circumstances. Despite the Suu Kyi-led democracy movement’s triumph, the military will retain its direct control over police forces and large parts of the bureaucracy.
As if that is not enough, the military is also a corporate-industrial sector in itself, generating billions of dollars annually through its trading companies. Insurgency also keeps the pot boiling for the military, with only eight of the 15 rebel militias agreeing to sign a ceasefire pact with ypyidaw last month. The refusal of seven rebel groups to come to the negotiating table, particularly those controlling large swaths of territory near the border with Chi and Thailand, means peace will remain elusive for Myanmar. This will be a major headache for the new government, with India also having a vested interest, as groups like the NSCN(K) and Kachin Independence Army are keeping out of the peace process. The NLD government will also inherit problems like sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingiyas, rampant corruption and army cronyism in jade, timber and opium trade, as well as poor infrastructure and weak fincial institutions. After the military junta opened up four years ago, funds from abroad flowed into Myanmar which is a member of the ASEAN bloc. Foreign direct investment last year stood at a record 8 billion dollars, which is likely to increase still further if the NLD government keeps up the good work. For that to happen, Suu Kyi will have to adroitly manoeuvre in sharing powers with the army generals.