External Affairs

A Great Opportunity For Reconciliation And Change in Myanmar

Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc, Wikipedia Commons.)

Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc, Wikipedia Commons.)

With all the results declared for contested seats in the general elections in Myanmar held earlier this month, the National League for Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi has won 255 out of 323 seats in the Lower House and 135 out of 168 seats in the Upper House. This gives it an almost 80 per cent win even as it translates into only 60 per cent majority in the national Parliament where the military has a quarter of seats reserved for them.

The military backed incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP),which had hoped to win at least 25 per cent of the seats, that would have kept it in contention to form the government in support with the military, could only bag around ten per cent.

In the elections for the legislative assemblies, the NLD has taken similar majority in all the seven Bamar majority regions and in five of the seven ethnic majority states. In the Shan State the USDP could score more wins than the NLD and, along with the military, it got a 51 per cent majority. In the Rakhine state, the ethnic Arakan National Party has secured 49 per cent of seats while NLD could manage only 9 out of 47.

Two aspects stand out on the electoral front. One is the peaceful manner in which the elections were held, that have been deemed as being most free and transparent even if some have withheld from terming it as also fair. Myanmar, it can still be said, is definitely on the road to democratic transition even as there is still a long way to go in terms of the constitutional framework.

The second noteworthy point is the comprehensive win scored by Suu Kyi and her NLD. Many observers had earlier doubted if she would be able to repeat the scale of her 1990 win or how her party took most of the seats on offer in the 2012 by-elections. She was seen to have compromised on some of the issues or as having remained silent on a few others. A section of the monks was also openly campaigning against NLD since the party had not supported the initiative to get four controversial faith and religion related bills passed in the Parliament earlier this year. The incumbent USDP government led by Thein Sein had also not done badly, introduced a whole range of reforms, brought Myanmar out of its isolation and had also something to show on the ethnic peace process front.

Stunning win

Her stunning win demonstrated that the people of Myanmar yearned for more change and also that their faith in ‘Mother Suu‘ was unshaken; that they wanted to reward her for all the suffering she had gone through in her life. Even the Muslims, some among whom have been disenfranchised and who have also received no supportive word internally from any quarter, probably thought that among the various candidates in the fray they could only bet on her and NLD to help their cause.

The scale of the victory was also due to smart electoral strategy. Firstly, she herself campaigned hard, going all round the country while USDP leaders confined themselves largely to their constituencies safely assuming that the changes they had ushered in, in the last five years, would bring them votes. Secondly, people appear to have given credence to her simple advice that they should vote for the party and not so much the candidate. That her relatively less known local candidates could trounce USDP leaders like the current Speaker Thura Shwe Mann and the USDP Acting chairman Htay Oo in their respective home constituencies made this evident. Thirdly, rather than aligning with some regional parties as in 1990, the NLD went alone this time calculating that lack of unity between ethnic parties themselves in most ethnic majority states, except Arakan state, would divide some of the ethnic votes. This appears to have happened and but for Arakan state, and to some extent in Shan state, NLD’s own ethnic nominees could ensure wins. Finally she took a calculated risk to assure people that even if she was not able to become the President, it is she, as the leader of NLD, who would run the show. All this apparently worked in her favour and gave NLD a comfortable majority on its own rather than having to negotiate with some of the ethnic parties for support after the election.

Once the scale of the victory was certain she wrote letters to the President, the Speaker Shwe Mann and the Armed Forces Chief Min Aung Hlaing requesting for a meeting to discuss both reconciliation and tranquility during the transition period which is almost five months since the new government is expected to assume office only on 31 March 2016. It will be recalled that she has been seeking a meeting with the four leaders for over a year now and she may have felt that after a resounding win such a meeting was more likely to happen now. She probably also wanted to find out if a constitutional change that would allow her to become the President was still possible. While Shwe Mann, with whom she has established a rapport, responded and they have already met a few times, the other two have given no definitive response. The President let it be known through his information Minister that such a meeting could take place after all the election formalities are over. Min Aung Hlaing has also mentioned in a recent Washington Post interview that he could be open to meet her in December.

However, indications are that no immediate constitutional change can be expected. On questions like reduction in military’s presence in governance or in lessening the requirement of 3/4th majority for constitutional changes, Min Aung Hlaing replied to the Washington Post correspondent that the country needed a mature and stable political situation for these changes and the country was not ready at this moment. Also from the manner the government is continuing with its day to day business or by the way the Parliament is going ahead with its last session where there are several important bills including an interim budget that are being considered, it does not appear there will be any ‘lame duck‘ approach during the transition. The government seems more keen on finishing many tasks including starting the political dialogue under the ethnic peace process that also charts a definite way ahead.

Not likely to be Speaker

If Suu Kyi cannot be the President it seems unlikely that she will opt to take the post of Speaker of the Lower House. Even as it is an important position, it could confine her to running the house and its affairs rather than keeping an eye on overall governance and be available to the President or other functionaries to take her advice and directions. As per Myanmar’s constitution, there is a strict separation between the Legislature and the Executive, with the President and all the ministers having to resign from Parliament if they are members. Rather than falling into those strait jackets, one option would be that she will remain the party head and lead certain key initiatives such as the ethnic peace process. This would accord her flexibility and yet provide sufficient scope for direct leadership.

In some ways it is good that she has got a lengthy transition period during which she can meet all her party men and take a decision on who will take what posts in the Union Government, in the Union Parliament and in the various states and regions. This is not going to be an easy task. While her recent announcement that the cabinet will also include members of other parties including the ethnic parties will be welcomed by the latter, she will also need to ensure that the chosen ones will work together with a President from NLD, who take some time to get to grips with all the responsibilities.

Suu Kyi will also have to turn her attention to the challenges of governance and how her party will bring about changes that she promised. Some of the issues such as bringing about rule of law that will require reform of the judicial system or police could bring the new government in direct confrontation with the military which will hold the three important ministerial positions– Interior, Defense and Border Affairs. Avoiding such stand offs will require building a harmonious relationship with the military and persuading them on what is in the best long term interests of the country. This is again an area in which it is she who may have to work out a modus vivendi to be in continuous dialogue with them than relying on constitutional structures.

Focusing on the ethnic peace process and bringing it to fruition will remove one reason cited by the armed forces for a continuing role in governance for itself. Here too she will have a lot of persuading to do both with the military and with those ethnic groups who have stayed out of signing the National Ceasefire agreement to make it an inclusive process. Even as it may be a very challenging task it is perhaps she more than anyone else in the country who can build that kind of trust that has been the biggest missing element so far in the exploration of a unique federal union that they can all feel comfortable with.

Economic policy is another area where local businesses and prospective foreign investors will be keen to understand the new government’s priorities on which there has not been much indication of what is in store. She will no doubt need to bring in elements of transparency, fair bidding and due process, that will mean a change in the way contracts will be won. But if these can all be engineered fairly and transparently there will be no dearth of foreign investors who will be seeking to trade with and invest in resource rich Myanmar.

India-Myanmar relations

How will an NLD government affect India-Myanmar relations? How should India be responding to the changes? Myanmar is a very important neighbour for India and it is good that India has maintained a line of communication open with Aung San Suu Kyi and Indian leaders have met her whenever they visited Myanmar in recent years. She was also received with due courtesies at the highest level when she visited India three years ago. While Prime Minister Modi has already congratulated Suu Kyi it will be important to suitably convey India’s keen interest to further strengthen relations with the new government. Early exchanges of visits at the level of Minister for External Affairs and other ministers like the Commerce Minister could prepare the ground for a suitable high level visit at an appropriate time. The new government will be faced with a lot of capacity building and training needs — including for the many new Parliamentarians many of whom will be first time MPs, for civil servants and for judicial officers — and India could extend assistance and perhaps devise some tailor made programmes if the new Myanmar government or Parliament shows interest.

Myanmar is on the threshold of a new era whose contours are still uncertain. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi however is a more experienced politician today than she was even four years ago. She has a greater chance of succeeding than at any time earlier with also a massive mandate from her people this time. Her party will also be trying to form a government with reconciliation and change as key drivers. The expectations from the people will be high despite the various limitations. At this juncture it will be very important for India to extend full support for the new government and strengthen the bonds between the two countries even further.

V. S. Seshadri was India’s ambassador to Myanmar, 2010-2013