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BY HUNTER MARSTON AND ABIGAIL CHEN
This week marks the anniversary of the founding of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the ruling party of the country’s de facto head of government, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
When Suu Kyi and a small cluster of democracy activists established the NLD in 1988, her fame as the daughter of revered general Aung San was just a fraction of what it would one day become, having just returned to the nation then known as Burma to help her ailing mother. Three years later she was Nobel Peace Laureate for her defiance of the ruling military. Now, three decades on, she remains overwhelmingly popular among Myanmar’s people. But the international community that once embraced her courage in standing up to the former military junta is now shunning her – and the NLD more widely – for a failure to do more to prevent the genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
While the United States and European Union have levied sanctions and trade embargoes against targeted military personnel linked to the human rights violations, international analysts have also been critical of Suu Kyi’s autocratic leadership style, refusal to decentralise power, and reticence to groom a new generation of political talent. Civil society groups have pointed to the alarming spike in defamation cases brought against journalists and activists under the NLD, which has used the 2013 Telecommunications Law to silence and intimidate critics.
Nevertheless, with elections due in just over a year, the NLD and Suu Kyi can hope to tap a deep well of popular support across the country, particularly among the Burman majority in urban centres such as Yangon and Mandalay. It is all but certain the NLD will top the poll, despite a lack of progress in achieving 2015 campaign pledges such as bringing about a federal union, reconciling with ethnic armed groups and reforming the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. The lack of credible alternatives means that a viable challenger is unlikely to emerge over the coming year.
That is not to say that the NLD hasn’t been attempting to achieve some of its 2015 pledges. However, its top-down approach has often been counterproductive. For instance, the NLD alienated ethnic minority groups by appointing chief ministers from its party in each state, even where it didn’t win a majority. It has stirred up further ill-will by erecting controversial statues to Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, a Burman general whom minorities see as a figure of Burmese domination.
The peace process has seen no notable breakthroughs under NLD rule, and in fact further conflict has broken out in Shan and Rakhine States in the past two years. Part of the blame rests squarely on the NLD’s decision to dissolve the Myanmar Peace Centre, the brainchild of reformist ministers in the previous administration of President Thein Sein. Aung San Suu Kyi’s call to replace Thein Sein’s negotiating team, led by former Minister Aung Min, with its own marked a significant setback to the level of trust it had built with many recalcitrant armed groups.
Yet it is also true that Suu Kyi has almost no leverage over the military, also known as the Tatmadawin Burmese. The Tatmadaw has violated ceasefires and squandered goodwill built up in the Thein Sein years, undermining the NLD government’s negotiating position. Importantly, the current constitution entrenches the military’s political role by granting it autonomy over its budget and control of several powerful ministries.
In January – three years into the NLD’s term of office – the NLD surprised parliamentary observers by proposing an emergency resolution for the creation of a committee for constitutional reform, which the parliament approved. In July, the committee recommended nearly 4,000 changes to the Constitution. The NLD proposals include section 436(a) to require only two-thirds of elected lawmakers’ support to approve constitutional change instead of the current seventy-five percent, a provision which grants veto power to the Tatmadaw as soldiers are allocated a quarter of parliamentary seats.
Given the impasse in Myanmar’s fractured peace process, the timing of and the political context surrounding the push for constitutional amendment is inherently strategic, designed to boost voter support for the NLD’s platform of constitutional change. Performing a clever political manoeuvre, however, the NLD must be cautious of the need to defuse tensions with the military and temper expectations of rapid demilitarisation from non-Burman parties.
Unsurprisingly, military parliamentarians and the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmakers have objected to the constitutionality of the committee. The parliament’s joint bill committee’s suggestion that several military-proposed amendments be reviewed by the 45-member, NLD-led panel rather than the full parliament further raised tensions. These amendments seek to limit the president’s executive power at the state and local level.
Meanwhile, smaller parties sense exclusion from the bill-drafting process. Earlier this month, Chairman Sein Win of National United Democratic Party (a former NLD member himself) quit the committee, accusing the NLD of “bullying”. In fact, the NLD and ethnic parties have long been at odds over the pace of demilitarisation – the latter demand a rapid military exit from politics.
Prior to the ongoing push for constitutional change, the General Administration Department reform last December was significant. It transferred Myanmar’s paramount public administration agent from the military-led Ministry of Home Affairs to civilian control. So far, the NLD’s 2020 campaign appears to coalesce around a renewed commitment to gradual de-militarisation and decentralisation.
However, there are wildcards that could undermine acceptance of these NLD messages. Opponents may seek to cast doubt on the transparency of elections and the credibility of results. For instance, the USDP has called into question the credibility of the Union Electoral Commission and could push the issue in an attempt to delegitimise an NLD victory. Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung, one of the founders of Yangon-based social media organisation Athan, has told us that character assassination via fake news will be prevalent in the run-up to the 2020 election. “Deep fakes”, or videos doctored to present real people doing unreal things, could also emerge.
In the months leading up to the 2020 elections, the electoral calculus may be overwhelming for Suu Kyi. To maintain its voter base, the NLD will likely prioritise rhetorical appeal of its campaign platforms over practical implementation. One worthwhile question to consider is: with the anticipated election mandate, will the NLD be more likely to act on the unfulfilled promises made in 2015?
One can imagine several ways that an NLD 2.0 could unfold. With a good polling performance, the NLD may find itself empowered to build on its reformist credentials. A weak showing in polling, particularly in ethnic minority areas, may also compel the NLD to swifter actions.
Second, the first full tenure of the NLD will have illustrated the scale of problems that the party needs to address. For instance, the NLD’s approach to the peace process needs to be less elitist, Burman dominated, and top-down. Better-structured dialogues are key to providing the much-needed momentum to reaching national ceasefire, given the extremely fragmented political interests among the ethnic groups. The NLD should reflect on the success of former Minister Aung Min, who led the Thein Sein government’s negotiations building up to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight ethnic armed organisations in 2015, and the now defunct Myanmar Peace Centre.
Furthermore, recruiting younger members may infuse the NLD with fresh ideas and has the potential to broaden support for NLD reforms among the young generation, just at a time when the party seriously needs it.
The trickiest aspect is whether the military generals will be ready to relinquish power. The most optimistic scenario is that the Tatmadaw will recognise it shares incentives with the NLD to push for a genuine federal union, such as repairing its international image and finally putting an end to seven decades of conflict. The military’s recent visits to non-Buddhist sites could suggest a change of mindset. Yet it seems plausible that they are nothing more than tactical public relations campaigns.
More pessimistically, the Tatmadaw, which sees NLD plans for constitutional change as confrontational, could dig in, potentially even intervening with a military coup. Seen in this light, rising antagonism between Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi may be counterproductive for meaningful dialogue and democratic consolidation.
Finally, and hypothetically, new parties running in the 2020 elections may fuel anticipation of progress on a national unity government, pressuring the military to negotiate with the NLD government on pragmatic steps sustaining broader democratic reform. To successfully restore faith in the very root of the NLD’s appeal – building a government of national unity – requires a delicate balancing act by Suu Kyi and her party. Reforms must proceed in a way that is sensitive to power and ethnic relations, while investment in capacity building within the NLD will help sustain broader democratic reform.
Another election win next year may grant the NLD five more years in power, but ultimately Myanmar’s myriad disputes may endure long after Aung San Suu Kyi’s time is up.
Hunter Marston is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, the Australian National University, and an independent consultant who writes on Southeast Asia.
Abigail Chen is a Cornell University graduate and writes on Southeast Asia. She is based in London.
This piece originally appeared on SoutheastAsiaGlobe, 26 September 2019.