Victory and Governance: The Challenges of Leadership in the New Myanmar

After winning Myanmar’s general election in November 2015 the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, will take power this year. Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann announced the transition will take place earlier than expected, and the nation’s newly-elected parliament convened its first session on February 1, while President U Thein Sein will remain in that position until March 30. Having won a mandate from the voters, the inexperienced group of NLD legislators must now turn to the task of actual governance. This leads to two questions – namely, who will emerge as the real leader of parliament, and how will he or she engage with the military to produce meaningful constitutional reform in the country?

Who Will Lead?

As the new government gets down to business, it, will need to make decisions on both ministerial appointments and the president. Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken about forming a government of “national reconciliation,” remarks widely interpreted to mean inclusion of members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in ministerial posts, as well as members of ethnic parties. The government has followed her word so far, appointing ethnic leaders to three out of the four speaker positions, including one from the USDP.

Following the appointment of the speakers and their respective deputies, the legislators must then turn to the difficult task of choosing a president and two vice-presidents. The difficulty in this task stems from the reality that the choice must be a president that the military, ethnic leaders, and NLD at large can all agree on. The ability for the president to navigate among these groups will be critical in Myanmar’s transition to democratic rule. As if to highlight the difficulty the NLD faces, the deadline for selecting the country’s president has been pushed back from March 1 to March 17.

Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president due to the 2008 constitution, which was drafted by the military. Clause 59(f) states that the spouse or children of the president shall not owe allegiance to a foreign power. As Aung San Suu Kyi’s two sons have British citizenship, this is enough to prevent her from taking the position of president. Although she has been in ongoing communication with commander-in-chief Min Aung Laing, and has received tacit support from members of the USDP, including the former junta leader Than Shwe, there appears to be little possibility of changing that particular clause anytime soon.

Undeterred by this obstruction, Aung San Suu Kyi has gone on record to say she will sit in some unspecified role above the president. With her iconic status in Myanmar, perhaps such a role would be one in which she is able to govern effectively, without the worries the president must face when policies fail or other problems arise. However, given the large majority the NLD enjoys and the control over the party Aung San Suu Kyi wields, there is a risk of a lack of accountability, which even the most well-intentioned leader can abuse. The selection of non-NLD members to the position of deputy speaker in both houses seems to be an attempt to mitigate this potential source of worry.

Moving Past the Military

Due to the 2008 constitution, the country’s military armed forces, or Tatmadaw, continues to be a very powerful institution in Myanmar. It has a guaranteed twenty-five per cent of the seats in both the upper and lower houses, and controls three of the most powerful ministries in the government ­– the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Border Affairs, and the Ministry of Defence are all under military control. The Tatmadaw appoints the ministers for those three ministries, and the constitution grants it sweeping powers, such as the ability to impose martial law, or re-impose direct military rule. Additionally, the huge revenue brought in through military-owned conglomerates and investments in national resources combined with its freedom to set its own budget allow for an organization that can act fairly autonomously.

In order to achieve the overarching goal of changing the constitution, the NLD government is going to have to negotiate with the Tatmadaw. These negotiations might move more slowly than the general public wants, but some patience must be exhibited on the part of the NLD. If the Tatmadaw believes it will lose control over parliament without its consent, there could be very little in the way of meaningful negotiations. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing is on record saying that while the military is not opposed to constitutional change per se, the timeframe it has in mind is more along the lines of ten years down the road. This gradual relinquishing of power by the military assumes that a national ceasefire is in effect, which is proving to be an elusive prerequisite.

Moreover, it is the military that holds all the cards in terms of constitutional change. This is because it controls twenty-five per cent of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, while Section 436 of the Myanmar constitution demands greater than seventy-five per cent of the representatives approve any amendments of key passages in the document. The military’s appointments for the new government are already known, and it has clearly placed further emphasis on the importance of this body – there has been a sharp increase in the number of high-ranking officers in both the upper and lower house. These senior officers, along with the experienced military legislators returning from the last parliament, will provide a serious challenge for the largely inexperienced parliamentarians of the NLD.

Pressure for Change

The military will not be going away quickly, and in order to avoid the return of a military-led junta the NLD will have to placate the military to some degree. On the other hand, the electorate at large and international stakeholders will also place pressure on the NLD to produce more democratic reform. The choice of president will be the first of many difficult tasks the inexperienced NLD legislators have to face. With the military remaining firmly entrenched, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD will have a difficult task leading the country further down the path of democratic reform.

Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald is a post-graduate research fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Before joining the APFC, Ian served as an intern with the Canadian embassy in Myanmar.

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