Aung San Suu Kyi, president of the National League for Democracy in Burma
On February 1, 2016 the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s pro-democratic former opposition, assumed its place as the majority party in both houses of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or national legislature. The party had surpassed all expectations in the country’s first truly free and fair national elections in over half a century. At the NLD’s head is Aung San Suu Kyi, the beloved human rights activist, former political prisoner, and Nobel peace laureate, whose influence in Burmese politics cannot be overstated.
Though Burma, also known as Myanmar, has reached this important milestone with startling speed, Aung San Suu Kyi remains vulnerable to interference from Burma’s military, the Tatmadaw. While the Tatmadaw has enacted many of the country’s recent political reforms of its own accord, dissolving its ruling junta in 2011, it retains a significant amount of power and near-total autonomy. The 2008 constitution imposed by the military reserves a quarter of all seats in every legislative body for Tatmadaw officers, giving it a guaranteed veto on constitutional revision. In a provision widely seen as targeting Ms. Suu Kyi, the constitution also prevents people with foreign family members from running for president. Most ominously, the military retains the constitutional right to take over the government in the event of a national crisis.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s unenviable task, then, is to carry out political reform and establish civilian governance without triggering the resumption of military rule. Aside from its constitutional privileges, the Tatmadaw also dominates Burma’s economy and major industries. Direct attacks on the military’s constitution or economic interests are likely to provoke staunch and possibly fatal opposition. For instance, Ms. Suu Kyi’s claim that she would be “above the president” if unable to assume the position was met with vague threats from the Tatmadaw and its press. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would be best served by an old guerilla tactic: avoiding the main bastions of opposition. This means solidifying popular support and beginning the task of building strong civilian institutions while refraining from a direct challenge to the military. In order to strengthen her position and build long-term stability, Aung San Suu Kyi will have to address Burma’s most urgent problems without the institutional tools with which to do so.
Distributing Power, Surrounding the Center
One potential NLD target is the over-centralization of political power in Burma, which has survived the junta’s end. While allowing parliamentary politics, the Tatmadaw concentrated true law-making power in the government’s military-dominated executive branch, with most bills drafted in the parliament being proposed by the president and his cabinet. The national parliament was instead relegated to something of an oversight role and venue for surprisingly frank debate and informal conferencing among MPs . With control over the presidency and the parliament, the NLD could choose to shift more power to the legislature.
Having won 80% of all contested parliamentary seats, the National League for Democracy will have the ability to unilaterally choose the country’s next president. Ms. Suu Kyi has chosen to pursue the office, allowing other positions such as speaker of the lower house to be filled by allies. While her success is not assured, the uncertainty surrounding the presidency may be a setback filled with hidden opportunity. Having multiple leaders in positions of power will be better for the NLD’s credibility in the long run than having Ms. Suu Kyi as its only authority figure. Unfortunately, as the incoming party has little actual experience governing, it could be forced to choose between a total neophyte or one of the less dangerous ex-military officials. While Thura Shwe Mann, a former junta member and lower house speaker, was recently purged from the military-backed USDP party and separated from his natural power base, his alleged involvement in atrocities and repression in the 2000s may indicate that he is simply too dangerous to be trusted with the post. The 88-year old U Tin Oo might be a safer choice, but his advanced age and poor health put him in the twilight years of his political career. If Aung San Suu Kyi is unable to ascend to the position, then the NLD’s choice of president will be one of its most critical decisions in the coming months.
The NLD should also try to strengthen state and regional legislatures, which have little influence, with the aim of improving the government’s responsiveness to local problems. With NLD majorities secured in 12 of the 14 state and regional legislatures, nurturing these bodies would create visible evidence of Burma’s democratic progress and allow the party to cultivate allies outside of the capital. Equally important, devolution would provide legitimate political options to minority groups and their ethnicity-based parties, undermining the appeal of rebel ethnic militias.
Spreading the Wealth
Burma also stands out as one of the least developed countries in the world, ranking at 148 out of the 188 countries listed in the Human Development Index. It is no mistake that the military junta and the military-backed establishment party ousted last fall were called the “State Peace and Development Council” and the “Union Solidarity and Development Party,” respectively. The World Bank pegs Burmese per capita income at $1203.8, much lower than Thailand’s $5977.4 or even Vietnam’s $2052.3. While Burma boasts a sizeable endowment of natural resources, the collapse of commodity prices has resulted in weak economic performance over the past year. According to Human Rights Watch, the prevalence of labor abuses and lack of “trickle-down” benefits from the large commodity industries have driven millions to become migrant workers abroad. Significant reform seems unlikely in these well-entrenched industries, which are dominated by the military and its allies.
Burma’s fledgling industrial sector is another story. Being so underdeveloped and poor, the country may be able to capitalize on the kind of export-driven growth strategy which has transformed other Asian economies. Foreign direct investment has begun to flow in, while three Special Economic Zones are being planned by major Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese corporations. Concerns abound, however, that these zones will encourage local corruption and further labor abuses, especially in the absence of strong regulatory institutions.
While being mindful of the dangers of unrestrained capitalism in a country with weak state capacity, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD simply cannot ignore the extreme poverty permeating Burma. What they can do, however, is hold out for a baseline of decent conditions in SEZs and try to limit other adverse effects before they take root. As Burma’s per capita income is so much lower than in neighboring countries, its labor should be competitive without resorting to abhorrent conditions and cost-cutting on safety. In addition, while the state’s ability to monitor and regulate these industries is dreadfully limited, it can turn to international organizations and governments for help. The NLD should also be mindful of ethnic composition to make the SEZs representative of their surrounding regions, rather than “beachheads for expanding the domination of the Bamar ethnic majority,” as some fear. As far as corruption, Burma has little room to worsen; it is currently ranked 147th in transparency by Transparency International.
Civil War, Genocide, and Human Rights
The most pressing problem for the military, for the average Burmese citizen, for the NLD, and for the international community, is resolving the ethnic conflicts which have torn Burma apart for the last 60 years. During that time, the Tatmadaw has tried and failed to maintain peace among the country’s 130-odd ethnic groups. Ethnic armies boasting thousands of members pepper the Burmese countryside, especially in the far-flung states and regions where the Bamar are fewer. In recent years, a series of clashes with an ethnic Han group near the Chinese border has killed hundreds and escalated tensions with China.
While the military has prioritized negotiations, rebel leaders have called on the NLD to take the lead in talks. Others, including some of the most powerful, have remained aloof. Aung San Suu Kyi has vowed to bring an end to the fighting and expressed a desire to hold talks with all the militias involved. For the party and Ms. Suu Kyi, the talks represent great opportunity and grave danger in equal measure. Success would provide total validation for the new democratic administration, while further deterioration could prompt the military to reclaim control of the country.
But just as much rides on how the NLD addresses the ongoing ethnic cleansing being carried out against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s west, which has displaced upwards of 146,000 people. Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue is perhaps the most serious stain on her record. The famously outspoken leader has done little to challenge the Buddhist-led pogroms and anti-Rohingya violence. Indeed, the NLD actually excluded Muslims from their roster of candidates in the national election. While reluctant to go against the most influential Buddhist leaders driving the violence, the party should at least repeal grossly unjust legislation such as the Protection of Race and Religion Bills, which give license to repress Muslims and limit their births. It should also support any local actors trying to diffuse the narrative of Muslims posing a national security threat. Each minute that these atrocities continue is a mark against the country’s claims of progress and democratization.
The Outsider’s Role
As events continue to develop in Burma, one truth stands out with total clarity: the primary obstacle to Burmese democracy is the issue of state capacity. The bureaucracy and institutions to implement economic policies simply do not exist, and the state no longer holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It cannot even risk confronting those engaged in ethnic cleansing within its borders.
In the end, as always, the Burmese are responsible for accomplishing what must be done. Friendly countries and NGOs should focus on insulating the NLD from the military and economic strains while holding it accountable on human rights. This support could take a number of forms, such as anti-malaria or AIDS programs, disaster aid, support for the truth and reconciliation process, bureaucratic training, reporting, and election-monitoring. At the same time, international actors cannot jump the gun on lifting sanctions before Burma’s dreadful human rights abuses are curtailed. On this issue, even the U.S. Congress has the right idea.
Burma faces trial after trial, but there are reasons to hope. While inexperienced, the NLD’s roster has a strong moral core; it includes dissidents, poets, writers, doctors, and teachers, over 100 of whom have languished in prison for their activism and opposition to the military junta. The national elections were, at base, a victory for Burma’s long voiceless people. The party must give reality to this expression of will, while not forgetting those who remain disenfranchised.
 Egreteau, Renaud. “Emerging Patterns of Parliamentary Politics.” in Myanmar: The Dynamics of an Evolving Polity, edited by David I. Steinberg, 59-88. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2015.
John Indergaard is a junior at Cornell University, majoring in Government and minoring in International Relations and East Asian Studies.
Image Attribution: “Remise du Prix Sakharov à Aung San Suu Kyi Strasbourg 22 octobre 2013-04” by Claude TRUONG-NGOC, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0