Myanmar: partial transfer of power ‘just around the corner’?

Myanmar: partial transfer of power ‘just around the corner’?

Myanmar’s post-1962 history of ‘power transfers’ by the military is cause for wariness, writes MYINT ZAN.

In late 1973, an article titled ‘Power transfer just around the corner’ appeared in the government-controlled and now-defunct English-language newspaper The Guardian, published in Rangoon. A little history of that ‘transfer of power’ is in order.

On 2 March 1962, the Burmese Army under the late General Ne Win seized power in a military coup. The Revolutionary Council and the Revolutionary government—the name of the legislative and executive arms of the government formed after Ne Win’s coup—ruled the country by decree until March 1974.

General Ne Win, who seized power in a military coup in 1962.

In March 1974, ‘power transfer’ took place—from the Revolutionary Council to a constitutionally mandated one-party government that ruled the country until September 1988, when the regime collapsed as a result of the 1988 uprising. This was followed by two nakedly military regimes—the State Law and Order Restoration Council and the State Peace and Development Council, which again ruled by decree until March 2011, when a quasi-civilian government was formed under the 2008 Constitution.

Within two years of Ne Win’s seizure of power, 2 March—the date of the coup—was, and still is, celebrated as Peasants’ Day. On Peasants’ Day 1966 Ne Win gave a speech in which he stated that ‘the Armed Forces took over power against its cherished beliefs … we will transfer power to the people in due course’.

On 25 September 1971 drafting began on a new constitution, which was adopted two-and-a-half years later, on
3 January 1974, and which enshrined one-party rule.

On 2 March 1974 power was ‘transferred back to the people’, fulfilling Ne Win’s ‘promise’ eight years to the day after he made it. Hence The Guardian article, published in late September or early October 1973, reported the news of the power transfer—some five months before the event took place.

But from whom, and to whom, was that so-called transfer made in 1974?

On 2 March 1974 Ne Win made a live radio broadcast to the nation of his address to the members elected to the one-party Legislature in the 1974 elections several weeks before (only one candidate, from the sole ruling party, was allowed to participate in each constituency). Ne Win announced that, since the [1974] Constitution was already in existence and the Pyithu Hluttaw (the one-party Legislature) had come into operation, there was no need for the Revolutionary Council to exist, and it was henceforth abolished. Within a day or so, the one-party Legislature had unanimously elected U Ne Win as president of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma.

Dual roles

The transfer of power had been from the Revolutionary Council to the sole Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), formed by Ne Win’s military regime. U Ne Win was chairman of both the Revolutionary Council and the BSPP.

Fast forward to March 2011. After an even longer constitution-drafting process—from early 1993 until the Constitution’s adoption by so-called referendum on 24 May 2008, and its coming into force when the new Legislature convened on 31 January 2011—there was yet another ‘power transfer’.

On 30 March 2011, under the 2008 Constitution, former general Thein Sein was elected as the first president of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Thien Sein had been prime minister under the previous government, which was abolished by decree by Senior General Than Shwe when President Thein Sein and his cabinet members were sworn into office. Ne Win and Thein Sein, both retired generals, have been the only people in Burmese history who were prime minister (head of government), just before they became president (head of state).

The 2011 power transfer is both similar to and different from the 1974 transfer. The similarity is that those who held the office of prime minister, or head of government, in the Revolutionary Council of March 1974 and the State Peace and Development Council of March 2011 also became, as president, the new head of state.

Senior General Than Shwe was head of state for nearly 19 years until he ‘retired’ in March 2011, whereas Ne Win—before he formally became president in March 1974—was also head of state, head of government and head of the sole ruling party.

In 1974, Ne Win relinquished his position as head of government to former brigadier Sein Win, who became the first prime minister under the now-defunct 1974 Constitution. However, Ne Win remained president until November 1981—but continued as head (chairman) of the sole ruling party until July 1988. In that position he remained, in effect, ‘above the president’.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s comment on the eve of the recent election that she would be ‘above the president’ if her party formed government and a transfer of power occurred has been much commented on—including by this writer.

If the transfer of power takes place as planned by the end of March 2016, it is hoped it will be less contrived, less deceptive and less propagandist than the 1974 and 2011 transfers.

Senior General Than Shwe, who like Ne Win ‘retired’ from all official positions at around the age of 78, is—if not actually ‘above’ the current president, Thein Sein—certainly not ‘below’ him. Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi’s supposed meeting on 4 December 2015 lasted—according to a report by Than Shwe’s grandson—two-and-a-half hours, whereas neither of the earlier meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein and commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing lasted more than an hour.

To give President U Thein Sein his due, the November 2015 elections took place in part—but in small part only—because of what some Western news outlets have exaggeratedly called ‘stunning reforms’. And the stunning victory—for the second time in just over 25 years—of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is almost entirely due to the determination and steadfastness of the Burmese people.

If the transfer of power does take place as planned by the end of March 2016, it is hoped it will be less contrived, less deceptive and less propagandist than the 1974 and 2011 transfers. Nevertheless, it will still be only a partial transfer, since the 2008 Constitution stipulates that the commander-in-chief appoint 25 per cent of both Houses of the Legislature, as well as all of the state and divisional Legislatures, directly from serving Armed Forces personnel. Moreover, the commander-in-chief directly appoints the ministers of Defence, Border Affairs, and the Home Ministry from among military officers.

The 2008 Constitution authorises the National Defence and Security Council, which consists of 11 members—seven of whom are serving military officers, including the commander-in-chief and six others directly appointed by him—to hand over power to the commander-in-chief when ‘the stability of the Union is threatened’. Indeed, at a meeting in mid-November 2015 with about 30 political parties, most of which did not gain any seats in the yet-to-be convened new Legislature, a representative of the National Progress Party urged President Thein Sein to consider taking such action.

In effect, 25 million or more people voted in the 2015 polls and elected a maximum of 498 lawmakers—but the appointment of three important minsters and 166 Legislative members (not including appointments of military personnel to the state and divisional legislatures) is in the hands of one man, the commander-in-chief. One military man’s appointment is equal to at least 100, 000 votes of ordinary men and women!

Without being too alarmist or pessimistic, untoward things can happen. The Burmese people have waited more than 50 years for some form of representative and democratic governance, so one’s expectations of the new NLD government after the partial transfer of power should not be too high. But the wait between now and the transfer in early 2016 may be one of the longest—and most anxious—in Burma’s post-independence history.

Main photo
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (Facebook)

Myint Zan is a retired professor from the Multimedia University, Malacca, Malaysia.

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