Following the overwhelming victory for the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar’s elections, TREVOR WILSON considers what could happen next.
In voting overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Aung San Suu Kyi last week, many voters said they hoped the new government would bring about a fundamental transformation in Myanmar society.
Voters had just experienced five years of transition, during which some big changes had occurred. But many changes have not yet been made, and the benefits from some of the reforms already introduced have still to filter through to the ordinary people in a meaningful way.
So, in some ways, it is surprising that people’s spirits were so lifted by this election—although in every way it is a most significant event—and that the people of Myanmar displayed such optimism about their future. It seems, at the very least, contradictory that voters should feel this way while human rights abuses and various forms of discrimination continue, while the justice system remains corrupt and the rule of law is largely a mirage, and while economic opportunities and economic advancement remain quite limited.
Not surprisingly, most questions about what happens next in Myanmar after decades of authoritarian rule and military control have revolved around role the role of the Army, if it is no longer fully in charge. One could equally ask what role the civil servants might play, if they are no longer able to dominate sectors such as education, health and agriculture, which remain essentially areas for public policy. Or what should happen in the private sector if state-owned enterprises were really privatised and not just sold off to crony businesses.
Influence of religion
The increased influence of religion in the run-up to the election was, if anything, pulling opinion to more conservative attitudes rather than more progressive ones. Would the healthy growth in civil society organisations in Myanmar in recent years, including in their trying to consolidate elements of democracy, help diffuse new thinking?
In a society that remains conventional and where individuality and innovation are not necessarily encouraged or rewarded, there was little open debate about giving people greater choice as to their work, or about fostering entrepreneurship or individualism, or about strengthening tolerance and private initiative.
While these might seem like western values, they are ideas that have been seen to take root in other societies and flourish in many part of the world. With the recent spread of the internet in Myanmar such ideas could be gaining sympathy. Would such changes come to Myanmar? Would the NLD, which campaigned on the slogan, ‘It’s time to change’, pursue such options? Can we expect younger NLD members elected to Myanmar’s parliaments to push forward such ideas against more traditional thinking?
Many observers initially expressed their concern about the capacity of a new Myanmar government to operate with a hostile military, which remains extremely powerful and is used to getting its own way. Noting how military control was embedded in the non-democratic 2008 constitution—which has, to some extent, been accepted, although not agreed to, by the NLD—concerns were expressed about possible destabilisation by the military. Commentators implied that the Army could be tempted to intervene in politics to protect its own interests, referring either to the military crackdown after the 1990 elections, or to the military’s ongoing control over national security, or to the example of Thailand, where the Army has staged a coup whenever it feels its interests are threatened. This ignores the distaste that the Army feels towards a coup, which commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has hinted at publicly.
There is no doubt that the political understanding that is reached, between the NLD as the government, and commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing representing the Army, is potentially the most important single landmark in Myanmar’s political transition. If this understanding can survive and prove effective, it could form the basis for a new, long-term political framework for Myanmar’s politics. It could even provide the grounds for the Army to do away with some of the security blankets it is still holding on to—the 25 per cent of seats in the parliament and the right to name members of the National Security Council. Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing—who, notionally, is due to retire in 2016—could be the army leader who can preside over this change, especially since a number of other senior military figures who were defeated in the recent elections will presumably withdraw from playing major roles.
The sweeping NLD victory places Aung San Suu Kyi in an exceptionally strong position to negotiate such an arrangement with the Army, which knows it cannot go against such a clear expression of popular opinion. But the Army also might feel slightly reassured that an NLD government headed by Suu Kyi will not necessarily be fundamentally hostile towards it.
Aung San Suu Kyi. Her overwhelming election victory places her in an exceptionally strong position to negotiate a new political understanding with the Army. (Source: Surian Soosay, Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence).