The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
Since November, when the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the first elections to take place in Myanmar (also called Burma) for 25 years, the contours of the new regime have begun to take shape. Earlier this month, Htin Kyaw, the candidate nominated by the NLD, was elected president, affirming civilian rule in Myanmar.
Yet despite the progress, serious challenges remain that could derail Myanmar’s democratic transition. Corruption is widespread, ethnic violence remains entrenched, economic reform is sorely needed, and, crucially, the military, or Tatmadaw, is still the most powerful political force in the country.
The 2008 constitution, written by the military junta, includes four provisions that limit the NLD’s power. First, it assigns the Tatmadaw 25 percent of all seats in both houses of the legislature. Second, it requires a majority of more than 75 percent to approve any constitutional amendment. Third, it prohibits anyone with a foreign spouse or child from becoming president, a provision likely written with the president of the NLD and long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in mind: Her children are British citizens. And finally, the 2008 constitution continued to give the Tatmadaw control of three key ministries: border affairs, defense, and home affairs.
Over the last few months, the NLD, led by Suu Kyi, has conducted talks about the shape of the new government with the Tatmadaw, led by its commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, although the military has consistently denied that anything resembling a “negotiation” has taken place. For now, the military seems to be playing a role that is neither accommodating nor disruptive. Clearly, the NLD will need to handle its relations with the Tatmadaw with great skill, if Myanmar’s democratic transition is to continue apace.
THE LADY AND THE GENERALS
After the parliamentary elections, Suu Kyi, widely known as “the Lady,” and her supporters tried to find a way around the law that prevented her from becoming president. But several rounds of talks failed to change the military’s stance. On March 15, members of the bicameral legislature elected Htin Kyaw as president, and he will take office on April 1. Htin Kyaw is a long-time confidante of Suu Kyi, having served not only as her advisor and as the head of the NLD’s foundation, but also, at times, as her driver. Prior to joining the NLD in 1992, Htin Kyaw, a fluent English-speaker, was a university lecturer and a civil servant.
The most important task for the NLD will be to develop an effective working relationship with the military.
The legislature also elected two vice presidents: Henry Van Thio, selected by the NLD, and Myint Swe, nominated by the military-appointed delegation. Henry Van Thio is a member of the Chin ethnic minority and a Christian (notable in a state that is about 90 percent Buddhist). His selection hints at the NLD’s resolve to pursue ethnic reconciliation after decades of conflict. Myint Swe is a retired general and the current chief minister of Yangon region. He is by no means a soft-liner: As the feared chief of military security affairs, he oversaw the repression of the 2007 Saffron Revolution and was known for his brutal treatment of dissidents. He has recently been the focus of corruption charges and remains on the U.S. sanctions list. Myint Swe’s selection thus makes national reconciliation more difficult. As one Burmese commentator quipped, “Even though we hoped to see a civilian government, we have to accept a thief anyway.”
The most important qualification of all three new office holders is their loyalty to their constituencies. Htin Kyaw is not known for his political positions and, aside from his long association with Suu Kyi, there is little to distinguish him from others in the top echelon of NLD stalwarts. Henry Van Thio, a retired military officer, only joined the NLD a year ago. The key reason for his selection, other than his ethnic and religious minority status, may well be that he has no affiliation with any of the ethnic parties; his loyalty to the NLD can thus be counted on. Myint Swe, the military’s candidate, is known to be close to Than Shwe, the leader of the junta from 1992 to 2011, who is widely assumed to have maintained an influential role behind the scenes. Although it was primarily Than Shwe’s decision to begin the liberalization process five years ago, Myint Swe’s appointment suggests that the retired dictator and conservative elements within the military intend to keep the process under their control.
As for Suu Kyi, she has repeatedly stated in public that although she may not hold the office, she will be the country’s de facto president. For now, Htin Kyaw appears happy to be her puppet; he exulted that his election was “Sister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory.” Yet whether he will remain as compliant throughout his five-year term remains to be seen.
On March 22, the president-elect released a list of nominees for cabinet positions, and the list of names included Suu Kyi. Although her specific position was not announced, she is expected to be foreign minister, which would allow her to sit on the powerful National Defense and Security Council. The NDSC oversees the armed forces and is responsible for security and defense. Yet even in the new NLD-dominated regime, at least six of the 11 members of the NDSC will come from the military, a stark reminder that it is still largely in control.
DEMOCRACY WITH MILITARY CHARACTERISTICS
Perhaps the most important task for the NLD will thus be to develop an effective working relationship with the military. Unless the NLD can persuade at least some of the 25 percent of the legislators who are appointed by the armed forces, the NLD will be unable to amend the constitution to allow “the Lady” to become president or to relax the stipulation requiring a 75 percent approval for any change to the law.
Most important, although the military’s control of the defense and border affairs ministries does not particularly constrain the NLD at this point in the transition process, its hold over the ministry of home affairs seriously restricts the NLD’s authority. This body oversees not only the entire police and security apparatus but also the General Administration Department. The GAD is the country’s administrative heart, staffing every regional and state-level government and managing thousands of districts and townships. Moreover, the ministry’s jurisdiction also includes the prison system, which still houses over 500 political prisoners. If the NLD wants to live up to its promises and free those individuals, it will have to find some sort of accommodation with the military-appointed minister of home affairs.
Every single area of socioeconomic life in Myanmar urgently requires comprehensive reform.
Although Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief, has not sabotaged the transition process thus far, there is every reason to expect that he will appoint individuals loyal to the Tatmadaw. He will reach the military retirement age of 60 this year, but the army recently announced it would extend his term in office by another five years because of the transition and his close involvement in an ongoing peace process with ethnic militias. The generals may not have disrupted the transfer of power, but it would be foolhardy to believe that they are going to promote it. For now, the Tatmadaw does not appear interested in giving up any more of its political influence than it already has by allowing the election results to stand.
TECHNOCRATS FOR HIRE?
During the electoral campaign, the NLD offered few specifics regarding its positions on even the most fundamental economic and social issues. The party urged citizens to vote for the NLD because of its highly respected Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader and ask questions later. Yet more than four months after the elections, the NLD still keeps a tight lid on its future policies. The government will take over on April 1, but aside from generic promises that it will build democracy, end ethnic conflict, and promote national reconciliation, it has given few clues as to what to expect.
It needs to develop some concrete policies soon. Every single area of socioeconomic life urgently requires comprehensive reform: education, health care, social services, housing, and infrastructure all desperately need major improvements to alleviate half a century of neglect under military rule. After decades of deep poverty, tempering the unrealistically high expectations of Myanmar’s 52 million people will require much tact and political skill.
Western countries have been steadfast supporters of Myanmar’s democratization process since it began in late 2010.
The new government has inherited a number of crucial political problems that it must begin to tackle immediately. Corruption is widespread. The legal system is slow and remains dominated by incompetent and easily bribable judges appointed by the generals. The military junta was unable to end the world’s longest civil war (ongoing since the country’s independence in 1948), and it’s unlikely that the generals will be more motivated to do so under an NLD government. Although the dreadful situation of the one million-strong Muslim Rohingya minority is not a priority in Myanmar, to the anger of the international human rights community, it, too, must be dealt with, if only to deflect criticism from abroad. The first step would be to grant citizenship to the many Rohingya who were born in Myanmar and to guarantee them the same rights that other ethnic minorities enjoy. The elections revealed that the violently anti-Muslim, radical Buddhist movement is not as influential as many assumed. Nevertheless, convincing the general population, whose hostility to the Rohingya is deep-rooted and almost universally shared, of the merits of an anti-discrimination policy would be a major test for the NLD government.
All of these challenges must be tackled with a bureaucracy that, for the most part, has benefited from military rule. The NLD is in desperate need of competent, ethical, and democratically-minded administrators and professionals untainted by affiliation with the military junta. Finding such people in the numbers necessary to run a complex, multi-ethnic country the size of Texas will be difficult. The NLD and other pro-democracy groups are full of admirable people with impeccable opposition credentials—the junta held many of them for long stretches as political prisoners—but few of them are qualified to fill civil service positions that require professional expertise.
Indeed, when parliament approved nominees for cabinet positions last week, some of their credentials raised questions. Kyaw Win, who is expected to be the finance minister, claimed to have master’s and doctoral degrees from “Brooklyn Park University,” which is no more than a website run by a Pakistani company selling fake diplomas. Another prospective cabinet member, Than Myint, said that he earned graduate degrees from Pacific Western University, an unaccredited correspondence school that was closed in 2006 in response to a lawsuit filed by the State of Hawaii.
All of these challenges mean that onlookers and the Burmese public alike must temper their optimism about Myanmar’s future. Yet the international community can do more to make such optimism justified. Western countries, and in particular Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have been steadfast supporters of Myanmar’s democratization process since it began in late 2010. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have recently made historic visits to Yangon. Just as importantly, the United States has sent ambassadors to Myanmar—Derek Mitchell from 2012 to 2016, and now Scot Marciel—who are deeply knowledgeable about the country, Southeast Asia, and democratic transitions from military rule more generally, indicating that Washington takes Myanmar seriously. In a nation that tends to be at best cautious of foreigners’ intentions, the United States is generally held in high regard, in sharp contrast to the suspicious attitudes toward China and India that prevail throughout Myanmar.
The United States should not miss this opportunity. Myanmar occupies a strategic location in Southeast Asia, and its need for political support, developmental aid—everything from infrastructure improvement to educational programs—and targeted investment is acute. There are few societies where democracy promotion efforts could find more fertile ground or where they would be more gratefully accepted. Ultimately, it will be the people of Myanmar who will determine the nation’s political future—but there is still room for the outside world to help.