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Global perspective: Myanmar's democratic experiment faces rough road toward recovery

Armed riot policemen charge after firing teargas a rubber bullets as anti-coup protesters abandon their makeshift barricades and run in Yangon, Myanmar Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (AP Photo)

More than one month has passed since the coup d'etat took place in Myanmar on Feb. 1. The situation is still in a state of flux, with protests continuing throughout the Southeast Asian country. However, thanks to news reports and some insightful analyses (see "Eyes on the World" essays posted on the Institute of Developing Economies website), we can now understand a little better why this happened and what we should be attentive to when thinking about Myanmar politics.

    On Feb. 1, the Myanmar military detained State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, federal government ministers, local government leaders, and others. Shortly thereafter the military held a "National Defense and Security Council, " and Vice President Myint Swe, who assumed the post of acting president, declared a state of emergency, and handed over the executive, legislative and judicial powers to Supreme Commander of the military Min Aung Hlaing. In addition, the military announced that after the state of emergency was lifted, it would hold "free and fair multi-party general elections" based on the 2008 Constitution and hand over power to the winning party. On the following day, the "Federal Executive Council, " the highest decision-making body in the country, was established.

    The national army says that those steps they have taken are in accordance with the constitution and are not a coup d'etat. This is hard to accept because the National Defense and Security Council was convened after the president was detained. However, it is worth noting that the military indicated no intention of abrogating the 2008 Constitution, which gives a number of privileges to the military. It is also important to remember that representatives of the military and the government were negotiating right up until the coup.

    So what is the significance of this incident? Simply put, it is that the "power-sharing" between the national army and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, specifically between Supreme Commander Min Aung Hlaing and National Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, has collapsed, and Myanmar's experiment with "partial democracy" has been aborted. Why?

    As Myanmar entered the 21st century, the national military began experimenting with partial civilian rule (which was called democratization). The mechanism for this is the 2008 Constitution, which stipulates that, in order to guarantee the political status of the military, 25% each of the upper and lower houses of parliament must be occupied by military members, and that the military must nominate three ministers related to national defense and security.

    The model for this was the "New Order" Indonesia under President Suharto. The People's Consultative Assembly, consisting of members of the People's Representative Council, chosen every five years in elections that were neither free nor fair as well as military and presidential appointees, elected the president once every five years. Myanmar's experiment worked well in 2011-16, when the NLD boycotted the elections, and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) took control of about 80% of the parliamentary seats in the neither free nor fair general elections held in 2010. The national legislature elected Thein Sein, who had once served as prime minister under the military regime, as president. Thein Sein promoted liberalization, ceasefire talks with ethnic minority armed groups, and economic reform, and persuaded Aung San Suu Kyi to have the NLD join in national politics.

    Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to the House of Representatives in the 2012 federal parliamentary by-election, and the NLD won a landslide victory in the 2015 election. Aung San Suu Kyi became the de facto head of the government as the State Counselor, as she cannot become president under constitutional provisions. Min Aung Hlaing assumed the top military position in 2011. Born in 1956, he is 11 years younger than Aung San Suu Kyi, who was born in 1945. In 2016, Min Aung Hlaing extended his retirement age and promised to retire at the age of 65. After the NLD came to power in the same year, Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing met regularly to manage the government. However, things started to go wrong around 2017 and 2018.

    One of the triggers for this was the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority. In 2017, the national army expelled more than 750,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Criticism from the international community grew, and Supreme Commander Min Aung Hlaing was sanctioned by the United States and others as being responsible for the ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi, despite her well-hidden sentiment against the military's action, appeared before the International Court of Justice in 2019 and defended the military, arguing that ethnic cleansing was a "domestic conflict." She ended up losing international support. The regular meeting between the two figures ceased to take place around this time.

    Another trigger was the NLD's landslide victory in the November 2020 general election, when it won a total of 396 seats in the upper and lower houses, more than 83% of the 476 seats contested in the race. The second party, the USDP, won only 33 seats. If the USDP and other ethnic minority parties sympathetic to the USDP won a third of the seats, together with the 166 military representatives, they could have elected Min Aung Hlaing as president. This possibility was lost due to the NLD landslide.

    Furthermore, the NLD's victory has made the military more concerned about constitutional amendment. The NLD submitted a proposal to amend the supreme law to parliament in March 2020, but the bill was rejected due to opposition from the USDP and military lawmakers. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi has proposed the introduction of a "true federal system" that would grant a certain degree of autonomy to ethnic minorities in order to achieve a ceasefire and peace with ethnic minority armed groups. If the momentum for constitutional amendment grows in a bid to achieve ethnic peace, the national army may lose its political leadership.

    In this light, it is easy to understand why the cooperation between State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and Supreme Commander Min Aung Hlaing has deteriorated. Min Aung Hlaing had only a very limited amount of time before he retired from the national army. This is probably why he repeatedly asked Aung San Suu Kyi to convene the National Defense and Security Council and tried to negotiate with the government until the last minute. However, Aung San Suu Kyi refused to budge. Apparently, she thought that it was only a matter of time before the military leadership was replaced and that talks with the military could wait until then. Min Aung Hlaing refused to leave the political stage and dragged Aung San Suu Kyi down.

    So what is likely to happen? What should we pay attention to in order to see what will happen next? In general, there are three routes to democratization of authoritarian political regimes: democratization led by the state (military), democratization from below (revolution), and democratization through pacts between the regime and democratic forces. The Myanmar military chose the path of state-led democratization in the 2008 Constitution. This experiment worked well under Thein Sein. However, it collapsed after the USDP's defeat and the NLD's landslide victory in the 2015 and 2020 elections. The junta under the command of Min Aung Hlaing will try to reprise the Thein Sein regime in elections that are neither free nor fair, scheduled to be held after the end of the state of emergency. However, it is not clear whether this will work. The people of Myanmar have learned what it means to be free over the past 10 years. The economy has improved dramatically. Few people, including the military elite, want to see Myanmar "return to North Korea."

    The possibility of democratization from below is extremely small, unless the military splits. What about democratization by negotiations? It would require a pact between the military and the NLD leadership. The next generation in the military might consider such an attempt. However, Aung San Suu Kyi has not raised the next generation of NLD leaders. That may become a major hurdle in the future.

    (By Takashi Shiraishi, Chancellor, Prefectural University of Kumamoto)

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