Myanmar: New Parliament, Old Constitution

Myanmar’s new parliament convened for the first time last week amid a flurry of underground power struggles and intense negotiations between the military and the National League for Democracy's chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi.

But it is clear that despite the overwhelming 255-30 electoral victory by the NLD on Nov. 8, the constitutional frame designed in 2008 by the junta is as solid as ever despite the humiliation of the military-backed USDPby the voters, whereas the new NLD government still has to figure out how to fit in despite the party’s landslide victory. The rise to dominance of the political landscape, if indeed Suu Kyi can pull it off, will come by incremental steps in the long term, without pressing the military towards a reforming agenda too soon.

It is clear is that the NLD will not handle the country's political future alone. The military has made sure that befriending them was unavoidable, constitutionally but also technically. Ruling efficiently and reforming the country require the help of the General Administration Department, the widely-spread centralized bureaucratic machinery under the control of the military.

“Reforming it will be a necessary step in order to introduce democratic processes at all levels of the state,” said Ye Myo Hein, political analyst from the Tagaung Institute. “Until it can do so, the new parliament and future NLD government, in addition to having to fit into the military-made constitutional framework, will also have to govern through military channels.”

Nonetheless, the Feb. 1 seating of parliament was a crucial step in Myanmar’s troubled political history. The seating by the new members of parliament was something that had not been seen for more than half a century. In 1962, the army behind Gen. Ne Win overthrew the last elected parliament, a move that initiated an era of military control that lasted until the establishment of the semi-civilian government of President Thein Sein in 2011.

So when the NLD emerged as the unquestioned winner with 80 percent of the seats in November, the absence of a coup by the military and the multiple declarations from its commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing vowing the results would be respected came almost as a surprise to pessimists.

But the NLD’s momentum and the new shape of the political landscape remain stubbornly entrenched in the constitutional framework designed by the military prior to the 2010 polls, which the NLD declined to participate in. Despite the new faces in both houses of parliament, the party must make do without the 25 percent of seats reserved to the military. The 2008 constitution drafted by the junta is the main obstacle preventing the NLD from taking power despite its electoral advantage, to be able to write policy.

Furthermore, the Constitution states that three key ministers be appointed by the army chief: the Ministers of Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. Securing the political role of the army, the constitution leaves little space for Aung San Suu Kyi to take the country to a new stage of democratization, as amendment of the constitution requires 75 percent of the votes in parliament – a mousetrap the NLD can’t avoid.

These last two months have been a time of intense negotiation, with Suu Kyi meeting behind closed doors with Army Commander Min Aung Hlaing twice, as well as the ex-junta leader, Senior General Than Shwe, who appeared to have given his blessing to Suu Kyi to “become the leader of the country.”

These meetings remain shrouded in mystery, however, making it uncertain whether Suu Kyi's visit to Than Shwe was anything more than symbolic.

“Than Shwe doesn't hold power anymore,” said Ye Myo Hein. “It’s true that he designed the current constitution and is at the root of civilian-military power-sharing – if he still has some influence. I still don't think Min Aung Hlaing and the others listen to him so much now.”

The obvious intent of these talks, from the point of view of Suu Kyi, is to give her a chance to become president. She remains barred from the presidency by Article 59(f) of the Constitution. Although local media have speculated that the article may be suspended if not amended, it seems unlikely.

“The military will not authorize something like this,” Ye Myo Hein added. “They rejected this theory already. And if they were to do this, it will open a door to whoever would want to go after the Constitution. It would be too easy.”

More likely, chief minister positions in the various states and divisions in the country as well as the peace process adjustment between the two governments would have been at the center of the talks.

Yet Suu Kyi's bargaining continues, as she announced on Feb. 7 that the nomination of the president would have to wait until mid-March. And it remains to be seen if trying to reach out to old foes will not prove harmful to the party's projected reforms. The aspects of a compromise have already begun to show, as the NLD tries to keep the military happy. At the end of January, nominations for speakers and deputy-speakers of both houses were confirmed, which included the addition of one deputy from the Arakan National Party and the other from USDP – the former government party.

The nomination of the latter, Kachin people's militia leader Khun Myat as deputy speaker, with suspected ties with the drug trade and obvious ones with Suu Kyi's friend and former USDP leader Thura Shwe Man – may seem especially strange for NLD supporters.

The overall strategy of reconciliation is a way to show the military and ethnic parties alike, that despite the lack of pluralism in the new parliament, other stakeholders have nothing to fear from the now omnipresent NLD, which is ready to make room even as the party longs for the ability to make essential policy.

On the other hand, Suu Kyi may be less interested in being president than in securing a place at the table of the National Defense and Security Council, the secretive, highest executive body, which bulges with representation by the uniforms. As President, Suu Kyi could have a say in this obscure and essential institution. She could also be a member of the NDSC as well as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, a role for which she is clearly prepared, but which could prevent her from being able to supervise her party, as she would have her hands full.

Another limit to the NLD's capacity to rule will be the arrival of its own inexperienced elected officials. Most are former activists, some very young – new MPs more used to the battlefield of protest than to the negotiating table with the army and bureaucratic procedure.

“We are worried, or concerned that our people have little or no experience in actual governance,” Suu Kyi explained. That is a reason why many military representatives, previously inactive in the parliament, are now being appointed to parliamentary affairs committees. The NLD gets half a loaf, or less. But it remains incremental progress, which is better than none.

Matthieu Baudey (matthieu.baudey@gmail.com) and Carole Oudot are French freelance journalists living in Myanmar