Myanmar’s Slim Promise of Democracy Fades

Military keeps its hold on power

By: Michele Penna

Hopes that the Myanmar Constitution could be changed to begin to minimize the role of the military in government ahead of this year’s elections have faded, along with hopes that the country could fast-forward its democratic reforms.

As the coronavirus pandemic occupies front pages across the world, news that a series of amendments to the country’s fundamental law has been blocked has been barely registered outside of the country. The one-piece of news that has spread widely in the outside world, actually, is a bizarre claim by Zaw Htay, a government spokesperson, that the coronavirus has spared the country thanks to the national diet. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, has also denied that the virus is in the country. 

Last week’s votes were an important moment in Myanmar’s political life. The NLD, currently holding a majority in parliament, had been working on the amendments for a year. Some were marginal, but others dealt with key provisions regulating relations between military and civilian authorities.

One proposal was particularly important – modifying the regulation that mandated appointment by the military, known as the Tatmadaw, of 25 percent of the members of parliament. The military, lawmakers argued, should progressively shrink their ranks over the next 10 years, from 25 percent to 15 percent after the 2020 election, then to 10 percent after 2025 and finally 5 percent after 2030. Given that at present changes to the constitution can only be passed with a majority of more than 75 percent of votes in Parliament, these provisions mean the armed forces can effectively veto amendments, if they so wish.

Which is exactly what they did last week. In a catch-22 situation, the military torpedoed both proposals exploiting the very regulations they were voting on. Among others, they also blocked the removal of article 59(f), which prevents anyone with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president – which is the case for Aung San Suu Kyi – as well as changes to the 11-member National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), where the military enjoys a six-member majority.

That all this has happened comes as little surprise. “The constitution was drawn up under the Tatmadaw government and is designed to preserve the leading role of the armed forces in national political life,” said Tom Kramer, Coordinator of the Myanmar Program with the Transnational Institute. The text, drafted in 2008, is seen by many as insurance against the twists and turns of electoral politics, for no matter how elections might turn out, the interest of the armed forces will be safeguarded. In fact, laws even allow them to take control of the state apparatus, should threats to national unity emerge.

This leaves civilian politicians with much frustration and few options. “Though we are talking about the public demand for constitutional changes, it is the military that has the final say,” Aung Thein, a lawmaker with the NLD, told the Irrawaddy recently. “Even if the full 75 percent of lawmakers who are elected approve the changes, we still can’t amend the Constitution unless a military lawmaker casts a ‘yes’ vote. We have to function based on this rigid Constitution.”

The failure of reform comes on top of four complicated years since the NLD was elected with a sweeping majority in 2015. The country is now interconnected as never before thanks to the spread of the internet – long gone are the days when Myanmar was the hermit of Southeast Asia – and, barring the very real possibility of devastation by the Covid-19 virus, is set to join other nations as a major tourist destination in the region. 

At least before the sweeping coronavirus epidemic, the overall economy seemed poised to do well. “Myanmar’s economy grew at 6.3 percent in 2018-19, marginally higher than 6.2 percent in 2017-18. Economic growth is expected to reach 6.4 percent in 2019-20, helped by growing investment in the transport and telecommunications sector and planned infrastructure spending by the government,” reads a January report by the World Bank.

But not all has gone as smoothly. A civil war, little seen by the outside world, marches on, with fighting taking place in the north, north-east and western parts of the country. Peace was dubbed the number one priority of the new NLD government upon being elected, but not much has been achieved. A National Ceasefire Agreement signed just before the 2015 elections remains incomplete, with some of the most powerful ethnic armies refusing to join, partly because of the Constitution, which does not grant them the autonomy they would like and enshrines the role of the armed forces they both hate and fear.

For the government, however, the elephant in the room is the case of the Rohingya. A small Muslim minority from the western province of Rakhine, they have been subjected to discrimination and pogroms to the point where the UN says they may be the most persecuted in the world. Violence broke out in 2012 and then again in 2017 after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a brand-new rebel outfit, attacked police posts and kicked off a chain reaction of fearsome violence. Estimates vary wildly, but as many as several thousand people may have perished, with neighboring Bangladesh being now home to the largest refugee camp in the world.

Last December, Aung San Suu Kyi walked a fine line in front of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), arguing that “genocidal intent” should not be the only “hypothesis” when it comes to a complex situation such as that of Rakhine and that domestic justice should be sought first before international bodies take the lead. Too little and too friendly to the armed forces, in the eyes of her international supporters, who are growing critical to Myanmar’s democratic heroine. Once hailed as a democratic demigoddess, Aung San Suu Kyi has long since faded from grace with humanitarian organizations and activists. She is not likely to regain that mantle. 

But her star still shines at home, where NLD voters can be hostile to the Rohingyas. Even losing a vote over constitutional reform in Parliament may not have been too bad from this perspective - for it shows that the NLD did not fail to reform for lack of trying and that the armed forces, along with their political allies, are very much the undemocratic party in this year’s elections. As Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the NLD’s information committee put it: “Although we lost the vote to amend the constitution in the assembly, we won politically.”