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Military is key to emerging democracy

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

After five decades under military rule, Myanmar faces many challenges in building a robust democracy. The election of Aung San Suu Kyi and 41 other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in parliamentary by-elections last April has stoked a degree of euphoria tempered by grim realities still prevailing in the country.

Attacks by members of the Buddhist majority targeting Rohingya Muslim communities in western regions bordering Bangladesh, and the recent military campaign against rebels in northern Kachin state across the border from China are key challenges to an inclusive, stable democracy. But there are many other problems associated with endemic poverty and the government’s limited capacity to improve education, health care, the judicial system and infrastructural bottlenecks.

Many citizens in Asia’s second-poorest nation — with an annual gross domestic product per capita of $1,300 (Afghanistan’s is only $1,000) — have high hopes that this recent political opening will bring tangible benefits.

The international community is turning on the taps of development assistance, and Japan has suddenly reemerged as the nation’s most generous patron — a role it had enjoyed until it joined the U.S.-sponsored sanction regime against the military junta two decades ago.

However, donors are concerned that disappointments might morph into instability if Myanmar’s democratization doesn’t deliver improvements in living standards and help promote national reconciliation and ethnic rights.

Regarding the latter, there are eight major ethnic groups that together comprise about a third of the nation’s 50 million population. Their bottom line is greater autonomy in the regions covering some 60 percent of Myanmar’s territory where they predominate.

It is an encouraging sign that civil-society organizations are engaged in democratic-capacity building, holding classes for aspiring politicians and activists. The Yangon Political Science School, founded in November 2011, holds 14-week courses for 25 to 30 students a term to familiarize them with political theory and case studies of democratization. Students range from former political prisoners to aspiring rank-and-file members in the NLD.

Similarly, prominent activist Ko Ko Gyi — leader of the 88 Generation Students (a pro-democracy movement formally established in 2005 and named after university students who rose up against military rule in 1988) — initiated democracy-training workshops in 2012 for young people interested in participating in ongoing political reforms.

He says, “Our future depends on developing our human resources and helping ordinary people to participate in the reform process” in a country that is recovering from a half century of military oppression and misrule.

Unlike these small-scale, grassroots efforts by dissidents and independent intellectuals, a well-funded nonprofit named Egress conducts more extensive capacity-building classes on its large campus. Egress was founded in 2006 and has close ties to the military and ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Executive Director Khin Moe Samm acknowledges that Egress “works within the system” but notes, “we work with, but not for the government.” She talks about “nurturing a critical mass of agents of change” — citing scholarships targeting students from ethnic-minority groups — and she sounds like the opposition in prioritizing progress in addressing land rights, the rule of law and the resolution of ethnic conflicts.

In January 2013, the parliament established under the new constitution convened its sixth session, the third since the NLD joined in 2012, and it has been tackling many thorny legal issues such as mining, land rights, foreign investment and the right to assembly. Nonetheless, there has been a surprising degree of cooperation between the NLD and the ruling USDP despite lingering differences on many issues.

Sessions are broadcast on television and I was told that the military representatives, who are allocated 25 percent of the seats, have been unexpectedly impressive in debates.

Indeed, President Thein Sein, a former general, has promoted reforms and freedom of the press — although critics would like to see more action in erasing draconian laws that circumscribe civil rights. Critics also wonder why there wasn’t swifter intervention to curtail sectarian violence against the Rohingya minority that persisted for several weeks in 2012 in Rakhine state — or enforcement of the announced truce with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north. However China, where many displaced Kachin have fled, is currently hosting talks on a ceasefire deal to resurrect Yangon’s 17-year truce with the KIA that broke down in mid-2011. Meanwhile, the Myanmar government has concluded 10 other ceasefire agreements with various ethnic groups.

But whatever shortcomings there are, nobody expected this country’s democratic transition to come so far so fast. It is a sign of the times that speculation is rife about the possibility that the NLD might win too many seats in the 2015 national elections. From none a year ago to “too many” in two years is a quantum leap. The major worry is how the military will respond to an NLD government should it push reforms deemed too far and too fast by the top brass.

The NLD swept the 2012 by-elections, but can it oust the USDP in 2015?

Egress has advised the USDP that it will lose power — but that demise scenario depends on whether elections are free and fair. That’s a big “if.”

In 2012, power was not at stake so the ruling party made things easy for the NLD to sweep the by-elections so the government could win international credibility. Nobody thinks it will be so easy in 2015, because everything will then be at stake.

Will the ruling party really stand by and let the NLD win a majority? How will the military react if the NLD wins a landslide victory like in 1990 when it took 82 percent of the vote (and the military junta refused to recognize the results)?

Voting lists remain subject to irregularities. There is also the tricky question of how to handle the awkward constitutional bar on Aung San Suu Kyi assuming the presidency; her marriage to a foreigner, who died in 1999, makes her ineligible. Thein Sein has said it can happen if the people so desire — but constitutional revision requires 75 percent approval in parliament, making it highly unlikely unless the military goes along.

But 2015 is a long way off, and later this month the NLD will hold its first national conference — with 1,500 delegates slated to attend. Written off as a decrepit irrelevance top-heavy with octogenarians when it boycotted the 2011 parliamentary elections, the NLD has grown enormously over the past year and enjoys widespread support.

However, this growth spurt carries its own challenges, as younger members seek a greater say in setting the party agenda. Soe Myint Aung, a professor at the Yangon School of Political Science, describes the NLD’s internal struggles as a generational “clash of cultures”.

The NLD is Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, and her charisma and undiminished moral clout compensate for many organizational deficiencies. But even those who deeply admire her suggest that she is not always effective at communicating with her party and explaining her positions. She confides in and relies on a small coterie of loyalists, but newer members feel taken for granted — while some complain she dictates more than she consults.

Yet for all the carping, The Lady (as she’s known) remains the most revered citizen of Myanmar even if she can’t be president.