Spectre of military still looms large despite election setback

YANGON • Myanmar is returning to democracy after more than five decades under military rule, yet the spectre of the military remains.

Having seen the writing on the wall, the armed forces and its political wing, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), took steps to ensure they retain a strong presence throughout the country - from the Parliament to the legal system to the economy and even the Constitution.

That is a result of the last time they allowed a full election, in 1990, when Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) also won. The army, not ready to cede power, annulled the result and kept Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the next 20 years. Suppression, sanctions and economic slump were the result.

This time, they were prepared.

"The incumbent USDP embarked on a transition process knowing that the opposition would likely be able to repeat its 1990 victory," said Mr Herve Lemahieu, a research associate at the International Institute For Strategic Studies in London, who studies transitional politics and the role of the military in Asia. "Unlike in 1990, when the then military regime failed to hand over power, this time round, key constitutional architects have had several decades to plan."

The NLD will soon hold the reins of government, but the task of winnowing away the military's influence may take decades. How Ms Suu Kyi handles that is important to the foreign investors who have piled into the country, and for neighbours like China, Myanmar's biggest trading partner with a keen interest in its natural resources.

The key to the junta's foothold is in the Constitution it rewrote in 2008. This includes provisions for military influence in Parliament - a guaranteed 25 per cent of seats; a role in choosing the president; a clause that bans Ms Suu Kyi from gaining that position; and the right to seize power again under certain conditions. The Constitution cannot be changed without 75 per cent of Parliament's approval, effectively giving the military a veto.

"These constitutional guarantees are what give the military the confidence to allow for the return of the NLD into the fold of 'disciplined democracy'," said Mr Lemahieu.

The generals also retain management of the defence, interior and border affairs portfolios, giving them control of the nation's security apparatus.

"The enshrined powers of the military in today's Myanmar make the 2015 NLD electoral victory still rather superficial in terms of challenging military might," said Mr Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.

The civilian government will have little oversight of defence expenses, which amounted to 13 per cent of government spending last year and 4.3 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. While Parliament gets to approve the official budget for the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, it has no control of off-budget military spending from the sale of natural resources, allowed under a special law.

Just as Ms Suu Kyi's popularity carried her party to a landslide win, the likelihood of a push-back by the military may also be down to one individual, former junta chief Than Shwe, who ran the country for almost two decades and is thought to wield power behind the scenes.

"I think it will depend on 'the king' whether the current peaceful situation will remain peaceful," said political analyst Than Soe Naing. "This is the first step of the long democratic journey."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'Spectre of military still looms large despite election setback'. Print Edition | Subscribe