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The danger of Suu Kyi's 'above the president' role

National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Nov 19 met representatives of more than 50 countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway, Russia and the United States. 

After waiting for 25 years since her party's electoral victory in the 1990 general election was annulled by the military government, Ms Suu Kyi is convinced that her time has come to lead Myanmar.  

In conjunction with her political ambition, she took steps not to antagonise the majority voters of the country, who are predominantly Buddhists.

She not only maintained silence on human rights violations against the country's minority Muslims, but her party also avoided fielding Muslim candidates.  

As a politician, her electoral strategy worked well in her favour, much better than many analysts had predicted before the election.

As the NLD prepares to form the next government, there are some concerns. One major concern is the possible confrontation between the NLD and the military, which still remains a powerful force and essential element in the country's polity.


Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's pre- and post- election remarks show she is keen to lead not only her party but also the next government.
- PHOTO: REUTERS

Before the election, Ms Suu Kyi said: "If we win, and the NLD forms a government, I will be above the president… the Constitution says nothing about somebody being above the president." 

In response, senior official Zaw Htay at the President's office said Ms Suu Kyi's comments were "against the constitutional provision" which states that the president takes precedence over all other persons.

After the election on Nov 10, the NLD leader continued to say that the president "will have no authority, and will act in accordance with the decisions of the party...because in any democratic country, it's the leader of the winning party that becomes the leader of the government".  

Her pre- and post-election remarks unequivocally show that she is keen and ambitious to lead not only her party but also the next government. Since the NLD now has a majority of the seats in both houses of Parliament, the party is in a position to elect the president and one of the two vice-presidents.  

The participation of the NLD in the 2015 general election means that the party has agreed to respect the 2008 Constitution, which protects the inherent role of the military in politics.  

Despite its majority in Parliament, the NLD would need to accept the reservation of 25 per cent of the seats for the military; as well as the post of one vice-president and Cabinet portfolios for home, defence and border affairs, and the formation of the National Defence and Security Council, which will have the authority to declare a national emergency for the military to take charge of all branches of the government - executive, judiciary and legislative.

There is no doubt that Ms Suu Kyi would act with due diligence not to provoke the military leaders. And at the same time, she will play more or less the role of Ms Sonia Gandhi during the Congress-led government in India.  

However, there is a danger that the military may find it difficult to tolerate the country's president becoming a puppet of Ms Suu Kyi. If such situation arises, the military will criticise the president for incompetence.  

It must be remembered that one of the reasons General Ne Win staged a military coup in 1962 was the allegation that the civilian government under the leadership of Prime Minister U Nu was incapable of effective administration across the country.  

There are two main concerns that can provoke the military to intervene or disrupt the civilian government - the peace process with ethnic armed groups and the question of constitutional amendment.  

If the military, which considers itself the guardian and protector of the state, sees that the NLD government is incapable of resolving the decades-old ethnic minority problems and feels that there is an imminent threat to the country's national and territorial integrity, it will find a reason to intervene.  

Similarly, if the military sees that the NLD government uses its power to try to amend or replace the 2008 Constitution with the objective of reducing or eliminating the role of the military in politics, it will likely feel provoked.

The people of Myanmar and the international community should understand that the democratisation process that has been put in place is one of consensual transition, in which the authoritarian leaders actively participate in the process of change by controlling or limiting the change. This type of transition entails some degree of political continuity between authoritarianism and democracy.  

Only when the military leaders are convinced that the peace process with ethnic armed groups is politically resolved and when they no longer fear being prosecuted for crimes committed during the years of military rule, will they be willing to give up their political role.

To avoid confrontation with the military and the country's ethnic minorities, Ms Suu Kyi must ensure that both these groups are either consulted or included in all major decisions the NLD government takes.

It would be a wise move on her part if she can allocate some important portfolios to ethnic minorities. Even if she acts as the architect or above the president, she must act diligently not to provoke the military leadership and not to betray the trust of ethnic minorities.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

•The writer is a United States-based political scientist and author of three books on Myanmar.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2015, with the headline 'The danger of Suu Kyi's 'above the president' role'. Print Edition | Subscribe