Time for Myanmar Spring?: The Statesman

Myanmar's National League for Democracy chairman Aung San Suu Kyi holding a press conference after the new lower house parliamentary session on Feb 3, 2016.
Myanmar's National League for Democracy chairman Aung San Suu Kyi holding a press conference after the new lower house parliamentary session on Feb 3, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

There has to be a patient 'wait and watch' policy towards Myanmar as it gingerly treads towards a path of its own acceptance.

Bhopinder Singh

The Statesman/Asia News Network

The military junta in Myanmar is tiptoeing towards a historic power-sharing transition that envisages the reluctant Generals to concede political space to Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).

The Nobel Prize winner and daughter of Aung San (ironically the founder of the modern Burmese Army and negotiator of independence from the British), Ms Suu Kyi has come a long way to establish her formal credentials with the prevailing junta.

From being denied her rightful political legitimacy after winning the 1990 general elections convincingly - the junta refused to honour the results - she led a valiant struggle to usher in the changes that were punctuated with periods of detention and other violent tribulations.

However, her peaceful means of protest and democratic instincts were able to fetch international support.

The pre-eminent visitors included the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Her movement gained support from the Western powers and pro-democracy countries such as India. This facilitated a rapprochement with the junta.

Myanmar had to contend with crippling economic sanctions because of its terrible human rights record. In point of fact, it was reduced to one of the last vestiges of junta-style regression. In 2008, the junta was under considerable pressure.

Even the Buddhist monks joined the protest demonstrations to lend a certain religious sanctity to the struggle.

The junta proposed a new Constitution as part of the "roadmap to democracy".

It was a sleight of hand as it sought to cement the powers of the junta, while ostensibly showcasing a progressive initiative.

Seats were reserved for the junta and its affiliates and damagingly enough, debarred anybody married to a foreign national, the right to hold political office.

It was a move singularly intended to cut Ms Suu Kyi's wings.

A farcical election, excluding the popular NLD, ushered in the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in 2010, only to have the military junta officially dissolved on 30 March 2011.

But the basic instincts remained intact and the contrived concept of "disciplined democracy" actually alluded to quasi-military rule as opposed to a truly free and participative democracy.

However, there was progress in terms of granting general amnesty to a large number of political prisoners, the release of Ms Suu Kyi from house arrest, establishment of a National Human Rights Commission, and relaxation of press curbs and monetary systems.

General Thein Sein, who is now the President, is a reformist.

In due course of time, Myanmar was admitted to the Asean.

Ms Suu Kyi's subsequent visits to the White House, besides other world capitals, signaled a change, culminating in the first openly contested General Elections in November 2015.

Predictably, the NLD won a massive majority with 86 per cent of the open seats in parliament.

This was well above the 67 per cent cutoff to ensure the party's preferred candidate for President, albeit with the constitutional rider of disallowing Ms Suu Kyi's assumption of authority owing to the 'foreign' clause.

The NLD's participation in the elections cleared the principal hurdle towards lessening the junta stranglehold.

The next joust begins now, with Ms Suu Kyi declaring the she will wield real authority in the new NLD government.

While the Tatmadaw (military) still smarting from the election results, they have the constitutional comfort of having safeguarded themselves with the reservation of 25 per cent of seats for the military both in the national and regional parliament.

This effectively gives the military veto power over any changes. (Amending the Constitution requires the support of more than 75 per cent of MPs).

The power-sharing arrangement is now delicately poised; the NLD will have to tread cautiously to ensure that the 'Myanmar Spring' lives up to its promise.

The basic instinct of the military and the nation will be on test as the army doesn't trust civilian 'party politics'.

Myanmar's myriad internal insurgencies and omnipresent military deployment will also call for the retention of its firepower.

The offices of Defence minister, and ministers for Home and Border affairs will be reserved for the army.

The NLD will have no choice in such matters.

The ultimate ace of military muscle-power remains with the junta.

However, it ought to be acutely aware of the domestic and international consequences of any misuse of the same.

A working framework of civil-military equation to address the decades of hostility between the two institutions is imperative.

Both the politicians and the military establishment will have to tread very cautiously to build trust.

Without succumbing to the temptations of power and trying to accelerate the process of democratisation will be the key to proper governance, party and international pressures notwithstanding.

Glasnost/Perestroika and the more recent Arab Spring exemplify abrupt paradigm shifts from one extreme system to the other.

There ought to be a spirit of reconciliation, indeed to avoid questioning the established institutional interests of the military immediately, initiating a witch-hunt or insisting on the political coronation of Ms Suu Kyi.

This might provoke the junta to switch gears.

India must play its card sensibly.

There is already a precedent of the junta suddenly easing ambush traps to allow an escape route to the trapped India-based insurgents in the middle of a joint military operation with the Indian Army.

This happened when the junta learnt that the Indian government had decided to give a state honour to the then rebel leader, Ms Suu Kyi.

While the Chinese have invested for decades in building a strategic relationship with the junta, it could now drift towards a 'balance' in favour of India, given its avowed support to Ms Suu Kyi during her struggle.

As it is, there has been a thaw in the junta's equation with India.

To the extent that operations by our defence forces have resumed in order to neutralise the insurgent camps in the North-East - on the Myanmar side of the border.

There has to be a patient 'wait and watch' policy towards Myanmar as it gingerly treads towards a path of its own acceptance, marked by its constituents, emotions and contradictions.

Truly, a significant experiment in democracy is coming up in the form of the Myanmar Spring.