Where next for Myanmar?
What are the prospects for political change and their regional implications post the election?
30 November 2015
By: Adhi Priamarizki


The landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar’s general elections in early November was an historic moment for the nation, but despite an overwhelming mandate from the people, Suu Kyi cannot herself become president and the military is still in a strong political position.

The Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) is still a major player on the political landscape as, based on the nation’s constitution, 25 per cent of the total seats both in the upper and lower parliament are reserved for the military, as well as three ministerial positions (defense, home affairs and border affairs) in the cabinet. And under that same constitution, Suu Kyi herself cannot run as a presidential candidate as her sons hold British passports - it forbids anyone who has children or spouse(s) that owe allegiance to a foreign power to become the president of the country. However, Suu Kyi has said she is considering establishing a proxy president, so all decision-making will be in her hands.

The election saw a number of retired generals from the incumbent United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lose their parliamentary seats, reducing the military’s influence in the house, but clearly not abolishing that influence entirely. So while the NLD now has a stronger political position, at least in parliamentary numbers, Suu Kyi is avoiding antagonizing the military, preferring to open negotiations with them.

The international community is closely following this ongoing change and development in Myanmar, and though the military government has relaxed some political restrictions since 2008, many observers doubt the regime’s sincerity.[1] This article will discuss the nature of political change in Myanmar and potential regional implications following the NLD’s election triumph.

The Nature of Political Change in Myanmar

The emergence of political change does not automatically lead to political transition. Although it can transform the behavior of a political regime and the internal dynamics within a state, altering them completely is not a foregone conclusion. In 2008, the Myanmar government initiated a process of political change which was greeted with skepticism by international observers. Releasing around a thousand political prisoners, allowing peaceful demonstrations to take place, and permitting Suu Kyi to run as a parliamentary candidate in a 2012 by-election were some of the military junta’s notable reforms.

However, esteemed Myanmar scholar Robert Taylor questioned the motivations behind the reforms, calling them “an entertainment, a form of bread and circuses which failed to bring the real change.” [2] This viewpoint is reasonable as the military junta still administers politics from behind the scenes, and holds many privileges which preserve its political influence.

Although political restrictions against opposition groups have been eased, the military still controls the political landscape, backed by the constitution, through the restrictions on Suu Kyi running for president, and the parliamentary seats and cabinet positions reserved for the military. This situation compels Suu Kyi and NLD to negotiate with the military to ensure political stability and avoid hostile relations with the Tatmadaw.

Since its introduction into politics in 1962, the Tatmadaw has positioned itself center stage in Myanmar politics. Jacques Bertrand in 2013 argued there are two elements that maintain the military’s resilience in politics. The first is the existence of a dominant party established by the military to serve as a political vehicle. Second, the military provides benefits for soldiers and patrimony which strengthens elite unity.[3]

Internally, the military managed to maintain unity and cohesiveness, with Kyaw Yin Hlaing (2009) noting its two institutional strategies that have sustained harmony. First, military officers are assigned to particular areas of competence or jurisdiction which prevents overlapping and competition among them. Second, the military takes good care of its officers and soldiers by providing material benefits for loyal members.[4] A study by Terrence Lee in 2015 showed that an authoritarian ruler who employs a power sharing system is far more likely to survive political change compared to one who personalizes everything.[5] In other words, the implementation of power sharing by the military junta contributes to the regime’s resilience.[6]

It follows that the authoritarian regime is actually orchestrating the current political change and controlling the pace of reform in Myanmar.[7] Furthermore, its stagnant economy has not produced an adequate middle class that could play a crucial role in promoting a political reform agenda demanding greater participation in politics. A relatively small middle class and a robust elite cohesiveness have seen the country’s authoritarian regime face only minor challenges to its leadership.[8] Therefore, the continuation of political change depends largely on the dynamics within the authoritarian regime, though it does not necessarily close other channels.

Regional Implications: Navigating Between China and the United States

The People’s Republic of China is a major arms supplier for Myanmar, particularly because of the arms embargo from western countries.[9] Under the military junta, Myanmar forged close ties with China, and a recent report in a Chinese Communist Party-linked newspaper warned Myanmar not to leave China for the US,[10] with observers arguing that the NLD’s victory may alter this good relationship and turn to the US. The argument continues with the view that Suu Kyi and the NLD may prefer to work with the US and its allies due to their democratic ties.

Although the above-mentioned argument could materialize, one should remember that foreign policy starts at home. Myanmar’s military backed government suspended the construction of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam in 2011, a move which was seen as a populist manoeuver to show greater openness to the public. In a nutshell, the military junta tried to convince the public that it could stand up to a foreign power. On the other hand, Suu Kyi has said China will receive “special attention” when her party takes office, and that “foreign investments would need public support to improve relations.”[11]

China’s investment in Myanmar has been unpopular due to graft allegations, land grabs, shady deals with generals, and the plundering of natural resources.[12] In the past, Myanmar had no choice but to rely on China due to the international embargo and isolation. However, with the embargo no longer in place, Myanmar has greater options in the international community.

The general election subtly shifted Myanmar’s political configuration. With the NLD significantly beefing up its total of parliamentary representatives, as a result, political negotiations with the USPD will be ramped up, and political battles between the two will be seen on the parliamentary floor.

Therefore, implementing a more pragmatic and populist foreign policy is highly plausible for the incoming Myanmar government to avoid political disputes both in parliament and the public sphere. And the nation’s previous relationship with China should not be seen as a moral burden for future endeavors as it was not imposed by China, but was mutual and reciprocal.

Adhi Priamarizki is a PhD Student at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. The views expressed are his own.

[1] See Robert H. Taylor, “Myanmar ‘Pivot’ Toward the Shibboleth of ‘Democracy’,” Asian Affairs, Vol 44 (3), pp 392-400; Donald K. Emmerson, “Minding the Gap Between Democracy and Governance,” Journal of Democracy, Vol 23 (2), 2012, pp 21-35

[2] Robert H. Taylor, “Myanmar ‘Pivot’ Toward the Shibboleth of ‘Democracy’

[3] Ibid, p. 191

[4] Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Setting the Rules for Survival: Why the Burmese Military Regime Survives in an Age of Democratization,” Pacific Review, Vol 22, 2009, pp. 271-291

[5] Terence Lee, Defect or Defend: Military Responses to Popular Protests in Authoritarian Asia, (Maryland: John Hopkin Press, 2015), p. 4

[6] Ibid, p. 186

[7] Jacques Bertrand, Political Change in Southeast Asia. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 208

[8] Ibid, p. 205

[9] Maung Aung Myoe, Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces Since 1948, (Singapore: ISEAS, 2009) p. 107

[10] See “Don’t Move Closer to US, China Paper Warns Myanmar,” The Strait Times, 11 November 2015. http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/dont-move-closer-to-us-china-paper-warns-myanmar#xtor=CS1-10

[11]See “Myanmar’s Suu Kyi Says China Ties Deserve Close Attention,” Reuters.com, 18 November 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/18/us-myanmar-election-china-idUSKCN0T70OZ20151118#rSSDCwxbG7U7v7Da.97

[12] Ibid

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