Essay: Myanmar – What Next?


Nilanjana Sengupta

Recently at the Singapore Writers’ Festival I met a young publisher from Yangon who confessed to spending sleepless nights, thinking what would happen on the 8th of November and perhaps more importantly, afterwards. In the last Myanmar general elections he had reached the election booth nice and early only to find his name absent on the electoral roll. He had merely written ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ on a piece of paper and slipped it into the ballot box.

Sitting amidst the well-manicured lawns of the Victoria Concert Hall of Singapore with the efficiently administered GE 2015 recently concluded, it is difficult to imagine the fever-pitch tension which is currently raging in a neighbouring country – Myanmar. The November 2015 election is a first of its kind in decades when real political parties will engage in real electoral competition. During the 1980s and 90s the country has known East European-style elections which merely confirmed the majority of the ruling party. In 1999 though the Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD party won 392 of 492 seats, it could not persuade the military junta to hand over power and in 2010, with Suu Kyi still under house arrest, the NLD decided to boycott the elections and the government-backed USDP won by an overwhelming majority.

What is interesting about the 2015 elections is that, contrary to earlier years it is not a simple black and white face off between the USDP and the NLD. With the Thein Sein-led government remaining committed to reform, the political credo of both sides is apparently the same – democratisation. In fact, while Suu Kyi speaks of change, the USDP too speaks of change but only with the added tag line, change which will not disintegrate the Union of Myanmar. Recently, at a rally in his native Ngapudaw Township, the President went on record to say, Myanmar had changed enough since 2011, if the people wanted further change, perhaps they should turn to communism? While the reference to communism and the post-1948 period of disruptive ethnic and radical insurgency which finally led to the military coup of 1962, is not lost on the people, it is also for them to decide whether the reform they have witnessed since President Thein Sein took over is enough or they, like the proverbial Oliver, would be asking for more.

To add to the complex picture of this year’s elections is the spate of regional and ethnic parties which will also be contesting: the candidate count goes up to 6000, fielded by 92 accredited parties, contesting 1142 seats of the central and regional legislatures. Over the last one year the Suu Kyi-led NLD has consistently maintained an independent stance, steering clear of overtures for an alliance both from the 8888 party as well as the ethnic-led UNA (Union Nationalities Alliance), one of the oldest and most experienced of ethnic coalitions. Both decisions triggered controversy, but perhaps more so the first, given the status of 8888 party leaders – second only to Suu Kyi herself in the democracy pantheon. On hindsight though, critics have reconciled themselves to the thought behind the decision – perhaps the NLD does not want to be perceived as ‘ganging up’ with other radical elements.

Splitting the opposition vote will be the over 30 ethnic parties which are in the fray and according to trade pundits, emerging with a voice stronger than ever before. ‘Federalism’ is finally a part of the national discourse and the winning card on the negotiating table with which the USDP has been able to draw 8 out of the 15 ethnic organisations to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement of October 2015. Interestingly, the alliance between ethnic parties and the NLD is not what it used to be: the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, for example, which back in 1999 had won the largest number of seats in close alignment with the NLD, has not been able to forge such a nexus this time. Along with this is the host of non-regional and non-ethnic parties like the farmers’ parties with their focus on land acquisition laws or the resurrected DPNS (Democratic Party for a New Society), vocal about issues ranging from education to minority rights.

So what next for Myanmar? Of course in the interregnum following the elections the National Defence and Security Council, a, 11-member team headed by the President, will hold power. Constitutionally the President needs to be elected within a 90 day period which would already take us to the first quarter of 2016. Consequent to the elections three possibilities arise. First, though unlikely going by electorate sentiments, the USDP emerges as a clear winner and unanimously elects a President. Second, also unlikely given the large panoply of opposition voices, the NLD wins by an overwhelming majority and consequently, during the interregnum successfully campaigns for an amendment of clause 59F of the 2008 Constitution which prevents Suu Kyi from being elected President. The third, more likely possibility is that the NLD wins substantially as is being predicted, particularly in the Bamar-dominated regions; taking the tiny sliver of seats it currently enjoys (37 or 8% in the Lower House & 4 or 2% in the Upper House) to a far more respectable figure of over 300 combined parliamentarian seats. In that case some of the important ministries like health and education (issues the NLD has been vocal about) might go to the NLD and a much required balancing of power would happen while Aung San Suu Kyi is selected the Speaker of the Lower House. Apparently no provision in the Constitution prevents her from being one and the earlier purging of Thura Shwe Mann from the same post might actually pave the way for her to take over.

But whatever is the outcome, one thing that Myanmar definitely needs is a peaceful transition. Since 2011 some valuable work has happened and we have seen Myanmar doing a delicate balancing act in managing crony-capital vis-à-vis international tendering, in the corporatisation attempts of the State Economic Enterprise Sector, in driving a national ceasefire agreement as well as in remaining committed to a more proactive role in the ASEAN community. As Suu Kyi has repeatedly emphasised, as much as a transformative election, Myanmar needs a tranquil one. Let us say a quick thadu, thadu, thadu to that.

Nilanjana SenguptaNilanjana Sengupta is the author of the recently published, The Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi, (Cambridge University Press, 2015, ISBN: 9781107117860)