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No Clear Path to Suu Kyi Victory

Posted in Burma, Democratic Development with tags , on April 1, 2013 by michaelkeating



By Aung Tun
After having been ruled by successive despotic military regimes for nearly five decades Burma is in a democratic transition.  After elections in 2010 the government now led by President Thein Sein, a former military commander.  There are many challenges to the process lying ahead for pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party who entered parliament in small numbers through by-elections held last April.

With new general elections set for 2015, many believe Suu Kyi and the NLD will win in a landslide against the now ruling military-aligned United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) if the polls are held freely and fairly. The NLD overwhelmingly won elections held in 1990, taking 80% of the seats, but the military annulled the results and maintained its iron-clad grip on power.

Suu Kyi has stated her desire to become president in 2015. But there are still three big obstacles to that be outcome. First, how can she overcome the constitutional provision that bars any Myanmar citizen whose spouse or children have foreign citizenship from assuming the presidency (Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British citizen)? Second, how would the military, which has yet to be reformed and harbors suspicions about the transition to democracy, respond to Suu Kyi’s civilian leadership? Third, will Suu Kyi be able to convince other military-linked candidates, including incumbent President Thein Sein and Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, to pave the way for her to contest the 2015 polls?

Thein Sein stated at the Asia Society in New York during his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in late 2012 that he would consider serving a second term if the people wanted him to stay. He had previously said that he would serve only one five-year term due to health reasons. He now uses a pacemaker and presumably his health has significantly improved. At the same time, he indicated that Suu Kyi could take the presidency if the people elect her.

Thein Sein will no doubt campaign on his reform credentials, including his government’s negotiations towards ceasefires with various ethnic minority rebel groups, successful outreach to the wider world, especially the West, after decades of international isolation, and economic policies that have increased government salaries, reduced mobile phone costs and outlined plans for poverty reduction. A mass of people recently gathered at Yangon international airport to welcome Thein Sein home after a recent foreign tour, proof to some of the president’s rising grass roots popularity.

Constitutional challenge
Suu Kyi’s more pressing political challenge, however, will be to amend the 2008 constitution in a way that allows her to assume the presidency before the 2015 polls. There are signs that the military-dominated parliament may consider certain amendments, though not necessarily the current restrictions on the presidency. On March 15, both houses of parliament unanimously agreed to establish a commission to recommend changes to bring the much-criticized charter more in-line with the democratic reform process.

It is still unclear where Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, both presidential hopefuls in 2015, stand on the potential constitutional amendments. The USDP is by far the largest party in parliament with control over more than half of the upper and lower houses’ 664 seats and is fortified by the 25% of seats reserved outright for uniformed military officials. Any constitutional amendments must be approved by more than 75% of parliament, meaning the military can block any proposed changes.

Thein Sein recently handed over the USDP’s chairman to Shwe Mann, thereby giving the Lower House Speaker authority over any proposed constitutional changes. The handover of the party’s reins also means that Suu Kyi must work with Shwe Mann rather than Thein Sein to achieve changes to allow her to run for the presidency in 2015. Media speculated earlier that Suu Kyi had fallen out with Thein Sein after a period of engagement and is now on better working terms with parliamentary leader Shwe Mann.

Still, many political observers doubt Shwe Mann, currently locked in a power struggle with Thein Sein, would be willing to implement changes that undercut his own electoral chances for the presidency. Suu Kyi will need to convince both leaders that constitutional change is necessary for the country’s further democratization and development, a view Western governments and donors will no doubt support. The drive to reform the constitution will pit her idealism against the USDP’s and military’s power politics and show how far the military is willing to go towards genuine democratization.

The jockeying for presidential position has already begun. During a recent trip to observe the conflict and peace process in Kachin State, Shwe Mann said repeatedly, “I’m not a dictator”, in conversations with local people. Observers say the comments are consistent with his attempts to distance himself from the previous military junta he served as a high-ranking officer and associate himself with the country’s new democratic direction.

Even if the charter is changed in a way that allows Suu Kyi to run for president, it is not clear how the military would ultimately respond to her civilian leadership. In recent statements Suu Kyi has bid to put the military’s fears at ease, including in a BBC press interview where she expressed her long-time “fondness” for the army. More significantly, her parliamentary committee’s recommendation to continue with a controversial military-invested copper mine despite land seizures from villagers indicated a willingness to protect military commercial interests in the face of grass roots resistance. She notably referred to the need for “national reconciliation” in her committee’s recommendations.

Indeed, some political observers doubt the military will allow free and fair elections to be held in 2015 if Suu Kyi and the NLD are clearly poised to win. Whether Suu Kyi can negotiate the constitutional changes she and her party now seek and convince potential spoilers of her benign intentions will animate Myanmar’s politics in the weeks and months ahead.

Aung Tun has worked as a journalist inside Myanmar for several years and is currently based in Boston in the United States.  He is a graduate student in the International Relations program at UMass Boston.


The Challenges for Burma’s Icon of Democracy

Posted in Burma, Democratic Development, Education, Ethnic Conflict, Fragile States, Rule of Law with tags , , on October 6, 2012 by michaelkeating

CPDD’s Aung Tun, a journalist and Burmese activist, reflects upon the challenges facing Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s gradual thaw.



Burma’s democracy icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has concluded her two weeks visit to the US, her first visit here in over 35 years. Having been released from over 15 years house arrest, she has proven that she deserved the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can give, awarded to her for her consistent leadership of the democratic movement in Burma. She is also the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

We Burmese are very, very proud of Aung San Suu Kyi’s achievement and her courage as well as her decades long leadership of our so long oppressed country’s democratic movement. She is rightly viewed all over the world as a symbol of democracy.

Though Aung San Suu Kyi is free now, and is touring around the world in her new role as a key legislator in the Burmese parliament as well as a symbol of our struggle for democracy, so many important questions about the transition to democracy in Burma, renamed by the military government in 1989 as the Union of the Republic of Myanmar, remain. We have to be able to differentiate between what’s a real transition to democracy in Burma and what’s a faux transition.  We can’t afford a mistake.

Here are some important issues that need to be addressed.

The Constitution:

The Constitution, which was one-sidedly approved by the previous military regime, reserves 25% of the seats for the military.  The holders of these seats are not elected.   This needs to be changed. Though the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made changing the Constitution a priority, there is currently no way the NLD can change it since her party, though elected, is still not more than 10% of the Parliament.  Changing the Constitution requires approval at least 75% of the members of parliament. For a real democracy to flourish, the Constitution needs to be changed. Will it be possible to change the Constitution before the next election in 2015?  No clue yet.

The Ethnic Issue:

Burma has more than 100 ethnic minorities, most of them speaking their own language and having their own customs. This diversity would be wonderful if Burma was a federal state like the US.   But it is not.  In Burma, the government is highly centralized and the military still has enormous power.   As a result, the government has waged, and is still waging, civil war against many of these ethnic minorities, fighting, for example, against the Karen minority for over 60 years.  Even though a fragile ceasefire has recently been reached with the Karen, intensive fighting is underway in the Kachin state, in the northern part of the nation on the border with China, turning thousands of civilians into refugees. Recently, there has been much publicized ethnic violence in the Arakan state. As long as a reliable federal system cannot be established, ethnic issues will not be resolved, national reconciliation will be hindered, and consequently poverty, social, and economic development issues won’t be solved. Will Burma be able to solve its ethnic problems?  Again, no clue yet.


Burma’s higher education system has fallen apart. Universities and colleges throughout the country are inadequately staffed, have virtually no facilities, do almost no research, and have few qualified teachers. It is almost a waste of time for students in the universities. To solve this problem, Burma needs to change the educational system to allow educational institutions a healthy degree of local autonomy instead of total government control, as is the case now.   Total government interference in educational affairs is disastrous in terms of producing well-trained public service workers and highly needed skilled workers for the private sector.   Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other parliamentarians, most notably Daw Tin Nwe Oo, have proposed important educational reforms, but they have yet to be voted on. Burma needs a thriving group of intellectuals to help build the country’s future. Until meaningful educational reform is enacted, it won’t be easy to build a healthy and lasting democracy. So, will the educational system be reformed?  We will have to wait and see.


Burma was the richest country in Southeast Asia during the 1930s and 1940s. The country was the world’s biggest rice exporter at that time. Even today, at least 60% of the nearly 60 million people in Burma live in farming households. The previous military regime seized farmland by force and established crony capitalism.  Now, farmers are holding big demonstrations demanding their land back. It is not clear if the current government and the Parliament will be able to solve the problem.   The economy was also hurt by the sanctions imposed against the military government by the international community.  Now the sanctions imposed by the US will be lifted soon with Daw Aung  San Suu Kyi’s approval.  Will lifting the sanctions benefit the people at large? This, too, on the waiting list.

In sum, Burma is a changed place compared with previous years. No one can deny this. However, whether the Burmese people can create a thriving democracy remains to be seen.