Burma: Federalism, Personality Bargaining, and the 2015 Elections (Part I)

By Aung Din

Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech to her supporters in her constituency Kawhmu township, Myanmar. Political  jockeying for power in Myanmar's 2015 elections has begun in earnest. Source: Wikimedia user, Htoo Tay Zar, used under a creative commons license.

Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech to her supporters in her constituency Kawhmu township, Myanmar. Political jockeying for power in Myanmar’s 2015 elections has begun in earnest. Source: Wikimedia user, Htoo Tay Zar, used under a creative commons license.

The political landscape in Burma, also known as Myanmar, has changed since 2011 with the emergence of a purported civilian government and partially-civilian parliament. Forty-nine years of dictatorial rule was replaced by civilian governing bodies set up according to the 2008 Constitution, which grants the military, known as the tatmadaw, effective power to control the system. The government has started to loosen tight control over the population and tried to legitimize its new political system by inviting opposition parties and ethnic armed groups to join parliament.

The ruling elites have begun to admit that development and prosperity will not be possible without ending the civil war with many of the country’s ethnic minority groups and improving the rights of ethnic nationalities, who make up 40 percent of Myanmar’s total population and occupy 60 percent of the total land area.

The concept of “federalism,” previously taboo to the military regime, is now an often-used talking point among the ruling elites, including President Thein Sein, and lower and upper house parliamentary speakers Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint. Even Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the tatmadaw, has repeatedly said that since the country’s armed forces were formed with all ethnic nationalities in Burma, it can be called the Union (federal) tatmadaw. As a result, the role of ethnic minorities in Burma has increased dramatically on the new political playing field. No one will be able to claim the presidency in the 2015 elections without their support.

On March 26, President Thein Sein delivered a speech before the Union Parliament, known as the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and consisting of the Lower House and Upper House, to commemorate  three years of his administration. In the speech, he raised some important issues regarding amendments to the constitution and the role of the armed forces in the country’s politics.

About the military, he saidOur armed forces will continue to play a role in our democratic transition. There is also the need for our armed forces to continue to be included [at] the political negotiation tables in finding solutions to our political issues. We will be able to steadily reduce the role of our armed forces as we mature in democracy and should there be progress in our peace building efforts.”

Regarding the Constitution, he said “We need to carefully study [it] from all perspectives: the background history, the essence and objective for each of the provisions of the Constitution and it is also important that we amend the Constitution in accordance with the provisions as prescribed in Chapter 12 of the Constitution.”

The next day, March 27, General Min Aung Hlaing delivered a speech at the commemoration of Armed Forces Day, also known and respected by the people of Burma as Revolution Day. He saidthe armed forces is mainly responsible for safeguarding the Constitution, which can only be amended in conformity with Chapter 12.” Chapter 12 of the Constitution  stipulates that it can only be amended with prior approval of more than seventy-five percent of the representatives in the Union Parliament. Twenty-five percent of the representatives are military officials appointed by the commander-in-chief.

On the day of President Thein Sein’s speech, Shwe Mann, who also chairs the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and is a member of the Lower House, held a joint press conference in Naypyidaw. It was strange to see the leaders of the majority party and the supposed-to-be opposition party enjoying each other’s company.

During the press conference, they exchanged smiles, laughter, and happily supported each other while answering questions from journalists. Shwe Mann said he supports the call made by Aung San Suu Kyi to convene a four-person summit between President Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, General Min Aung Hlaing, and Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss constitutional amendments. Aung San Suu Kyi said she met with Shwe Mann frequently to discuss political issues, and that they “are rivals but not enemies.” Shwe Mann echoed it by saying “Yes, we met each other as colleagues for the parliament and country.

Sides have now been chosen. Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing speak the same language while Shwe Mann and Aung San Suu Kyi stand together. This marks the emergence of two political rival groups in Burma, with four key leaders of the country playing in two two-person teams at a time when the next general election is less than two years away.

Knowing that amending the constitution to make her eligible to run for the presidency (she is now barred from running by a clause in the constitution which prohibits a senior official from having close relatives with foreign passports) requires support of the Burmese military, Aung San Suu Kyi has on many occasions tried to engage with Min Aung Hlaing.

But her methods of trying to get closer to him, such as through organizing mass rallies nationwide to call on the tatmadaw to support constitutional amendments, has actually made their relationship more difficult. By blaming Thein Sein for all the problems the country is facing, Aung San Suu Kyi has alienated the president and lost his respect. Furthermore, she has chosen to ally with Shwe Mann, Thein Sein’s arch rival and a man who also holds presidential ambitions.

Although he is a former general and was the third ranking leader in the previous military regime, Shwe Mann is not a favorite of the Burmese military. His close and cordial relations with Aung San Suu Kyi make him unpopular among senior USDP leaders and the military. Shwe Mann’s repeated efforts to undermine presidential power have compelled Thein Sein to reconsider his earlier decision not to run for a second term. In addition, it has driven influential leaders in the USDP, who have power to select the party’s candidate for the presidency, to convince Thein Sein, instead of Shwe Mann, to be their preferred presidential candidate following the 2015 general elections.

Now, the gloves are off. Aung San Suu Kyi’s hopes to become the next president are almost impossible without the support of the military, even if her party wins a landslide victory in the 2015 elections. Shwe Mann may hope that since she cannot be president, she may consider supporting him for the presidency. But judging from her dealings with Thein Sein and the military, Aung San Suu Kyi’s attitude is unpredictable. The two major parties, the USDP and NLD, will fight aggressively in the 2015 elections. However, the determining player in the races for the presidency and parliamentary speaker will be ethnic political parties.

Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently living in the United States. Part II of his analysis will break down the rise of the ethnic minorities in Burma’s political process. The author has requested the use of Burma to refer to the country.