By Phuong Nguyen
Editor’s Note: The following post is the third in a series by CSIS Sumitro Chair scholars framing the political situation ahead of Myanmar’s general elections in November 2015.
When Myanmar’s military, known as the tatmadaw, helped orchestrate the ouster in August of the once powerful Lower House speaker Shwe Mann from his post as chairman of the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, it unmistakably sent a signal that the military was still intent on pulling the trigger when it feels that its power is being put at risk.
Much of the controversy surrounding the military’s role in Myanmar has centered on its privileges under the 2008 constitution, which gives military officers 25 percent of the seats in parliament and effective veto over any proposed constitutional amendments. What is equally important as Myanmar prepares for landmark elections on November 8 is the military’s role in many crucial institutions in the country’s electoral system.
The Union Election Commission (UEC) is not the only government body busy handling organization of the elections. The military also exerts influence in the election planning process through a little-known agency called the General Administration Department, which oversees local election sub-commissions. This department belongs to the powerful Ministry of Home Affairs, which remains under military control and is tasked with, among other things, curbing dissent.
The arrests of two activists this month by the Special Branch police—another agency controlled by the Home Affairs Ministry—for “defaming” the military on social media in the frenzy of election campaigning is another example of the military’s readiness to strike when its interests are at stake.
To be sure, the UEC had received its share of criticism for being under military influence, until it decided earlier this year to appoint more ethnic members to the commission and engage more robustly with civil society and international stakeholders. Election sub-commissions, on the other hand, are found to be chronically under-resourced, less transparent about their activities, and less engaged with local civil society and media, according to a field report released by the Carter Center in August.
The report also called attention to a lack of understanding of the electoral process among some election sub-commissions. The election buzz in many of Myanmar’s urban areas may not necessarily trickle down to all of the country’s rural townships or remote areas.
Likewise, officials from the General Administration Department, and representatives from the military and police—the police also falls under the Home Affairs Ministry—sit on committees that are responsible for security at the local level. Heading local security planning committees are the state or regional ministers for border and security affairs, who are active military officers appointed by the commander-in-chief. Local election bodies have only limited authority in security administration and planning.
But for all its anxiety about the forces of change in Myanmar, the military has experimented with a new tack in its outreach to the public and the outside world. Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has granted several high profile interviews to foreign journalists—something unheard of during the old days of military rule—and his up-to-the-minute social media presence has become a fixture in the country’s blossoming social media landscape. Recent highlights of the military’s “charm offensive” included the commander-in-chief’s visits to flooded areas in northern Myanmar, where he touted the military’s contributions to relief and reconstruction efforts, and trips to see soldiers wounded on the Kokang battlefront in northern Myanmar earlier this year.
The recent disclosure that voting will be cancelled due to security reasons in more jurisdictions in border ethnic states that are deemed conflict-prone than in the 2010 elections was another reminder of the military’s ability to influence events in its favor. Ethnic armed groups in northern Shan state and Kachin state have accused the military of stepping up offensives against them, leading to an uptick in violence in Myanmar’s northeast in recent weeks. There have been at least 29 armed clashes between government troops and rebel forces this month, a somewhat concerning outlook less than three weeks before the election.
Yet many Myanmar experts believe that as long as Myanmar continues its reform process — however bumpy that might be — the military’s influence in the country’s politics looks set to gradually decline. The military will face its ultimate test when results of the elections are announced. How it chooses to react to the results will be an indicator of how Myanmar’s most powerful institution will maneuver in the country’s increasingly fluid political landscape.
The commander-in-chief, whose political plans after 2015 have been highly speculated about but remain little known, has publicly pledged to respect the outcome of the elections. Military leaders understand that U.S. and western judgment of the November poll will be crucial to their country’s future strategic outlook. The military’s relations with China have only become rockier in recent years, and few would want to go back to the days of near-total reliance on Beijing for economic assistance and political support.
Min Aung Hlaing left no doubt, however, that Myanmar, and the fledgling parliament in particular, is not ready for a reduced military role. And to those who may vie for positions of power in 2016 and beyond, he cautions that the incoming government will need to have good relations with the military.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.