By Priscilla Clapp & Aung Din
The December 27 Myanmar State Gazette announced that 58 military officers with the rank of major and 3 with the rank of captain have been appointed to the Union Election Commission (UEC). According to the announcement, these active military officials were transferred from the Office of the Commander-in-Chief (Army) to the UEC to fill its organizational structure. The majors are to serve as assistant directors and the captains as administrative officers in the various commission offices, possibly in districts and townships. These appointments have been in effect since December 2, but the official announcement was not made until more than three weeks later.
What, if any, impact the appointment of military officers to the commission staff may have on the election process is impossible to predict at this stage, but it appears to be the first time under Myanmar’s 2008 constitution that active duty military personnel have been appointed to help conduct elections. If this trend continues unopposed, many more military officers may be transferred to the UEC before 2015. This will be unacceptable, because it will not bode well for free and fair elections.
The UEC is one of the highest level authoritative bodies in Myanmar, with vast power conferred by the 2008 constitution “to monitor and decide the fate of political parties, arrange or postpone or cancel election schedules, hold elections, judge election-related cases, and investigate members of parliament if just one percent of their constituents complain and fire them if allegations are found true.”
The president nominates the chairman and members of the UEC, but the parliament has no right to reject the nominees as long as they meet the standard qualifications. The constitution also makes the UEC more powerful by stating in Article 402 that, “The resolution and functions made by the Union Election Commission on the following matters shall be final and conclusive: (a) election functions; (b) appeals and revisions relating to the resolutions and orders of the election tribunals; (c) matters taken under the law relating to political party.”
This powerful body is being led by Tin Aye, a former lieutenant general in the previous military regime, who remains loyal to President Thein Sein. In June 2013 several members of parliament called for the UEC to hold by-elections to fill vacancies: 16 in the lower house, 4 in the upper house, and 16 in state and regional parliaments. Tin Aye simply replied that as the UEC is busy with preparations for the 2015 elections, there is no plan to conduct by-elections for the time being.
His response effectively deprived 2 million people of representation in the parliament at a time when momentous decisions will be made, and froze the elected membership in the parliament at less than the intended 75 percent. In any case, his decision as the chairman of the UEC is final.
Filling these vacant seats as soon as possible is critical, as the parliament is preparing to discuss amending the constitution in the current and coming sessions in 2014. The military, which holds 25 percent of the seats in parliament, already has veto power because amendments to the constitution can be made only with the approval of more than 75 percent of the parliament. Occupying less than their intended 75 percent of the legislature only further weakens the position of the elected representatives. Their vote count is now just 72 percent.
Tin Aye is being criticized by some in the media not just for refusing to hold the by-elections, but also for accompanying President Thein Sein on his visits to several parts of the country. He is supposed to be independent and should not associate with any political party members or office holders. Seeing him at the side of Thein Sein on presidential trips and at the conference of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in 2013 raised many politicians’ eyebrows. The recent appointment of 61 army officers to senior positions in the UEC is sure to discomfort many more.
Placing military officers in high level positions in the civil service is a decades-old practice of Myanmar’s successive military regimes, which have all aimed to award their soldiers and keep civilian staff under control. Such practices are a relic of the past and should be stopped if the country is truly on the path to democracy. The UEC is supposed to be an independent commission, free of influence by the ruling party and the military. The conduct of the elections in 2015 will be questionable if the chairman of the UEC cannot prove that he does not favor the ruling party, that he is not an ally of the current president, and that he is not associated with the military.
Meanwhile the clock is rapidly ticking down on the time left for amending the constitution before the 2015 elections.
Ms. Priscilla Clapp is the former chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar and is currently working on Myanmar with a number of institutions. Mr. Aung Din is a democracy and human rights activist and former political prisoner in Myanmar.