Time to Envisage a New Chapter in U.S.-Myanmar Relations?

By Murray Hiebert & Phuong Nguyen

President Barack Obama with Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar during November 2014. Source: State Department’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Washington woke on November 13 to the anticipated, yet still exhilarating, news that the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had won around 80 percent of contested parliamentary seats in the November 8 elections. The NLD will therefore have enough seats to form the next government.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory gave the U.S. government breathing room in determining the course of its future policy toward Myanmar, but presented a distinct challenge for Washington as it tries to walk a fine line in its engagement with the multitude of stakeholders in Myanmar’s reform process.

In the lead-up to the November 8 elections, many U.S. lawmakers who have long supported Aung San Suu Kyi faced the complicated question about how Congress might respond if the democracy icon did not become president of the next government. Considering the military’s continuing grip on the country, few had dared imagine that she might actually become a dominant political figure in the country’s power structure. Assuming an NLD-controlled government takes office next year in a peaceful manner, that can translate into generally better alignment on Myanmar policy between Congress and the U.S. executive branch.

But the announcement of election results is only the beginning of a period of intense political jockeying before the new parliament meets in January 2016 to elect a president and form a new government, which is expected to take office in late March or early April.

The NLD’s control of both the lower and upper houses of parliament means it can nominate two candidates for president, while the military bloc — which retains 25 percent of appointed seats in parliament — is constitutionally guaranteed the right to nominate the remaining presidential candidate. Thanks to her party’s supermajority, Aung San Suu Kyi holds the power to push through any candidates that she wants to serve as president, with the other two nominees serving as vice-presidents.

The preeminent question on the minds of observers is whether the military will be content with a back seat and allow Aung San Suu Kyi to have free rein in the next administration. While both President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing have reassured the public that the government and military will honor the election results and assure a peaceful transfer of power, they were caught completely off guard by the extremely weak performance of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). After all, it was the military that ushered in the reform era five years ago. It even allowed a plethora of ethnic political parties to emerge to temper the NLD’s reach and influence, a strategy that did not work in this election as the NLD swept the polls in many ethnic states.

U.S. officials, who have been monitoring the situation closely, should find channels to urge the military leadership to stick with its pledge to respect the election outcomes and not resort to non-electoral means to gain an upper hand against the NLD. Washington should explicitly recognize the roles played by the armed forces and the government of President Thein Sein in ensuring a peaceful and largely transparent voting process — the extensive military apparatus was responsible for security planning and election administration at the local level.

Already there is talk in both the United States and Myanmar about stepping up U.S. assistance to Myanmar under the new government, exploring next steps in bilateral military-to military-engagement, and encouraging the U.S. private sector to increase investment in a largely untapped market of more than 51 million. This is proof that, contrary to perceptions in recent years that the Obama administration embraced Myanmar too far too fast and has few bargaining chips to fall back on, the administration holds considerable leverage with Myanmar’s traditional ruling elite, and should deploy it to the U.S. advantage.

Washington’s approach of “pragmatic engagement” toward Naypyidaw in the early days of the Obama administration — under which every step by the government was met with a corresponding response by the U.S. government — can serve as an example on how to engage Naypyidaw during this extremely fluid transition period. U.S. policymakers, including senior U.S. military leaders who have taken part in high-level exchanges with the Myanmar military, can clarify to powerful political actors what exactly will happen if a new government is allowed to take office peacefully next year, or if the fruits of the current democratic transition are reversed.

By the same token, U.S. officials should quietly encourage Aung San Suu Kyi to chart a middle course in her dealings with the USDP and the military when she meets with the president, the commander-in-chief, and speaker Shwe Mann in the coming weeks.

Aung San Suu Kyi requested to include Shwe Mann, who was ousted as USDP chairman in August and lost his parliamentary seat to an NLD candidate, in her sit-down with Thein Sein and Commander Min Aung Hlaing, when in fact she no longer needs to. It is unclear whether she did that as a courtesy to a man she once called her “ally” or as a message of defiance to the military, which widely distrusts Shwe Mann. Speculation also abounds over whether Shwe Mann, who has tapped into his support base within the USDP while simultaneously signaling his desire to work with the NLD, might emerge as Aung San Suu Kyi’s presidential pick.

Ultimately, what Aung San Suu Kyi and the military decide to do about Shwe Mann’s role will be a telling sign of whether and how well the two sides can work together. The best scenario for Myanmar’s democratic transition is one in which the long-time opposition leader and the generals who imprisoned her can come to a political deal acceptable to all sides.

As the international community joins in the excitement of Myanmar’s stunning poll results, it is prudent not to take for granted the barometers set in this election as the natural course for the future of the country’s nascent democracy. President Thein Sein deserves tremendous credit for launching Myanmar’s reform and overseeing the electoral processes thus far. However, his government also had ample time to prepare, and understood the importance of demonstrating a degree of credibility and transparency to international observers.

The powerful military was prepared only for what it calls “multi-party elections” and a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” and time will tell how it will choose to maneuver in a democracy where elections bring about not a multi-party system, but one dominated by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. Ms. Phuong Nguyen is an associate fellow with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies. Follow her on twitter @PNguyen_DC.

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.


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