The world has carefully been watching the gradual evolution of democracy (or quasi-democracy as some have termed it) in Myanmar. They have, however, been taken aback by a comment of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the majority political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Reacting to questions regarding the Rohingya Muslim minority community posed by BBC presenter Mishal Husain, she said "no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim." This went viral in the social media.
Anyway, Myanmar has crossed a historic milestone. An elected civilian president was sworn in on 30 March 30, 2016 after more than 50 years. Htin Kyaw from the National League for Democracy (NLD) has taken over from Thein Sein (who became president of a quasi-civilian government in 2011 and was instrumental in promoting the path of wide-ranging reforms during his past five years in power).
In the general elections conducted by the Myanmar Election Commission in November, 2015, the NLD won the largest number of seats in Parliament - both in the Upper (135) and the Lower House (255). The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP0, backed by the entrenched interests of the past five decades, secured 11 seats in the Upper House and 30 in the Lower House. The Armed Forces secured 56 seats in the Upper House and 110 in the Lower House. Other Parties secured 22 seats in the Upper House and 38 in the Lower House. The Election Commission cancelled elections for seven other seats. The elections were viewed as having been free and fair by the international community as well as Observers within Myanmar. There was, however, a stigma that no one from the Rohingya community could exercise their right to vote as they were not considered as citizens of Myanmar in the census conducted by the then government.
It may be noted here that though the NLD emerged as victorious, with a clear majority, the military will still play a significant role. Besides retaining control of key security ministries, it also has a guaranteed 25 per cent of parliamentary seats in the Lower House - thus retaining the power to veto any changes to the Constitution, as that would require more than 75 per cent of votes.
Myanmar's process of achieving the required reforms within the political domain and emerging out of the international pariah landscape has been a bumpy and uneven ride. After the elections, the NLD felt that coming out victorious in nearly 80 per cent of the contested seats had sufficiently conveyed the message to the Army that the people had not only voted for change but also for Suu Kyi to lead. This dynamics was not interpreted that way despite three meetings after the election between Suu Kyi (assumed by most analysts at her request) and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Suu Kyi was exploring the possibility of a grand deal to circumvent discriminatory Clause 59 F of the Myanmar Constitution that disqualifies anyone whose spouse, children, and even spouses of children, have foreign passports. Suu Kyi's two children by Oxford academic Michael Aris, possess British passports which has become the insurmountable hurdle. It is understood that the NLD leader sought the approval of the Army to enable Parliament to temporarily suspend the part of the constitution that bars her from becoming President. This was not to be.
Supporters of this infamous clause maintain that such a prescription protects the country's sovereignty. However, most now believe that it was drafted by the military to close the door on Suu Kyi. Others have claimed that this clause has been deliberately introduced into the matrix so that efforts to open that door would require further concessions (in terms of governance) for the Myanmar Army, including the possible right by them to choose the Chief Ministers of several States/Provinces in Myanmar. It's not clear why the grand deal didn't happen. Some have asserted that the Army just couldn't stomach the idea. Others have claimed that Suu Kyi might have refused to concede enough. For whatever reason, the talks broke down.
Being barred from the post of President, Suu Kyi ended up proposing her close aide and friend Htin Kyaw as her Party's candidate for the post of President of Myanmar. Educated in Britain, he is also known for his reputation for honesty and loyalty, and for maintaining a low profile. Htin Kyaw won the presidential vote in Parliament in March, 2016 with 360 of the 652 votes cast. His victory was seen as re-assertion of Suu Kyi's popularity. In the second place was Myint Swe, a hardliner and close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe, nominated by the military. He received 213 votes. He was followed by Htin Kyaw's running mate and ethnic Chin candidate Henry Van Thio, who got 79 votes. Both these persons will serve as First Vice-President and Second Vice-President respectively.
There have been reports in the media that the NLD will soon complete the process of naming its Ministers in the new government. Suu Kyi will in all likelihood exercise her sociometric overlay with the new President by being in charge of the important portfolios of Foreign Affairs, the President's office, Education, Energy and Electric Power. It is likely that the rest of the government will be a mix of NLD officials and technocrats. In the meantime, it has been revealed that a draft Bill is being prepared for creation of a new post, to be known as "Adviser to the State". It will be submitted to Parliament in the next few weeks. It is anticipated that this post will be filled up by Suu Kyi and will give her the power to work on all the key issues of government and meet whoever she wants. The new post will be similar to a Prime Minister in terms of governance. It is being interpreted that this would protect her from allegations that she is acting unconstitutionally by taking on additional power.
The military will retain in all probability the control of three key ministries - Defence, Home Affairs and the sensitive Border Affairs. This, apparently, has stemmed from the concept of them being in charge of national security. This will also be consistent with existing constitutional provisions that state that the key security ministries (Home, Defence and Border Affairs) are appointed not by the President but by the Army Commander-in-Chief.
In the immediate aftermath of the elections, Suu Kyi had spoken of being inclusive and creating a government of national unity. That appears to have flown out of the window after the Army rejected her overtures.
Nevertheless, this anticlimactic outcome has strengthened Suu Kyi politically and diminished the military in the eyes of the Burmese people. The inflexibility of the Army, in the face of a huge popular mandate, has also set the tone for what looks likely to be a period of confrontation in the new political landscape between them and the newly elected democrats.
It is true that Suu Kyi's authority will be unchallenged within her party and that she will also have the most important say both in the government and the parliament. It is assumed that one of her priorities, in all likelihood, will be to renew her bid to change the constitution and reduce the army's power. The international media has reported that the unelected army representatives have already started sampling the new order. Suu Kyi's MPs are demanding that deals made by the army and the former government be re-examined. This has led to some drama with all the men in green uniform standing up in the parliament to protest such a move.
It is clear that the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar will be the main limit on Suu Kyi's power. Drafted by the generals, and approved through a questionable referendum, it ensures, even today, that the military retains its political role. Much has changed in Myanmar, but the Burmese army has not budged one inch from the red lines it introduced in the constitution. Consequently, it is feared that the democratic experiment, economic reforms and the emboldened Suu Kyi will continue to remain in a controlled space that the military has designed and now seem intent on preserving.
One, however, hopes that the intentions made public by the new president after being sworn in will come through. He mentioned on March 30 that the NLD would continue its efforts to amend the constitution to "bring it up to democratic standards".
Nevertheless, the changes in Myanmar appear to have ushered in symbolic signs of hope, particularly for the different ethnic minorities including the Rohingyas. In a surprise move, the outgoing President Thein Sein announced on March 29 the removal of emergency order, which had been in place since unrest left scores dead and tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims confined in miserable displacement camps. This is a movement forward.
In the meantime, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has stated that according to their investigation, "many less people (migrants including Rohingyas) came out of Myanmar last year." Optimism has also been created, according to the United Nations, among different ethnic communities after NLD's assumption of power and the return to civilian governance. This, according to them, has already persuaded more than 25,000 Rohingyas, interned in camps, to return to their original villages and re-build their destroyed homes.
Myanmar today has a historic opportunity. The civilian population as well as the their armed forces should work together not only for economic development, eradicating the narcotics problem, creation of better infrastructure and addressing the frequent power outages but also for securing of personal freedom. Many challenges still remain for Myanmar but it can, as indicated by the European Union, "become an inclusive, pluralistic and peaceful democracy".
The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.