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Suu Kyi won hands down. But don't expect radical changes in Myanmar

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 12 November 2015, 19:45 IST
QUICK PILL

The outcome

  • Suu Kyi\'s NLD has won the Myanmar polls, but she can\'t be president
  • Myanmar Constitution bars those with foreign spouse from being president

Army\'s power

  • Army will continue to play an important role
  • Constitution gives 25% parliamentary seats to Army nominees

More in the story

  • How Suu Kyi will control the govt without being the president
  • The world will watch her on the Rohingya issue

The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League of Democracy (NLD) has swept the Myanmar elections held on 8 November. There is no doubt that the NLD will form the government and its nominee will become the next president.

It will not be Suu Kyi because a constitutional provision debars her from holding that office. Article 59 (f) of Myanmar's constitution prescribes that no one who has a foreign spouse or children or is a foreign national can become president.

Suu Kyi's late husband was a British citizen as her two sons.

She will control the government, though, for the people have really voted for her. Thus, this emphatic victory marks the beginning of a heroic lady's period of governance and accountability.

However, the road ahead is full of obstacles; it will require great skill and adroitness to steer the nation's politics.

Clearly Myanmar cannot return to the period of direct and complete control of the generals which was witnessed from the early 1960s to 2010. Since then the army has continued to rule though in civilian garb.

The present ruling dispensation of the Union Solidarity Development Party is effectively controlled by the army. President U Thein Sein is a former senior army general, as is the Speaker of Parliament.

The Army has also ensured a political role for itself through the 'democratic' Constitution that it imposed on the country in 2010: It has a quarter of the total seats in Parliament -- 110 in the 440-strong People's Assembly and 56 in the 224-member National Assembly.

The Army constitutionally controls all matters pertaining to its own administration and is thus a state within a state. The constitution also gives it critical oversight over Myanmar's security policies.

Myanmar election

Photo: The Asahi Shimbun

Many commentators are focussing on the chances of Suu Kyi becoming President through a constitutional amendment. The question is will Suu Kyi make this an immediate priority or will she keep this issue aside and seek to build a good working relationship with the Army so that it develops full trust in her and the incoming NLD government.

The past approaches of Suu Kyi indicate that she will pursue the latter course unless the Army itself comes forth to suggest that she should assume the Presidency. That is unlikely.

The Army and Suu Kyi's relationship has been complex, full of mistrust and hostility.

In a sense she is the daughter of the Army: her father General Aung San, an ethnic Burmese, is the acknowledged father and the greatest hero of the Myanmar Army; he was its primary founder but was murdered in 1946. Suu Kyi's mother was a Karen.

The Myanmar Army is a national army but is the guardian of the majority Burmese ethnic group's interests too.

No assessment of Myanmar can ignore the country's ethnic composition and history for it impacts all aspects of national life and will continue to do so.

The Burmese ethnic group is the largest and dominates the country. The Burmese are Buddhists.

Other ethnic groups, largely the Christians, have had a turbulent relationship with the Burmese. This has led to numerous ethnic insurgencies, some of which have continued through the decades.

Un-elected Army nominees make up 25% of Myanmarese Parliament

The Burmese feel that they were suppressed and discriminated against by the British and so do not wish to dilute control. The army plays a decisive role here.

After a long period of undiluted animosity, the Army softened its position towards Suu Kyi. At the same time she changed her rejection of the present Constitution, and in 2011 agreed to allow the NLD to contest elections.

This process has obviously led to mutual confidence to the extent that the Army will now accept, although very warily, an NLD government. Of course the fact that 2015 is not 1988 is also a major factor weighing with the army.

Some within the NLD and some foreign friends of Suu Kyi may press her to try to reduce the Army's salience through constitutional amendments.

This will be difficult. Amendments need to a 75% majority in Parliament to be passed and the Army has 25% nominated members.

Fundamental amendments of this nature also require national referendums which may destabilise the polity. Suu Kyi is likely to proceed cautiously to instil confidence in the Army and among ethnic Burmese that she is mindful of their interests.

One of the issues that will attract attention is Suu Kyi's approach towards the Rohingyas. Until now she has said it has to be handled "very, very carefully" so that it does not impact on other races and communities. Also, it cannot be "resolved overnight".

This policy will continue but some steps to improve the Rohingya lot may be taken gradually to appease international opinion. But those who are looking for immediate and radical changes in Myanmar following these landmark elections will be disappointed.

The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 12 November 2015, 19:45 IST
 
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