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Where is post-election Myanmar heading?

A look into the Crystal Ball of Myanmar’s Future

By Eric Baker

The first official meeting of the Myanmar-Norway Business Community took place following Myanmar’s first democratic election in decades on 8 November. The group, which is initially a subsidiary of the Thai-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce until the new Chamber legislation is ready, invited Stein Tønnesson, a Norwegian peace researcher and historian, and Larry Jagan, a former BBC World Service editor for Asia and Myanmar specialist, to look into their crystal balls and see what the future holds post-election.

Ola Borge, President of the new Business Council and Partner at Baker & McKenzie Myanmar took the initiative to challenge two Myanmar experts to a panel discussion and to look into the crystal ball of Myanmar’s future.
Both Tønnesson and Jagan were fairly certain Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will become president despite constitutional clauses meant to prevent such an occurrence.

“It doesn’t make sense to have her as a super-president with a figurehead as president because it would undermine respect for the office and create a logjam at the top level,” said Mr Tønnesson. “Parliament will make changes that allow her to have the power. Because of her father, who is considered the father of modern-day Myanmar, she is the closest you could come to royalty in this country.”

“The party [National League for Democracy] has not been institutionalised in a way where other people’s voices are very influential, so she is still the main speaker.

“I think she has three possible paths from here. The first is a power struggle with the military where Ms Suu Kyi decides to go for full power and constitutional change. This scenario would see her use her mandate from the people while it’s still fresh, knowing the military cannot step in now because of the economic and political pressure from the international community. She would try and mobilise her support to force a system where she is the supreme power holder.

“The second situation would be she works with the military, builds trust gradually, and accepts the current constitution to prevent a coup or anything that would lead to bloodshed.

“The final scenario is muddling through, where in order to achieve economic progress, she decides to do a balancing act and tries to please everyone. I think most people would choose option No.3 if they were in her position because it is the most pragmatic. But she has shown herself to be very strong-willed and proud through the years, so I think it’s possible she chooses one of the first two paths.

“If she engages in a power struggle, she will try to get rid of 59(f) [the article in the constitution that prevents Ms Suu Kyi from becoming president because she married a foreign citizen and her children are foreign citizens], get rid of the military getting 25% of representatives in all the assemblies, the military being able to nominate the three key ministers in the cabinet, the military’s full autonomy and its ability to stage administrative coups, allowed by the current constitution.

“To do this, she must mobilise the people behind her and this could lead to a similar scenario as you see in Thailand. Ms Suu Kyi could lose that power struggle, leading to an alternating cycle of military coups and civilian democracy. The Thai scenario is a likely outcome if she chooses this bold approach. She would need to maintain popular and external support, so she would have to be kind to China and would not want to antagonise any domestic groups, meaning this could be a useful time for ethnic minorities to enhance their position through bargaining.

“If she chooses the second path, this involves trust-building on the elite level. This scenario would gradually reduce military power, so it would be similar to Indonesia. She would need to work with the cronies but expose them to competition from other companies. Most importantly, she would build capacity. The best way to satisfy the military would be to provide US support because they could provide the world’s best training and weapons. But this would lead to trouble with China and would be bad for peace in the border regions with that country.

“The military would be allowed to carry out offensives against ethnic minorities in this scenario, such as the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army. This would lead to many human rights protests and disappointment with Ms Suu Kyi for her policies in dealing with Rohingyas.

“The third scenario would be the best for the economy as it will build capacity in government and the economic sector and perhaps satisfy the enormous appetite for change. A colleague who writes for the Myanmar Times visited several small villages ahead of the election and everyone was expecting change but no one knew what that would entail. If the NLD thinks the best way to win the next election in five years is economic growth, there is potential that Ms Suu Kyi would choose this option. It would be good for foreign relations and investors, but there is risk as the development would be unequal, mostly in the urban centres, and the party could lose popularity if it doesn’t quench the thirst for change quickly enough.

“I think No.2, where she works with the military, is the most likely option, and this will disappoint many people.”

Mr Jagan is quite optimistic about the future, though he admitted his prognostications are not always accurate.

“I’ve been following Myanmar since 1974, though I’ve been banned from the country for 21 of the last 27 years,” he said. “What happened on 8 November is so reminiscent of the election in 1990, even down to voting numbers and percentages. But the military was unsure of what to do at the time. If it had handed over power to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi then, we’d be living in the most developed country in the region now politically and economically.

“When I look at it I see 25 years lost. But the military look at it as ‘25 years and they still hate us. We’ve built roads and infrastructure and the people still hate us.’

“One has to differentiate between the military and the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party, created by Than Shwe [after the 2008 constitution] as the military’s political party in preparation for 2010. The USDP is finished; they have no credibility. But the military is constantly regenerating and the new guys have a different outlook.

“I am optimistic because I don’t think Ms Suu Kyi is going to take on the military and convince them. After the election victory, she said we have to build on what the Thein Sein government has done, and she has never made statements like this before. I think muddling through represents the worst-case scenario for the future, but I don’t think that will be the path.

“Ms Suu Kyi wants competence, and she wants experts for the cabinet posts, so I think she’s going to look outside the NLD for these positions. This will be welcomed by the military because they are willing to compromise given she understands what they are looking for.

“Don’t expect the constitution to be changed as the head of the military came out in recent weeks saying ‘we will defend the constitution with our lives’. This upped the ante, but I’ve been around Myanmar long enough to know when people use blunt statements like this it means there is something going on beneath the surface. In this case, I have little doubt negotiations are underway for Ms Suu Kyi to become president.

H.E. Ann Ollestad, the Norwegian ambassador to Myanmar who hosted the meeting at her residence, said she was deeply moved by the election. Businesses have an important role to play in smoothing the transition to democracy, from increasing the power grid to paying taxes and providing jobs, she said.