The Pas de Deux in Burma

Although rightly overshadowed by the heinous terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th and the ongoing crisis in Syria, one of the biggest international news items of late was probably the Burmese election held on Sunday, November 9th. The run-up to the vote commanded a great deal of attention throughout the year, largely because the fairness of the process—almost as much as the results themselves—would tell outsiders much about the fate of the political reforms that began in 2010.

However unexpected those reforms—and they were unexpected indeed—both the conduct and the results of the recent election were equally surprising. Despite some real problems involving discrimination against Muslim voters (and potential office-seekers), the election was judged to be reasonably fair by almost all outside observers, and the results as bright and hopeful as the later events in the City of Light were dark and dismal.

To be sure, experts had predicted that the National League for Democracy, the reformist party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, would win the popular vote by a sizable margin, but political analysts the world over were stunned by the number and proportion of parliamentary seats the party gained as a result. In Burma’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the NLD’s popularity with the masses translated into 390 (or 78.3 percent) of the 498 seats at issue in the two houses of Parliament, with the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won 42 seats (8.4 percent), placing a distant second. According to the 2008 Constitution, one-quarter of the seats in each house are appointed by the military, but the NLD’s victory was so complete that, even including appointed members, the party still controls almost 60 percent of seats. Moreover, the party achieved similar results in races for local assemblies around the country, winning 73.9 percent of the seats decided at the polls (although the military appoints one-quarter of seats in these assemblies as well).

Interestingly—and tellingly—the November 9th results eerily resemble voting in 1990, the last time the NLD actively campaigned in a parliamentary election. In that year, with Suu Kyi already under detention, the party won 392 of 485 seats (with seven residual vacancies), leading the military junta that controlled the country at the time to ignore the results, effectively annulling the election. In so doing, it set the stage for two more decades of military dictatorship, political repression, and economic stagnation, as well as off-and-on (but mostly on) imprisonment and house arrest for Suu Kyi.

Thankfully, this time the military seems to have accepted the polling results. It did so for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that powerful internal interests have benefitted (in the form of an investment coup) from the easing of sanctions imposed on the country as a result of human-rights violations and Suu Kyi’s protracted detention. The military had also already gone a long way toward ensuring its interests would be honored, if not guaranteed, by configuring the 2008 Constitution—ratified in that year after a staged election—to be deferential to its role in the country. The military is not only guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in Parliament, but also control over three vital ministries—defense, home affairs, and border affairs—along with one of two vice presidential positions, and an effective veto of any constitutional changes.

Nor is that all. The Constitution also contains the unusual—and unusually highly specified—provision that no one who has ever been married to a foreigner or who has children holding foreign passports can be president of the country. Given Burma’s turbulent and often tragic modern history—history marked by imperialism, destabilizing in-migration, and foreign invasions—there are plausible reasons for Burmese concern regarding external influences. But the way the provisions above are worded indicates that, in this case, such concerns were driven by fear of one person, Suu Kyi, the only person the nullifying criteria were likely to affect.

So now what? It is difficult to say. The constitutional provisions for choosing a president are highly indirect, not to say arcane and arduous. If things go as expected or at least hoped, the new Parliament, comprised of elected and appointed members, will meet early this year and among its first tasks will be to choose an electoral college, the members of which in turn will choose three vice presidents. One of these three will then be selected to be president. Although Suu Kyi’s party won the November election by a landslide and controls roughly 60 percent of all seats in Parliament, there is no guarantee that the new president will come from the NLD, or, even if it does, that it will be Suu Kyi. That said, the party is in a strong position, and it is likely that the president will be acceptable to, if not a successor of, Suu Kyi, who has often mentioned ruling from “above the president” in any case.

While much remains uncertain, one thing is clear: The opening up of the country’s political system in recent years would not—indeed, could not—have come about without the willingness of President Thein Sein to tolerate, even to support, parts of the reform agenda. In 2011, after the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which he led, won an overwhelming victory in the underwhelming 2010 election, Thein Sein moved up from his position as prime minister to assume the presidency of the country. The reform process began shortly thereafter. Almost from the start of his presidency, Thein Sein has consistently engaged Suu Kyi in a manner that, however full of hiccups, has served to push forward reforms.

Even today, of course, some analysts view Thein Sein as a mouthpiece for more powerful figures related to the military, particularly for General Min Aung Hlaing, but perhaps even for the country’s “retired” strongman, General Than Shwe. It is impossible for outsiders fully to understand the complicated relationship between the military’s political party and the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military forces, but Thein Sein, who rose from dirt-poor peasant stock to the top echelons of the military, has played a key role in each. Just as F. W. de Klerk was vital to the monumental achievements made by Nelson Mandela in ending apartheid in South Africa, Thein Sein is proving an indispensable partner to Suu Kyi. Things may still go wrong in 2016, but right now prospects for continued reform still look hopeful, especially when one considers the fact that “glasnost” in Burma began at precisely the same time as the terribly disappointing reform movements known collectively as the Arab Spring. If reforms in Burma continue, and if “irreversible change” is in fact the order of the day, it would be fitting and just for Thein Sein—like de Klerk—to pick up a well-earned Nobel Peace Prize. After all, it takes two to tango—or, perhaps more appropriately in this case, to dance the traditional zat pwe duet.

Peter A. Coclanis is the Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written extensively both on the economic and demographic history of Burma and on contemporary affairs in the country. 

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