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Another Landslide Victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party in Myanmar – But at What Cost?
Another Landslide Victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party in Myanmar – But at What Cost?
Op-Ed / Asia

Give Burma a Chance

Originally published in Foreign Policy

No, the country's remarkable democratic transition hasn't been perfect. But its critics should keep in mind how much has already been accomplished.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, which took power at the end of March, is the first democratically elected government to run Burma in more than 50 years. There has been considerable criticism of the new government from pundits and in the media, and even in some political circles in the West. Among other things, commentators have criticized weaknesses in addressing the plight of oppressed Muslim communities in Rakhine State and what is seen as the government’s non-transparent and non-consultative decision-making. But while many of the concerns are valid, there must be more understanding of the daunting challenges Burma’s new democratic leadership is confronting. So far, they have made some missteps, but no huge mistakes.

The tasks facing the government are formidable. It must find ways of moving the peace process with the country’s many ethnic groups forward, addressing the plight of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine State, and continuing the delicate process of rebalancing Burma’s external relations, particularly vis-a-vis China. The burden of leadership on all of these fronts will fall on Suu Kyi’s shoulders, since she has assumed simultaneously the positions of State Counsellor, Foreign Minister, and chair of various high-level committees. Success will depend not only on developing carefully thought-out policies and listening attentively to those affected, but also on her ability to delegate. These are the twin policy and personal challenges now facing Suu Kyi as Burma’s de facto leader.

The general trajectory so far has been very positive. Burma has passed through a year of considerable uncertainty and change with no major political turmoil. The previous military-backed government went ahead with broadly credible elections, held with almost no violence, that delivered a resounding victory for Aung San Suu Kyi — a former political prisoner. This massive victory set the stage for the first orderly transfer of power via the ballot box since Burma’s independence in 1948.

Suu Kyi had made clear before the polls that she would be the key decision-maker in the new government, and so it has proved. Her close confidant, Htin Kyaw, was chosen as president, but Suu Kyi is the undisputed leader, with her new title of “State Counsellor” effectively circumventing the constitutional bar on her taking the presidency. Her administration has now managed to enter into an awkward cohabitation with the military — as dictated by the 2008 constitution — without significantly compromising on key principles or prompting any fundamental rifts with the armed forces. Navigating these difficult waters has been a key early success of the government, the military, and the country as a whole. But with its inexperienced team, and enormous challenges ahead, the government cannot be expected to enjoy success on all fronts. Expectations for quick progress — of the kind more appropriate to mature democracies — should be tempered.

The government has taken early steps to address Burma’s authoritarian legacy, releasing political detainees and repealing or amending several oppressive laws — although there is much more to do. At the same time, it has made some initial missteps on the peace process and in addressing the discrimination against Muslim communities in Rakhine State.

Suu Kyi’s April 27 declaration that she would take personal charge of convening a new “21st Century Panglong” peace conference, named for the pre-independence gathering hosted by her father, was made without consulting armed groups or ethnic political leaders. She is now pushing to move ahead with this conference by the end of August, before the necessary building blocks are in place. Understandably, ethnic leaders worried that the substance of the new initiative was unclear and that it was announced without any prior consultation. In a subsequent meeting, she moved to allay some of these concerns by clarifying that the conference would continue the previously-agreed peace process rather than setting a different direction. She also established clear consultation mechanisms. Ethnic leaders are now worried that she may stick to an unfeasibly tight deadline for the conference, eroding trust and buy-in from armed groups, with potentially damaging consequences.

There have been some missteps in other areas as well, again related to a lack of consultative decision-making. To address the longstanding communal tensions in Rakhine State, a “Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State” was formed on May 31, chaired by Suu Kyi herself. The early focus of the committee has been on revamping a process to determine the citizenship status of the state’s Muslim population, most of whom have no citizenship documents and face pervasive discrimination, both by the government and by the state’s Buddhist Rakhine majority. Accordingly, this is one of the most difficult and contentious issues to be addressed.

The first steps have included rolling out a temporary identification document for Muslim residents, as well as attempts to sidestep the divisive issue of what the main Muslim minority group should be called. (They self-identify as “Rohingya,” but Rakhine nationalists insist they be called “Bengali” to suggest their Bangladeshi origins, despite the fact that many have lived in Burma for generations.)

A lack of trust rooted in years of discrimination by the central government against both Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State had meant that these initiatives have raised objections from both communities. In particular, there has been very strong reaction by Buddhist Rakhine nationalists to the government’s preferred term, “the Muslim community in Rakhine State,” which may make it much harder to reach a future compromise on nomenclature. A lack of public information about the citizenship process has meant that it has seen low levels of interest in most places. In some cases it has faced outright resistance. Success in addressing the complex situation in Rakhine State will require a solid understanding of the nuances, together with a willingness to consult broadly to obtain buy-in (or at least reduce opposition) of hardliners in both Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities.

Each of these missteps arises from a lack of sensitivity to some of the complex details at play, and a lack of consultation in advance of announcing important decisions or initiatives. Such mistakes are understandable, and can perhaps be attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi’s initial settling-in period. It is also possible that they reflect a deeper culture of non-consultative decision-making, which would be of concern; but it is too early to come to such a conclusion.

Another challenge is the government’s relationship with the military. Both sides have a clear interest in working together. Suu Kyi cannot effectively govern the country without the military’s support, or at least its acquiescence. On the other hand, the military is reliant on Suu Kyi to achieve some key objectives — a better domestic and international reputation and improved military-to-military relations with the West. More fundamentally, the military is invested in the success of the transition: The current government’s failure would be a failure for the transition process the military itself initiated.

Yet shared interests have not always translated into positive relations. The military was particularly upset with the bill that appointed Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, introduced only a few days after the transfer of power. On substance, they objected that the bill was anti-constitutional because it created a position that undermined the president’s authority and that it violated separation of powers by providing for a direct relationship with the parliament, a view shared by some ethnic and other opposition legislators. The military is particularly sensitive on constitutional matters, as the prerogatives it is granted were essential in giving it the confidence to hand over many other powers.

There have been recent positive steps in civil-military relations, including the commander-in-chief’s attendance for the first time of the annual Martyr’s Day ceremony commemorating the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father. But such highly symbolic events should not be over-interpreted — there are still plenty of challenges ahead.

The international community can help Burma’s new government navigate these difficult waters in several ways. It is rightly giving the government strong political backing, but it should not shy away from offering frank and honest advice. Financial and technical support is very much needed, although there is a significant risk that uncoordinated aid projects and overlapping and inconsistent technical assistance will overwhelm the government’s capacity and potentially do harm; the beginnings of this were already visible over the last few years.

Donors also need to keep in mind that the state — and by extension the government — remains absent or contested in many conflict-affected areas. Assistance projects need to be carefully designed and closely monitored to reflect this. In expanding support to government, it is also vital that the West in particular explore appropriate avenues of military-to-military cooperation. This is for two reasons: In the first place, it is essential that the military see institutional benefits from its decision to give up a significant portion of its power. Furthermore, the socialization of a new generation of military officers with their peers in democratic countries can make a critical contribution to reform.

Burma’s new government has come in for a lot of criticism — some of it deserved. But we must remember that Burma remains one of the most successful examples of democratic transitions in modern times. The government should be criticized if it fails to meet realistic expectations, but it is counterproductive to hold a country still emerging from decades of authoritarianism and civil war to impossibly high standards.

A woman casts her vote at a mobile polling station inside her home in Yangon on 29 October, 2020, as advance voting in the country's elections began for elderly people. Sai Aung Main / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Another Landslide Victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party in Myanmar – But at What Cost?

The National League for Democracy is set to win a second term following Myanmar’s 8 November elections – its second competitive polls since absolute military rule ended in 2011. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Richard Horsey reflects on the implications for the country’s conflicts.

What do the initial results indicate?

The full official results of Myanmar’s 8 November general elections have yet to be announced, but it is already clear that, as expected, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has scored another landslide victory. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has not only won virtually every seat in the central Burman Buddhist heartland, which constitutes its traditional stronghold, but also increased its haul of seats in many ethnic minority areas. The main national opposition party, the military-established Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), suffered an even more humiliating defeat than in 2015. The ethnic minority parties had mixed success in various states, but they fell far short of their aim of becoming kingmakers in the new parliament. As for the crop of new opposition parties that were hoping to establish themselves as credible alternatives – led by a collection of ex-generals, NLD malcontents and social activists – they do not appear to have won a single seat.

The NLD landslide is largely the result of Aung San Suu Kyi’s immense popularity among Myanmar’s Burman Buddhist majority, who see her as having sacrificed so much in the past to challenge military rule that her government’s performance over the last five years is only secondary. While the Rohingya crisis has demolished her image abroad, her personal defence of Myanmar against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 has, on the contrary, enhanced her aura at home, as has her prominent leadership of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the NLD’s victory was never really in doubt in light of this unwavering support for its leader among the Burman Buddhist majority, its strong wins in many ethnic areas, for reasons that will be pored over by analysts and ethnic parties in the weeks ahead, has come as a huge blow to ethnic parties. This result sets up the post-election period for deeper division between ethnic minorities and the Burman Buddhist majority, and potentially, further conflict.

The further erosion of the USDP’s support does not come as much of a surprise. The party has failed to reinvent itself as a credible alternative to the NLD, which would imply shedding is military links and association with the authoritarian past. It would also mean offering a coherent challenge to the government’s performance – on the economy, social issues or, more recently, COVID-19. Over the last five years, the party has not been effective at putting forward any policies to show how it would do things differently. The upshot is that most Myanmar voters see it as a party of the past, as the results indicate. On 11 November, the USDP held a press conference claiming that the elections were not free and fair and declining to accept the outcome. So far, however, it has presented no convincing evidence to back up its claims. Given the extent of the NLD’s landslide, the electorate’s view of the USDP appears unambiguous.

If the NLD victory was a foregone conclusion, what was at stake in these elections?

Elections in Myanmar are not taken for granted. For most voters, this time was only the second in their lives that they could vote for the party of their choice, after over five decades of military rule. Despite the public health risks from COVID-19, voters in most areas turned out in large numbers, indicating that they saw casting their ballot as an important opportunity and a civic duty. For the Burman Buddhist majority, the vote was also an opportunity to reaffirm their confidence in and reverence for Aung San Suu Kyi as their leader.

Over the last couple of years, ethnic parties have been merging, and organising, in the hope that they could attain some real influence through these elections.

But many other communities feel that they have not been well served by the NLD in its first term. The most marginalised of all are of course the Rohingya, 750,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh since 2016 after a brutal military crackdown. The estimated 600,000 who remain in Rakhine State continue to face severe discrimination, and the community was almost entirely disenfranchised in this poll. But many other ethnic communities, who considered the NLD a potential ally ahead of the last election, now also feel let down by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, which once in power treated them more as adversaries, failed to consult them and promoted a Burman nationalist agenda – for example erecting statues of nationalist hero Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, in their areas. Over the last couple of years, ethnic parties have been merging, and organising, in the hope that they could attain some real influence through these elections.

Why was voting cancelled in many ethnic areas?

The election commission’s decision to cancel voting in a large number of ethnic minority-dominated areas for security reasons resulted in some 1.5 million voters being denied the chance to cast their ballots in various parts of the country. This decision most significantly affected Rakhine State, as well as some parts of Shan State and – to a more limited extent – several other ethnic areas.

These cancellations were very controversial, particularly in Rakhine State. Not that cancellations were unjustified: the security situation in Rakhine State is objectively grave, not only because of the armed conflict that is raging between the security forces and the Arakan Army, but also because of political violence – the most recent example being the Arakan Army’s kidnapping and continued detention of three NLD candidates from Toungup township. The problem, however, is that the commission is a partisan body, appointed by the government. Its decisions are not transparent, the process behind the cancellations is not consultative and the rationale is not explained publicly.

In theory, future by-elections could remedy the problem, but in practice the security situation means that is unlikely.

Since many of the areas cancelled are Rakhine party strongholds, where the NLD was almost guaranteed to lose, many local people have been crying foul, claiming that the election commission is biased. Adding to the suspicion is the lack of cancellations in nearby conflict-wracked Paletwa township, in southern Chin State, traditionally an NLD bastion. With elections only being held in the south of Rakhine State and the state capital Sittwe, most parts of the state have been denied representation. In theory, future by-elections could remedy the problem, but in practice the security situation means that is unlikely.

What are the likely political and conflict consequences of these results?

Although the results of these elections are broadly similar to those of 2015, with a large parliamentary majority for the NLD at both central and most sub-national levels, the consequences will be very different. Myanmar’s first competitive election in over five decades was a historical moment of enormous hope and unity, but the 2020 elections risk being divisive. While Aung San Suu Kyi has, during her first term as the government’s de facto leader, consolidated support among her Burman Buddhist base, she has, at the same time, alienated many minorities. Minorities are disappointed in her for treating them as adversaries rather than allies and failing to consult them on decisions that affect their lives.

The winner-takes-all electoral system amplifies the sense of marginalisation, leading some minorities to be increasingly disillusioned with electoral democracy.

A first-past-the-post system like Myanmar’s magnifies the victory of the winning party. As a result, the ethnic minority parties, and the communities that support them, are likely to feel further sidelined by electoral politics. In 2015, this phenomenon was eased by their expectation that the NLD would be a natural ally in their fight for equality and autonomy. But they have now come to see the ruling party as an adversary, governing in the interests of the Burman Buddhist majority. The winner-takes-all electoral system amplifies this sense of marginalisation, leading some minorities to be increasingly disillusioned with electoral democracy. This perception is dangerous, as it could easily lead to an escalation in armed conflict: some groups may be tempted to resort to insurgency rather than electoral politics as a way to fight for communal rights.

A particular source of concern is Rakhine State, which is in the grip of the most destabilising conflict the country has experienced in decades. Initial results there indicate that despite the vote being cancelled in most of its strongholds, the ethno-nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP) has managed to win the largest bloc of seats in the regional parliament, by flipping a number of seats in the south previously held by the NLD. These pickups were not enough, however, to give the ANP a majority in the local parliament, and the next NLD government in Naypyitaw is likely to appoint an NLD-led government in the state, as it did in 2015. That will enrage many Rakhine people, a recipe for further armed conflict and political violence.

The NLD would likely win some good-will among ethnic minorities by taking a different approach in its second term: appointing representatives of minority parties to lead state governments in Rakhine and other states where those parties won the largest bloc of seats would carry immense political symbolism, and open new channels for constructive dialogue with ethnic leaders.

What hopes for the stalled peace process during a second NLD term?

Ending the decades-old armed conflicts that affect various parts of the country was a top priority in the NLD’s 2015 electoral campaign. But progress has been elusive. The central parts of the country, where the Burman majority live and which constitute the party’s electoral base, have been little touched by the violence. There is neither a significant national peace movement nor a political imperative to solve the underlying issues of discrimination and marginalisation of minorities. Against this backdrop, progress is likely to be slow and difficult. In the absence of strong political will to fundamentally rethink and reinvigorate the peace process, and a new tone and consultative approach toward minorities on the NLD’s part, the conflict could even escalate further in the coming months and years, particularly in Rakhine State.

In the absence of strong political will to fundamentally rethink and reinvigorate the peace process [..] the conflict could even escalate further in the coming months and years, particularly in Rakhine State.

The peace process, which implies negotiating simultaneously with a myriad of ethnic armed groups that have different interests, was always an issue on which the government was unlikely to have quick or easy success. But there is much that the first NLD government could have done to reach out to minorities, consult with them on decisions that affect their lives and build consensus on a way forward. The second term, which will start at the end of March, offers a new opportunity to do so.

What about relations between the NLD and the military?

The last five years have been characterised by an unlikely accommodation between the military and the NLD: the long-time adversaries were forced into an uncomfortable cohabitation on account of the constitution giving a significant political role to the military – including one of the two vice president positions, control of the three security ministries and 25 per cent of parliamentary seats at both central and sub-national levels. Relations remain tense and distrustful. In the lead-up to the polls, the commander-in-chief alarmed many Myanmar people by criticising the quality of electoral preparations and hinting that he might not accept the result. He eventually moderated his tone once election day arrived, and the scale of the NLD victory will, in any event, have likely shot down any potential questioning of the results’ legitimacy. Ironically, the commander-in-chief’s comments may have actually amplified the NLD’s success, both boosting turnout by the party faithful and convincing wavering voters to back the incumbent party, thereby expressing their opposition to the military’s interference in politics.

Despite the tensions, over the last five years both sides have come to the conclusion that they do not represent an existential threat to each other. The fact that both share a similar socially conservative, Burman nationalist outlook has also helped prevent relations from breaking down. The military will be in no mood, however, to give the government easy victories on the peace process or constitutional reform – particularly when it comes to diluting the army’s political role. Progress on those fronts over the next five years therefore remains very unlikely. It is improbable even if the present commander-in-chief steps down at the end of his term in mid-2021, as chances are close to nil that any of his potential successors would have a very different view on these issues.