As a general election draws near in Myanmar, a contest that will pit pro-democracy against military forces, political parties are already preparing for the 2020 race.
On September 27, the National League for Democracy (NLD) party that won the 2015 election commemorated its 31st anniversary with a spokesman’s lament that the nation’s democracy was not yet “genuine.”
In a gauntlet-dropping pronouncement, NLD delegates gathered in the old capital of Yangon said that the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which grants vast powers to the men in green, must be amended to promote more democracy.
At the same time, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, has recently acted more like a politician than both incumbent president Win Myint and nominal national leader State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
The military chief, who some suspect has presidential ambitions, has recently visited and donated to Muslim mosques, Christian churches and Hindu temples, in an apparent bid to raise his grass roots profile and soften his public image.
In parliament, where the Tatmadaw appoints a quarter of all delegates, military and aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) MPs recently submitted proposals for their own constitutional amendments, which, if enacted, would give greater powers to the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), including the authority to dissolve elected assemblies.
Military-appointed MPs have also submitted a bill that would bar any political aspirant with a foreign citizen in their immediate family from serving as a minister in the central government or chief minister in any of the country’s 14 states and regions.
There is little doubt that the military-led proposal aims to ensure that Suu Kyi does not play a major role in the next government that emerges from the 2020 elections. Suu Kyi’s elder son, Alexander, is a US citizen, while the younger Kim is a British national.
All of this suggests that civil-military relations have hit their lowest ebb since 2010, when a previous military government started taking its first tentative steps towards democracy and Suu Kyi was still a political prisoner under house arrest.
Until now Suu Kyi and her NLD had taken a more accommodative stance towards the Tatmadaw than many observers anticipated in the aftermath of their landslide 2015 election victory.
That, and her refusal to criticize the military’s bloody offensive against Rohingya Muslims, for which she has shared the blame, have greatly diminished the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s global image and legacy as a pro-democracy icon.
Even so, there are rising indications that the military believes she may have outlived her usefulness as a shield against international pressure, as calls rise for Tatmadaw leaders to be held accountable for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.
Some top brass also seem to think Suu Kyi will seek to erode the military’s interests in a second elected term, a perception made real by the NLD’s statements challenging military power at its September 27 anniversary event.
What is also abundantly clear is that the Tatmadaw is concerned about Suu Kyi’s growing reliance on China, a dependence the military purposefully aimed to narrow by moving towards a more open society and re-engaging the West.
In the 1990s and 2000’s, military governments depended on China for economic and diplomatic support at a time when Western nations, including the US, maintained sanctions to penalize their abysmal human rights record.
But, according to internal Tatmadaw documents reviewed by Asia Times, the military’s top brass later came to view China’s rising economic and political clout in the country as a sovereign threat and looked to restore ties with the West to rebalance its diplomacy.
After a dramatic period of political opening, seen in the release of thousands of political prisoners, end of media censorship and a roll back of restrictions on civil society organizations, Myanmar quickly turned from pariah to darling of the West.
At the same time, China was put on a backfoot after certain of its big ticket investment projects, including the US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam, were either suspended or called into question.
But that all shifted back with the military’s brutal crackdown on Muslim Rohingyas, which since 2017 has forced an estimated 700,000 over the border into Bangladesh.
The United Nations and other international bodies have characterized the military’s “area clearance” operations in Rakhine state as “ethnic cleansing”, while the US and EU have re-imposed certain sanctions.
Some UN investigators have even mentioned the possibility of bringing top generals, including Min Aung Hlaing, as well as Suu Kyi, to the International Criminal Court for atrocities committed against the Rohingyas and ethnic minorities in other frontier areas.
European and American investors, previously bullish on what had being glowingly referred to as Asia’s “last frontier” market, are now reluctant to commit capital due to the negative impact it could have on their corporate reputations.
China has filled the Western gap with loans, trade and investment, not to mention diplomatic support at the UN. But that has put the Tatmadaw, the self-styled guardian of the country’s independence, at loggerheads with Suu Kyi’s civilian government.
It all represents a dramatic and significant shift, one that will likely become more pronounced as 2020 election campaigns begin in earnest. China had paid scant interest to Suu Kyi’s NLD until it scored its massive victory over the military-linked USDP at the 2015 election.
Now, ties between the NLD and Chinese Communist Party have “blossomed in high-level exchanges between Suu Kyi and Chinese leaders [and] interactions between party members on visits that mix tours of container terminals or education projects with boozy dinners and shopping trips”, Reuters reported on August 7.
Clearly, China will not repeat the mistake it made before 2015, when it put all of its proverbial eggs in the Tatmadaw’s and USDP’s basket. Even smaller political parties have reportedly recently received Chinese donations through local businessmen.
It is thus unsurprisingly that the Tatmadaw is watching with concern China’s strong re-emergence in the country. Some suggest the military may even see the country’s civilian politicians and other opinionmakers as a new enemy whose influence must be curtailed.
On the other side, after nearly four years in power, the NLD is keen to show economic progress it had earlier hoped Western investors would deliver to win votes in 2020.
Instead, China has stepped in with big-ticket investment projects, including a deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu, a high-speed railroad connecting the Chinese border to the central city of Mandalay and hydroelectric power plants in a country still starved for electricity.
The military’s bid to empower the NDSC underlines its concerns about China, albeit indirectly. Six of the NDSC’s 11 members hail from the military. As currently configured, the NDSC has wide-reaching power over security issues, including the authority to declare a state of emergency after consulting the president.
It also allows the military to seize power in a situation “that may disintegrate the Union…or that may cause the loss of sovereignty.”
The NLD government has not called a single official NDSC meeting since assuming office in April 2016. Instead, in January 2017, it appointed its own national security adviser, Thaung Tun, a civilian and former ambassador.
Since November 2018, he has also served as head of a new ministry that seeks to boost local and foreign investment.
The amendments proposed by military and USDP MPs would require NDSC meetings to be held each month, and an emergency meeting convened at any time five of the council’s members request it.
It is unlikely that the proposed amendments will pass as long as the NLD maintains its strong majority in both houses of parliament. But some speculate that could change after the 2020 election.
The NLD may have lost support among the urban middle class and in ethnic states, where many feel they have been neglected by the government and are weary of decades of civil strife and war.
Many observers believe that the NLD will retain its position as the country’s largest political party after the 2020 election, not least because of Suu Kyi’s still strong popular support in rural areas.
But the NLD may fall short of a majority if parties in ethnic areas, not out of heartfelt support for the military but rather because they want political change, join political forces with the USDP.
Combined with the 25% of parliament seats constitutionally reserved for the military, the possibility of a USDP-led coalition cannot be ruled out.
Future politics will also be influenced by how gravely the Tatmadaw views China’s threat to national sovereignty. While the Tatmadaw would never overtly point to China as cause for a military intervention in politics, it could instead point to the threat of “insurgency and violence.”
The military-drafted 2008 constitution stipulates both as valid reasons for staging a Tatmadaw takeover after consulting with and securing the approval of the president.
Recent insurgent attacks at the military’s elite academy at Pyin Oo Lwin, renewed fighting in Rakhine and Shan states, and a security scare on September 26 that saw the military warn against “terrorist attacks” in Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw, have all given the military the ammunition it needs to justify seizing power if it deems fit.
Recent events also appear to indicate that Min Aung Hlaing is softening the ground for an election run, though it’s unclear why he would want to become president, a largely ceremonial role, when he now has more power as head of the military.
Myanmar’s president is not directly elected by the people, but rather selected by an electoral college comprised of both elected civilian and military-appointed MPs.
However, if Min Aung Hlaing became president, he and the NDSC would have the power to dismiss the government and parliament, and reimpose direct military rule in the name of security. That, analysts say, could be enough incentive for the career soldier to gun for the presidency.
It is too early to credibly predict what will happen between now and the November 2020 polls, particularly in a country known for its unforeseen and sometimes seismic political events.
What is certain is that Myanmar’s civil-military relations are fast deteriorating and that the military is angling to strengthen, not weaken, its influence and power over politics ahead of pivotal polls.