Myanmar’s New government: What Does It Mean?February 26, 2016 in Myanmar
Myanmar has been a British colony for more than a century. In 1948, Myanmar declared independence and began as a parliamentary democracy. Representative democracy lasted until the military coup of 1962, led by General U Ne Win. His party established a ruling council whose members were almost entirely drawn from the armed forces and held power for the next twenty-six years. In 1990, the junta held elections in which the party National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 of 485 parliamentary seats. The military government refused to acknowledge the results, imprisoned many NLD politicians, forced others into exile, and continued to clamp down on dissent.
In September 2007, the biggest demonstrations started in Burma: The Saffron Revolution. This event posed a challenge for the junta, as the participating monks—venerated in Myanmar’s majority-Buddhist society—lent a degree of moral authority to the movement. In part driven by international pressure and its own “seven-step roadmap,” the junta announced that a referendum on a new constitution would take place in May 2008, followed by multiparty elections in 2010. In these elections, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party declared victory, winning 259 of the 330 contested seats. The United Nations and many Western countries have condemned the elections as fraudulent. The NLD, which overwhelmingly won the previous 1990 elections but were never allowed to take power, decided not to participate.
Since the 2008 Constitution, the legislative power of Myanmar (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) is based on bicameral Houses: The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly) and the Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities).
The Amyotha Hluttaw is the upper house of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, with 12 seats accorded to each Region or State for a total of 168 directly elected seats. Of the 224 seats in the house, the remaining 56 are military appointees nominated by the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services.
The Pyithu Hluttaw is the lower house of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, with seats accorded to each of the 330 townships in the country. Of the 440 seats in this body, 330 are directly elected and 110 are military appointees nominated by the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services.
To elect the President, each group puts forward a candidate and then the three of them face a vote in a joint session that includes all the elected and unelected representatives of both Houses. The winner becomes president and the two losers vice-presidents.
New Parliament’s challenges
In November 2015, election gave NLD 80% of the seats in both houses; the ruling Union Solidarity Development party (USDP) had taken just 40. According to the 2008 Constitution, the army kept 25% of the seats without any election.
This landslide winning for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is expected to lead the country through a peace process and a political transition. However, the army keeps a strong power in the transition and the most important stake will be to work with the army. Many expect that Miss Suu Kyi will try to avoid confrontation with the army, and that she will even appoint ministers who worked in the outgoing administration. Indeed, besides the 25% of parliamentary seats, the commander-in-chief, not the civilian president, appoints the heads of the home, defence and border security ministries, giving the military control of Myanmar’s civil service and security apparatus. It might frustrate the NLD’s attempts at reform. The military is unlikely loosen its grip on power so easily despite electoral defeat. Suu Kyi has to wrestle power from the military’s hands whilst ensuring that she remains in charge after the transition, to see the country through its fragile post-election democratic consolidation
Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi focused partly on a peace process for her country with the numerous ethnic minorities. Since November 2015, she pushed the message of national reconciliation, lauding the choice of representatives from ethnic minorities. She is likely to focus first on ending conflicts involving ethnic minorities living in border areas. For the past decades, tensions and confrontations between army and armed ethnic groups remained in Myanmar. Despite the new parliament formation, a durable political settlement is far from agreed on the difficult issues of equality rights and shared resources.
The new parliament took its seats for the first time in February. Its primary role will be to elect the new president.
Aung San Suu Kyi : next president ?
Myanmar’s president is elected by parliament, not by popular vote. The upper house, the lower house, and the military bloc in parliament put forward one presidential candidate each. The combined houses vote on the three candidates. The winner becomes president and forms a government; the two others become vice presidents.
According to the 2008 Constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi can’t become president despite her leadership in the NDL winning. Indeed, Article 59F of the constitution states that if one of your “legitimate children… owes allegiance to a foreign power” you are disqualified. That covers both Ms Suu Kyi’s sons Kim and Alexander, who have British passports.
To change the Constitution, the NLD needs the support of the unelected army representatives. There are still a few who think that when confronted by the size of the NLD victory the army might change its mind. It’s certainly possible that Ms Suu Kyi might be nominated by her party, even if she didn’t meet the constitutional criteria. Since the November election, the NLD leader has met several times with military representatives to discuss both political transition and her possible election as president. The Parliament has set a deadline of March 17 for the lower and upper house, along with the military bloc, to submit their nominations for the presidency.