Recent events along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border have put the spotlight on a domestic Myanmar issue, which like the refugee crisis is unlikely to be resolved any time soon: the relationship between the powerful military and the country’s elected representatives.
In the initial stages of the crisis, international critics tended to blame State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi for the crackdown on the Rohingya.
Jacob Judah, a Dhaka-based writer suggested in an op-ed piece for the New York Times on September 7 that Suu Kyi should be stripped of her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, referring to “Aung San Suu Kyi and her generals” and stating that she, “in her capacity as state counselor…plays a role in overseeing the country’s military.”
Even an experienced writer such as Nicholas Kristof wrote an article for the New York Times on September 9, which began by saying that “Aung San Suu Kyi, a beloved Nobel Peace Prize winner, is presiding over an ethnic cleansing in which villages are burned, women raped and children butchered.” A week later, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned Suu Kyi of a “last chance” to act on the refugee crisis.
By law, though, Suu Kyi has no power over the wholly autonomous military, which is under the exclusive control of Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. While Suu Kyi was criticized for the ill-treatment of Rohingya even before August this year, Min Aung Hlaing visited Austria and Germany in April, Russia in June, India in July and Japan in August.
On each visit he received a red carpet welcome while the Rohingya crisis, not to mention the wars against Kachin, Palaung and Shan ethnic minority rebels in Myanmar’s north, was apparently never broached.
Critics argue that there is a profound misunderstanding in the outside world of the nature of civil-military relations in Myanmar, and what power the country’s elected representatives actually possess.
When elections were held in November 2010, leading to the formation of a quasi-civilian government under President Thein Sein, some saw the opening of a new, more liberal political era.
The subsequent release of prisoners of conscience, allowances for unprecedented media freedoms and rights to organize political events led the European Union’s External Action Service counselor Robert Cooper to characterize the steps as “Myanmar’s Berlin Wall moment.”
Thein Sein, a former army general who fronted the previous ruling junta, was hailed as Myanmar’s Mikhail Gorbachev while some suggested that there was a power struggle between his “reformers” and “hardliners” from the old military regime.
What Myanmar has experienced since has not been so much a transition from dictatorship to democracy but rather the emergence of a new hybrid political system that maintains military control over all important organs of power, including all security related ministries, while the elected government is responsible for health, education, agricultural policies and, to some extent, foreign policy.
Before elections were held in 2010, a new constitution was drafted under military auspices and promulgated after a fraudulent referendum in May 2008. The first chapter of the constitution states that one of the “objectives” of the “Union” is to enable “the Defense Services to…participate in the National political leadership role of the State.”
The charter puts all important organs of power, including the armed forces, the police, the local administration and all issues relating to border security, under military control. It also gives the military a 25% bloc in parliament and requires any amendment to the charter secure the vote of 75% of lawmakers.
The military also retains control over the government’s three most powerful ministries, namely defense, home and border affairs. The General Administration Department (GAD), a body under the Ministry of Home Affairs, staffs all local governments, from state and regional levels down to districts and townships.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the country’s first non-military cabinet in 54 years, assumed power in April 2016 after sweeping elections in November the previous year.
But with the military still in charge of most important ministries and departments, NLD ministers are little more than nominal heads of their respective government departments; the underlying bureaucracy is still populated by military-appointed officials who had dutifully served previous authoritarian regimes, meaning there has been little actual transfer of power to civilian-controlled institutions.
But that doesn’t mean Suu Kyi’s hands are completely tied in dealing with the Rohingya crisis. Critics argue that she could, without challenging the military, have widened the limited civilian space in Myanmar’s political scene by traveling to Rakhine state to meet the democratically elected local government.
She may not like its members, many of whom are radical Rakhine nationalists, but such a visit would have shown the public that there is a civilian component to Myanmar’s governmental structure.
She could also have visited local hospitals to meet victims of the violence from all religious communities in the area, Muslims as well as Buddhists and Hindus. In a broader sense, she could be on national television every week to talk about issues such as health, education, culture and other social issues.
But her leadership style since 2016 has puzzled even many of her supporters. She has become a recluse in the capital Naypyitaw, removed from the people who voted for her — and political change — in 2015. Her international reputation has been severely damaged from her policy of outsourcing the emotive Rohingya issue to the callous military.
Most of the controversial statements on her and her office’s website and Facebook accounts were not even written by her, but one of her advisors, Zaw Htay, and his team. Zaw Htay is a former army official who served in the same role under Thein Sein.
By contesting a by-election in 2012, which Suu Kyi won and subsequently became an MP, as well as the 2015 general election, which her party overwhelmingly won, it could be argued she has become hostage to the 2008 charter that she herself once described as “one of the world’s worst constitutions.”
Suu Kyi turned 72 in June and time is arguably running out for her.
Without Suu Kyi, the NLD would likely not garner the same massive popular support in the next 2020 election as it did in 2015. Nor has Suu Kyi or the party’s elder leaders groomed a next generation of NLD activists to take over once she is no longer active in politics.
Suu Kyi is therefore likely to leave behind a power vacuum within her party that can be easily exploited by the military and its political backers.
She could but has so far failed to begin a process of widening the civilian space in government and public life, which in the long run could have an impact on civil-military relations and, therefore be the beginning of a real transition to democracy.
But there is no “Berlin Wall moment” in sight for Myanmar, and it may take more then a generation and many bold steps for that to ever become a reality.