Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Min Aung Hlaing may end up working together in the next government. Photo: AFP Forum via EPA

Burma’s democratic government has a chance to win a second term in office in the 2020 election because of Aung San Suu Kyi’s fame and her popularity is still strong within the country even though her government is facing many difficulties.

Burmese politicians are preparing for elections in 2020 and that includes the military’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Burmese politics is very complicated with various ethnic issues and armed conflict between ethnic armed groups and the Army (or Tatmadaw) is not going to stop. Both the ruling National League for Democracy party and the military have said they are willing to establish a federal union, but the 2008 constitution drawn up by the military imposes a unitary system.

The NLD and ethnic parties are trying to change parts of the constitution in parliament to a federal democratic one, but the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and military nominees are making excuses to fight any changes.

Military and Ma Ba Tha

During the Suu Kyi government’s term, the Army “persuaded” two key groups to support the military. Students and monks, who have previously been at the forefront in Burmese politics, are now divided.

One of the ways the military and the USDP did this was by creating a radical Buddhist monk organization called Ma Ba Tha under a policy that lauded “Nationalism, Race, and Buddhism”, Ma Ba Tha, which attracted many monks and citizens, claimed that Muslim influence was spreading dangerously and said Buddhists need to protect their religion by any means possible.

This led to instances under which mosques were destroyed or forced to shut down, and Muslims villages burnt down. Muslims were also forced to leave villages in various areas but few legitimate culprits were found and punished properly for these rampages.

This was an initial tactical success by the military in terms of dividing Buddhist monks into two groups – one still against military rule and the other backing the military and against the NLD. Ma Ba Tha held a conference that called for people to support the military and demanded that the NLD government be dissolved.

One of Ma Ba Tha’s top leaders was Wirathu, whose radical anti-Muslim speeches led to him being labeled as the “Burmese Bin Laden”. He even had the nerve to claim the NLD was a Muslim party. His incendiary rhetoric led to Suu Kyi and NLD leaders screening their parliamentary candidates for the 2015 election so “carefully” that not one Muslim was selected.

Wirathu, right, became a notorious anti-Muslim voice. Photo: Facebook

However, things have changed a lot since then. Two years ago the state-backed cleric organization Ma Ha Na announced that Ma Ba Tha was an unlawful organization, and in May 2017 it banned the group from operating under its current name and ordered that its signboards be taken down. Recently, the Army chief Min Aung Hlaing gave donations to mosques and claimed that he had no desire to discriminate against any religion and wanted all people in Burma belonging to different religions to unite.

Ma Ba Tha did not dare to utter a word about this. While they were happy to strongly criticize the NLD government, they did not have the nerve to criticize the army chief. Why? Because it was the Army that created the radical Buddhist group. The pro-military Buddhist organization’s main goal was not to promote Buddhism but attack the NLD and accuse Suu’s party of being Muslim sympathizers so that Buddhists would vote for the USDP.

Students also split

Meanwhile, the NLD offered to rebuild the Student Union building at Yangon University campus, only for students to turn down the government’s offer. Some student union leaders said they would prefer a building outside the campus, while others said they would prefer another site in the campus.

The old Student Union building was dynamited by the military on July 8, 1962. For generations students demanded that it be reconstructed but the generals ignored them. Then when a freely-elected government offered to rebuild it, the students turned down the offer.

It was ironic. In the 60s and later decades, the military feared student activism. The building was destroyed because it was a meeting place to conspire against military rule. Army leaders never let the students go near the compound and erected a fence around it. After the 1988 nationwide uprising, Sein Pan (Peacock flower) trees were planted in the compound and now the trees have grown well for many years. The intention was to cover the vacant spot and create a small forest – because they didn’t want a new student union building to emerge.

Now, student activists have said they need to keep it as “ground zero” to mark the brutality of the military, but their true intent is they don’t want a new student union building. Burmese students are not active like before, as only a few participate in politics now. It has less than 50 members – out of about 10,000 students at the university – and they don’t represent the people studying there. Many student bodies have just a few people and are not united like before.

Under military rule, student activists were captured, tortured and given long terms in prison. But under the democratic government they face few threats. There is little risk of being arrested. Most students only want to learn about the field they’re enrolled in. Some student groups have even been sponsored by elements opposed to democratic rule and the erection of a student union building on the old site. The neutering of these groups is a second “achievement” of military influence. Both students and monks have been split into pro-military and pro-democracy groups under Suu Kyi’s semi-civilian government.

Army chief Snr General Min Aung Hlaing has told media groups they could face legal action over unverified reports about the military. Photo: AFP / Thet Aung
Myanmar Army chief Min Aung Hlaing could face prosecution in the International Criminal Court for army abuses in Rakhine state. Recently, he has tried to show he does not discriminate against other faiths. Photo: AFP/ Thet Aung

Top general changes course

Other things have turned around. In the past Min Aung Hlaing visited the Ma Ba Tha and donated money. He also offered alms to the radical monk Wirathu in Masoyein Monastery. Then recently, the Kachin Christian leader Dr Kha Lam Swun San was sued by the military for telling President Donald Trump on a visit to the White House that Burma did not have religious freedom. But on September 9, the military withdrew its case, and three days later, Min Aung Hlaing invited Dr Kha Lam Swan San and his group to a military guest house, to show the world that he is not against other religions.

A week later, Min Aung Hlaing suddenly visited mosques and donated rice and supplies to Muslim communities, and after, he gave donations to Hindus and a Buddhist monastery. It might be a sign that the military is changing its anti-Islam strategy – or it’s an act of desperation because the UN is preparing to take a case against Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, which might worry the military elite.

Min Aung Hlaing has reached retirement age and he might be dreaming about becoming the new president in the 2020 election – if selected by the military (not by the people’s vote). Under the 2008 constitution, the military has the right to select one of three presidential nominees.

But the crisis in Rakhine State created huge pressure on the military and Suu Kyi’s government. The military has responsibility for rights abuses and mass killings in Rakhine State in August 2017, which led to more than half a million Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. So, Min Aung Hlaing wants to change his image to a person who supports religious freedom and claim that the army is not guilty of religious discrimination because it donates rice and supplies to other faiths.

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar walk through flooded paddy fields after crossing the border into Bangladesh. Over half a million fled Rakhine State to camps near Cox’s Bazar in late 2017. Half were children. Photo: Patrick Brown/ Unicef

The ruling NLD

The NLD’s first priority had been reaching a peace agreement with ethnic armed groups to stop conflict. The second was national reconciliation. But after four years, the peace initiative has not gone well. And the reconciliation policy has been one-sided, to compromise with the military, not with democratic forces.

Suu Kyi did not replace all Burmese ambassadors with trusted party members – she let people appointed by the military continue to oversee embassies around the world, plus state and regional chiefs who ran offices for the previous regime to stay on. Most were former military but she felt that allowing them to stay on was a compromise for better relations with the military and part of the reconciliation process.

Meanwhile, the move to reach a peace agreement with armed ethnic groups has stalled and the slogan “Time for change” by Suu Kyi in the 2015 election has ended with little positive change. People had hoped to see change in the running of the country but Suu Kyi never replaced the old guard. She naively thought that if she shows a good attitude the old administrators will work for her government. However, many are suspected to be corrupt former army personnel who have never changed their attitude. So, people are disappointed and have started to criticize her policies.

Burmese analysts also believe former military personnel working as administrators may have been put there by the military to stop the Suu Kyi government achieving its goals. But the public wants to see people in such posts replaced by trusted NLD members or civilians. One analyst said: “If her party does not have qualified people for those posts and she believes that only military men are qualified to run the administration, why is she competing with the military in the election? Let them run the country and can sit on the sideline.” It was a fair comment.

This just shows that the military has not been willing to compromise and that Suu Kyi’s approach on key objectives hasn’t worked. Suu Kyi sees other democratic forces as rivals instead of groups with the same vision and goals. Meanwhile, armed ethnic groups who hoped she could be a mediator to help them and the military reach a peace agreement have also been disappointed. Nai Han Tha, the resistance leader and vice-chairman of New Mon State Party, said: “I had hoped she would turn the table for us, but we found out that she could not.”

With her push for a peace agreement unlikely to happen and the election looming, Suu Kyi’s party has changed course from reconciliation to constitutional change. It has formed a 45-member committee for this, which was strongly opposed by the military and USDP in the parliament. It may be a desperate move to attract people who hate the 2008 Constitution, which entrenches the military’s influence and blocks major changes in the running of the country.

The NLD bid to change the constitution has been seen as a threat by military leaders because it could see them kicked out of parliament and back to the barracks. This has attracted a lot of attention but its other strategies – for national reconciliation, reaching a peace agreement, and bonding with democratic allies – all failed. In addition, support from western countries has collapsed, partly in response to her ‘inaction’ on the Rohingya crisis.

So, the NLD has had to get help from China to counter western criticism, just like the military used to do in the past.

Aung San Suu Kyi (C) and Myanmar Military Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing arrive (R) in Naypyitaw, Myanmar; March 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ye Aung Thu/Pool
Aung San Suu Kyi is seen with Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw, in March 30, 2016. File photo: Reuters /Ye Aung Thu/ pool

Down but not out

But even though the army-backed USDP has a lot of funding and full support from the military, it is not likely to win.

Suu Kyi’s popularity has dropped within the country and abroad, but the USDP has also failed to get support from the people because they are the much-hated military’s puppets. The bitterness from military rule lingers in people’s minds. And when the USDP sides with the military in parliament to oppose the NLD’s attempts to change the constitution their hope of real change evaporates.

Luckily, Suu Kyi still has a fair amount of support. So, her party will win the 2020 election. But, there is a big question on how will she manage for another five years, given that former military personnel control the administration.

Ethnic nationalities have been demanding equal rights, with a share of natural resources and the formation of a federal union, but their demands have not been met. When the NLD took power, they tried to put up statues of national hero General Aung San, Daw Suu’s father, in many states and regions. In Mon State local people opposed a bridge being named ‘Aung San Bridge’ – but the government ignored their demand. There were flare-ups in Kayah (Karenni) and Chin states with similar results.

So, reconciliation efforts have been overshadowed by unwise moves. Ethnic groups see the Bamar race as trying to dominate them. This has created a split with ethnic minorities and the NLD will need to mend those bridges.

Htun Aung Gyaw is a former president of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) who later studied at Cornell University in the US, earning a master’s degree in Asian studies.

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