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Burma: “The Lady” Takes Power

Finally, after Aung San Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy in 1988, after she won the 1990 election by a landslide, after the military ignored the results and put her under house arrest for fifteen of the next twenty-one years, after a difficult five-year transition since 2011 where the return of democracy to Burma was often in doubt, after 54 years of military rule, the woman that Burmese just call “The Lady” is in power.

Sort of.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won 80 percent of the contested seats in parliament in last year’s election, the first really free election since 1990, but she was not the person sworn in as president on Wednesday. That honour went to her childhood friend Htin Kyaw, a senior figure in the NLD who has been at her side since her release from house arrest in 2010.

The Lady so frightened the generals who ran Burma that they wrote a special clause into the constitution that banned her from becoming president. It actually says that nobody whose immediate family included foreigners can hold the presidency, but Suu Kyi is the only prominent figure in Burmese politics who fits that description (her sons hold British passports).

Even as they retreated from absolute power, the military refused to budge on that law, and they still have a veto on constitutional changes, so it is Htin Kyaw who will actually take power on April 1st. But Suu Kyi has made it clear that she will be “above the president,” and Htin Kyaw agrees. “This is sister Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory,” he said after the parliament that was elected last year voted him in as president two weeks ago.

Suu Kyi herself made the position clear when she announced the members of the new cabinet in mid-March. She will take four of the eighteen cabinet posts, including the foreign ministry and, crucially, the newly created job of minister in the president’s office. And nobody in the NLD has any problem with the fact that she will effectively be using the 69-year-old president as a glove puppet.

“It doesn’t matter how many ministries she takes as she will run the whole government anyway,” said Win Htein, a senior NLD politician who is close to The Lady. Even the army has accepted this bizarre arrangement.

In December, after Suu Kyi met Than Shwe, the ex-general who ruled Burma with an iron hand for nineteen years before retiring in 2011, the general’s grandson wrote on Facebook: “After winning the election, it’s the reality that all have to accept: that Suu Kyi will be the country’s future leader.” It’s not exactly a public declaration that the military are letting go of the reins of power, but that’s how things are done in Burma.

The question remains, however: Are the generals really letting go? They have got very rich over the past half-century of military rule, and the Burmese army’s corporate domination of the economy leaves even the Egyptian army in the shade. They are certainly not going to let any new democratic government investigate how they got so rich, or do anything to cut off the cash flow that sustains them.

They are also going to watch very closely how Suu Kyi’s government handles the tricky question of negotiating ceasefires in the many military confrontations with Burma’s numerous minority peoples.

The last military president, Thein Sein, tried very hard to get a “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement”, but failed. Now it is Suu Kyi’s turn to try, but the army won’t let her make a deal that will “damage national unity”. Just what that means is unclear, but the original military takeover in 1962 was triggered by an elected civilian president’s attempt to give Burma what it desperately needs: a federal system of government. The army still won’t allow that.

The constitution the generals wrote gives the army a quarter of the seats in parliament, which is enough to block any constitutional change. It also created a National Defense and Security Council that can declare an emergency and suspend the elected government – and six of the eleven members of the Council are military officers.

If the army really wants to take back power, therefore, it still can do so quite legally, but it would face massive popular resistance. Moreover, it was patriotic generals who finally allowed the democratic transition to begin, because they recognised that half a century of military rule had turned Burma from the richest country in Southeast Asia into the poorest. If they go back into politics, they condemn their country to even more isolation and poverty.

Burma’s transition still has a long way to go before, and nothing is safe yet. Even in next-door Thailand, which is far richer and became a democracy a quarter-century ago, the generals are back in power. But for the moment the Burmese media are free, the elections are honest, and the investment is flowing in.

With care and some good luck, this transformation could really succeed.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“It doesn’t…Burma”)

Burma: The Lady, the General, and the Future

There are good generals in Burma – that is, generals who are not too corrupt, not too brutal, and not absolutely determined to maintain military control of the country forever. One such general is Thura Shwe Mann.

Shwe Mann retired from the army in 2010 to lead the newly created Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a civilian front for the generals who still really control the country. Since that election was boycotted by the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi (known simply as “the Lady” to most Burmese), the USDP ended up with a majority and Shwe Mann became the speaker of parliament.

There was nothing in his past to suggest that he would ever jump the fence: he fought three successful campaigns against various minority ethnic groups featuring the usual human rights violations, and he was number three in the military hierarchy by the time he retired. But Shwe Mann is now Suu Kyi’s best hope for a peaceful transition to a real democratic government after next Sunday’s national election.

Something happened to Shwe Mann on the way to this election. Maybe it was just the realisation that he might end up as president if he played his cards rights, but he certainly talks differently these days: “Now we are in a democracy, a different form of government that requires total dedication….Our people are living below the poverty line. We have to change everything.”

That’s also what Aung San Suu Kyi wants to do: change everything. She wants to end the army’s control of 25 percent of the seats in parliament. She wants to get it out of the economy (the military now directly or indirectly control half the Burmese economy.) And above all she wants to stand for the presidency (the constitution written by the army forbids her to run).

Could the Lady and the General actually cooperate? It looked like that to the current president, ex-general Thein Sein, because Shwe Mann was openly talking about a possible post-election coalition that would include both his own USDP and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). So in September troops surrounded the USDP’s headquarters – and when they left Shwe Mann was no longer the party’s leader.

Suu Kyi will still probably need Shwe Mann, because this election is not going to be like the last free election in 1990, when the NLD swept the board. (Of course, the military just ignored the outcome and Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the intervening quarter-century in jail or under house arrest, so there is no foolproof formula for political success in Burma.)

But the military clearly don’t want to go back to that style of rule now, because the facade of democracy has ended sanctions, foreign investment is rolling in, and army officers are getting rich. So much better if you can sabotage the actual democracy without destroying the facade.
Athough the NLD will probably get a big win in this election, it will have trouble turning that into a government. It hasn’t managed to attract the support of the ethnic minorities, who see it as an ethnic Burmese party with the usual centralising instincts. It must also face the fact that 25 percent of the members of parliament will be military officers appointed by the high command.

And the USDP, although tainted by its military origin, will gain votes because of a shamelessly Islamophobic campaign by ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks who paint Suu Kyi’s NLD as a pro-Muslim party. Suu Kyi should defend Burma’s beleaguered Muslim minority (only 4 percent), but she dares not do so publicly because that would lose her even more votes.

So here’s the deal. The NLD will win more than 50 percent of the seats, but it probably won’t get 67 percent, which is what it would need to elect a president over the opposition of the military bloc in parliament. Suu Kyi can’t run for the presidency anyway, because the constitution, written especially with her in mind, says the president must not have foreign relatives. (Suu Kyi’s husband was English, so her two sons have British passports.)

But if Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann form a coalition – although he is no longer the USDP’s leader, he could probably bring a large chunk of his party with him – then that coalition could elect a new president and form a government. The president would have to be Shwe Mann (for constitutional reasons), but Suu Kyi could be the most powerful member of his cabinet, which would be loaded with NLD members.

Not a marriage made in heaven, perhaps, but much better than an anti-democratic coup by a panicked military. Burma was never going to become a full democracy in a single breath-taking leap, but this outcome would get it a long way down the road without panicking the army.

Burma has been ruled by brutal, ignorant and incompetent soldiers for more than fifty years, and what was once the richest country in South-East Asia is now the poorest. It’s time for a change. Take what you can get now, and come back for more later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 10 and 13. (“But the military…facade”; “And the USDP…votes”; and “Not…military”)

Democracy Stalls in Burma

There was supposed to be a referendum in Burma this month. It would have addressed all the cynical clauses that the military regime wrote into the 2008 constitution to safeguard its own hold on power. But that isn’t going to happen: not now, and probably not before the national election that is due in October or November of this year. There are even people in Burma who wonder whether the election itself will be held on time.

“I would just like to remind you,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, for almost thirty years the leader of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, “that I have been saying since 2012 that a bit of healthy scepticism (about the army’s real intentions) would be very, very good.” Speaking to The Guardian newspaper last month, she warned that “too many of our Western friends are too optimistic about the democratisation process.”

She certainly got that right. Since Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, her supporters abroad (who include most leaders of democratic countries) have assumed that democratic reforms were well underway. So they ended the sanctions against the military regime, and their citizens swarmed into Burma to invest in an almost completely undeveloped economy.

China and other non-democratic countries piled in too, of course, and an enormous economic boom is transforming Burma. Foreign investors have profited mightily, and ex-generals and other people with close ties to the military have benefited even more. There is even a more or less free press. But democracy? Not so much.

Former general Thein Sein is still president, and a parliament controlled by military officers and regime supporters remains in place. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will doubtless win most of the seats if the election is actually held next autumn, but the constitution written by the military bars her from the presidency on the ludicrous ground that her two sons are foreign citizens. (Her late husband was British.)

That is one of the reasons why changing the constitution has become a key issue. Another is the provision that gives unelected military officers one-quarter of the seats in parliament, which gives them a veto on any changes to the constitution. The regime did not really decide to hand power over to the civilians; it made just enough cosmetic changes to convince foreigners that it was now acceptable to invest in Burma.

A large majority of ordinary Burmese revere Aung San Suu Kyi (she is the daughter of independence hero Aung San), and five million of them signed a petition asking for an end to the constitutional ban on her being chosen as president. The regime simply ignored it, and it looks like it is getting away with it. The foreign investment just keeps coming.

The referendum on constitutional changes is in the hands of the current parliament, which is packed with regime supporters who were elected in a vote boycotted by the NLD. It was originally promised for this month, but no date has yet been announced. Neither has anybody revealed exactly which of the 201 sections of the constitution where changes were proposed will actually be put to a vote.

Which of the eight versions of a new clause about Suu Kyi’s eligibility for the presidency will be in the referendum, if it actually happens? Nobody knows, and it is basically the regime that will choose. Maybe none of them will. And it is now practically certain that the autumn election will be held under the old constitution.

It is possible that Thein Sein, the current president, is really trying to get his more recalcitrant military colleagues to accept democratic reforms and is just meeting a lot of resistance. The military have had absolute control of Burma for the past fifty-three years, after all, and a lot of them have got very rich out of it. But Thein Sein actually doesn’t sound like he’s very eager for full democracy himself.

In an interview with the BBC in March, he insisted that the army must remain active in politics – “Serving the interests of the people means being involved in national politics” – and that the role of the military would only change gradually “as the political parties mature in their political norms and practice.” In other words, the army itself will decide if and when to stop running the whole show.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the military will cling to power for as long as possible, but it is remarkable how the foreign supporters of democracy in Burma have gone along with the pretense. US President Barack Obama, for example, has visited Burma twice since 2012, but the harshest thing he had to say was that “I don’t understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are.”

It’s probably too late to reinstate sanctions now, so the Burmese are effectively on their own. The only recourse that might work is massive non-violent protests of the sort that happened in 1988 and several times since. The trouble with that is that the Burmese army has never been reluctant to shoot its own fellow citizens.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 9 and 12. (“A large…coming”; “Which…constitution”; and “Perhaps…are”)

Burma’s Next President

1 February 2014

Burma’s Next President

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of Burmese democracy, declared last June that she would run for president in the 2015 election. If she ran, she would surely win: she is to Burma what Nelson Mandela was to South Africa. However, as things now stand she is not legally allowed to run for president – and maybe she should see that as an opportunity to reconsider whether becoming president is the best use of her talents.

Burma is part-way through a transition from a fifty-year military dictatorship to democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi is the unquestioned leader of the democratic movement. Unless the military rig or cancel next year’s election, her National League for Democracy (NLD) will certainly win a large majority in parliament in 2015. But she has no executive experience of any kind.

She doesn’t really have experience even in leading a political party, although she was a co- founder of the NLD in 1988 and has always been its leader. She was under house arrest most of the time, and most of the party’s other leaders were in jail, so she was never challenged by rivals and never had to administer anything.

Despite that she may be a wonderful natural leader, but such people are very rare. She is much more likely to be, like Mandela, an inspiring symbol of democracy with quite limited administrative skills. If so, she should rethink her position.

The law that bans her from the presidency is clause 59F of the constitution that was written by the military in 2008, which states that the spouse and children of a prospective president cannot owe their “allegiance to a foreign power.” It applies to her because her two sons with her late husband, the British academic Michael Aris, have British citizenship.

This is not just an unfortunate coincidence: the law was written that way to ensure that she could never become president. She presumably thought she had a deal to get rid of that clause when she agreed with the current president, ex-general Thein Sein, to run for parliament under the military-drafted constitution in late 2011.

Under that deal, the NLD ran candidates in 45 by-elections in April, 2012, and won 43 of them. The NLD members took up their seats in parliament, and the world concluded that the democratic transition in Burma was real. So the sanctions that many Western countries maintained against the military regime were relaxed, and investments began pouring into the moribund Burmese economy.

But clause 59F is still in the constitution. A parliamentary review committee with a majority of members from the generals’ tame political party reported last week that it had received 30,000 submissions for changes, including more than 5,000 on the “Suu Kyi clause.”

But it just listed all the submissions, making no recommendations about them – except to say that changes not requiring a referendum or that help to consolidate peace with Burma’s many armed ethnic minorities should be given priority. Changing clause 59F would require a referendum and it’s obviously not about rebel ethnic groups. It look like Suu Kyi has been had..

When Thein Sein was asked about the clause last week, he replied: “I would not want restrictions being imposed on the right of any citizen to become the leader of the country. At the same time, we will need to have all necessary measures in place in order to defend our national interests and sovereignty.” “Sovereignty”, of course, is code for not letting anyone with “foreign” ties near the presidency.

Aung San Suu Kyi has devoted half her adult life to bringing democracy to Burma, at great personal cost, and she clearly sees winning the presidency as the final validation of her long struggle. But before she launches a battle over clause 59F that will use up all the political oxygen for the next year, she should ask herself if the presidency is really where she can be most useful.

Is there nobody in her party, perhaps somebody a bit younger (she is 68), who has the right skills for the demanding job of executive president at a time of huge political and economic transformation? Maybe she should consider the example of Sonia Gandhi, the widow of India’s assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who led the Congress Party to a resounding election victory in 2004.

Sonia Gandhi could have become prime minister if she wanted, but she had a “foreign” problem too: she is an Indian citizen, but she was born and brought up Italian. So she chose economist Manmohan Singh to be prime minister, a job he has done with reasonable efficiency for the past ten years, while she remained Congress Party leader and kept it united behind him.

The circumstances are not identical, but Burma needs a president who (a) has the right skills for the job, and (b) has a united party behind him or her. Maybe Aung San Suu Kyi’s most useful role would be as party leader and moral authority, while somebody else gets down in the dirt and makes the day-to-day decisions that will eat away the popularity of even the most respected leader in the end.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 10. (“She doesn’t…anything”; “Under…economy”; and “When…presidency”)