Myanmar army will keep privileges even with opposition win

AP News
Posted: Nov 10, 2015 8:33 PM
Myanmar army will keep privileges even with opposition win

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Three days after Myanmar's historic election, official results were trickling in at a snail's pace Wednesday but it was clear that the military-backed ruling party faced an overwhelming electoral defeat at the hands of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy party.

What's also known — even before the elections — is that regardless of the result the military involvement in this nation's politics would not end. Far from it.

The military, which took power in a 1962 coup and brutally suppressed several pro-democracy uprisings during its rule, gave way to a nominally civilian elected government in 2011 -- with strings attached.

"Sunday's poll does not mark democracy's triumph in Burma," said Ellen Bork of Foreign Policy Initiative, a U.S. think-tank. "Over the past few years, it has become obvious that the military and its political proxy (the ruling party) were not actually interested in a democratic transition that required them to relinquish their power."

Aside from installing retired senior officers in the ruling party to fill Cabinet posts, the army granted itself constitutional powers that enshrine its influence over government no matter who is elected. In a state of emergency, a special military-led body can even assume state powers. Another provision bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because her sons hold foreign citizenship.

Right now, though, the focus is on the stunning, if not yet official, victory of Suu Kyi's party over the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in Sunday's polls.

In an interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi said her National League for Democracy expects to win 75 percent of the seats it contested in the 664-member two-chamber Parliament.

It staked its claim even though the state Union Election Commission by Wednesday had announced results only for 88 lower house seats and 33 upper house seats, giving 78 and 29 to the NLD, respectively, and five and two to the ruling party. Smaller parties and independents got the rest. The commission has given no explanation for the slow results.

"The NLD's big victory is best seen as the first step of a negotiation that is going to play out in the coming weeks and months between the elected power of the NLD, and entrenched, constitutionally guaranteed military power," says Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

When the former ruling junta drew up the 2008 constitution, he says, "they built a political structure that keeps Aung San Suu Kyi out of the presidency and locks in their influence and prerogatives — with things like 25 percent of the seats reserved for the military, a 75 percent approval bar to amend the constitution, no legislative scrutiny of military budgets, and ensuring only military men can lead the most powerful ministries, like Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs."

"So, even with the people behind her, Aung San Suu Kyi will face problems — because if she tries to force her way with the military, it will be like banging her head against the wall," says Robertson.

Because the military still controls important political decisions, says Toe Kyaw Hlaing, an independent political analyst in Myanmar, the NLD and other political parties have to cooperate with the military.

"But I think the NLD will happily cooperate with them since one of their mandates is 'National Reconciliation,' he says. "They are the important group in Parliament that shouldn't be ignored. There must be cooperation and the NLD will have to convince the military to cooperate with them."

In 1990, the army annulled the election results after a landslide victory by the NLD. But that kind of response is not widely expected this time. The military is invested in the freed-up economy that semi-democracy has brought as Western nations eased their trade and investment sanctions in response to political liberalization. And the military always has its constitutional safeguards to fall back on.

Estimates by the NLD put it on pace with the 1990 landslide. Tin Oo, a senior colleague of Suu Kyi, told The Associated Press the party will receive "nearly" 81 percent of the vote.

But the delay in announcing official returns has raised concern, with NLD spokesman Win Htein telling reporters that the election commission has been "delaying intentionally because maybe they want to play a trick or something."

Suu Kyi told the BBC she does not expect the army to steal away her party's election victory, as it did in 1990.

"They've been saying repeatedly they'll respect the will of the people and that they will implement the results of the election," she said, adding Myanmar's citizens are now politically more aware and that new forms of communications serve a watchdog function.

If the NLD secures a two-thirds majority of the Parliamentary seats at stake — a likely scenario now — it would gain control over the executive posts under Myanmar's complicated parliamentary-presidency system.

The military and the largest parties in the upper house and the lower house will each nominate a candidate for president. After Jan. 31, all 664 legislators will cast ballots and the top vote-getter will become president, while the other two will be vice presidents.

Although she is barred by the constitution from becoming president, Suu Kyi recently has declared that she will be the country's de facto leader, acting "above the president," if her party forms the next government.


Associated Press writers Vijay Joshi in Yangon and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.