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Post-Election Myanmar: Government, Military, Minorities

Post-Election Myanmar: Government, Military, Minorities

Tuesday, 1st December 2015, 08.30-11.30 a.m.
Room 105, Maha Chulalongkorn Building,
Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand


          Opening Remarks

         Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana

         Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Mr. Nyantha Maw Lin
Managing Director, Vriens & Partners Pte., Ltd., Myanmar office

Ms. Thin Lei Win
Chief Correspondent, Myanmar Now

Mr. Jonathan Head
South East Asia Correspondent, BBC News

Ms. Gwen Robinson
Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand, and Chief Editor of the Nikkei Asian Review

Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn
Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand
Columnist, The Nation Newspaper

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Director of ISIS Thailand
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University



Videos: Post-Election Myanmar: Government, Military, Minorities

Post-Election Myanmar: Government, Military, Minorities Part 1/2:

Post-Election Myanmar: Government, Military, Minorities Part 2/2:


Moderator: We are looking at post-election Myanmar which we will view through three interactive lenses. Government, the Military and the role of minorities, which didn’t do as well as expected in the election. 

Opening Comments Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana:

Myanmar has just had a momentous and remarkable election on November 8th. It is incredible that the election was smooth, free and fair – more or less. The results were overwhelmingly in favour of the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi. The win was not surprising, but many were caught off guard by the NLD’s victory margin. The party won about 82% of the vote, and is close to forming a one-party government. However, a compromise could be struck where a coalition including members of the military and ethnic groups make up a larger party.



Mr. Nyantha Maw Lin:

Myanmar has had an incredible climate over the past month or so. For many people in the country it was their first chance to vote in what has been an historic election. In the lead up to the elections there was a lot of doubt surrounding what the outcome of the election might be, but most are floored by the result which has emerged.


The election has saw an unexpected turnout of the number of voters: around 70%. It goes to show the extent to which people truly wanted franchise, despite concerns and criticisms about the whole process. Many may have come to vote just for the first-time novelty of the election. Others felt enabled and emboldened by the presence of international observers and media.


Much weight was given to the potential for new independent parties or ethnic minorities to cannibalise some of the NLD’s vote, but these concerns were ultimately unfounded. The NLD took a very simple, but effective campaign strategy. They focussed on Aung San Suu Kyi as the leader and co-founder of the party. They relied on her personal charisma to drive their appeal and to build a platform promising a change from the military’s status quo. There was a great focus on the NLD’s logo and flag; amid the many candidates, parties and symbols, the NLD’s logo stood out the most.


So much was made of the other parties, but they did not attract the votes that many analysts predicted (however, the Rakhine and Shan parties did fare fairly well on election day). Looking back to 2010, the SNDP, RNDP and some minority parties did manage to capture quite a number of seats. But those parties did well in a vacuum where the NLD boycotted the election. It enabled some of the smaller parties to take up some seats. But this is a very different context to the election this time around, where the electorate largely voted for change and a protest against the military; voting for the NLD was the best way for the electorate to express this.


The Election Commission has not received the credit it deserves for overseeing and running what ended up being an objective, fair election. There were some hiccups, but given this was the first nationwide vote that approximates a fair election, it was quite well run. 


What can we look forward to in the coming year? The new MP-elects will not step in until February 2016. From there they will elect the speakers of the two houses, and elected the new President who will appoint his/her Cabinet who will start work by the end of March. That process is Constitutionally laid out.

It is quite clear that there will not be Constitutional change in the next few months, particularly not enough time to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to be President under the current system. She is like unlikely to push the military on that issue. The focus will be more on how to ensure that Myanmar moves forward with what will essentially be two parallel administrations; first, the NLD elected government that will control foreign and economic policy. But there will also be the Commander in Chief, which will control a number of critical portfolios including defence and security, and home affairs. These two centres of power will have to coexist.


In terms of policy, the message from the NLD is quite promising and optimistic. Aung San Suu Kyi has indicated to her elected MPs that the party will take a fairly strong and strict approach in terms of how the MPs will conduct themselves and how they accept funding. However, there is still some learning to do before the MPs can adequately perform the necessary functions of policymaker.


Moderator: It is a moving, developing story. For the election, the important points you mentioned were the NLD’s brand, its flag and logo. Analysts did not predict the outcome well – minority and smaller parties did quite poorly. Voter education helped, and the Electoral Commission played an important role.


Mr. Nyantha Maw Lin: We haven’t seen the voter breakdown yet. Myanmar has a first past the post system. So we can’t say that the minority or smaller parties did not get any support, but they didn’t get enough support to get past the post. So when we see the voter breakdowns we will get a better indication how what their support looks like.


Moderator: The system your described having Defence and Home Affairs under the auspices of the military reminds me of Thailand in the 1980s when Finance and Defence were handed by the military, supported by the Army and General Prem. There was a kind of compromise where semi-democracy survived for eight years in Thailand. We could be seeing some kind of semi-democratic parallels here.



Ms. Thin Lei Win: At this point in time, we don’t know whether Aung Sun Suu Kyi will be able to lead from behind. We don’t really have any experience of her actually leading; she is always seen as a human rights, democracy icon. In some ways, being in opposition is a lot easier than being in government.


This election had an exciting feeling. Before the polling stations opened at 6am, there were already hundreds of people queuing to cast their votes. It was crowded, there was some jostling, but everyone was in a good mood and very helpful. The famous old Myanmar community spirit seems to have retuned.


In the election, everyone has to vote three times; lower-house MP, upper-house MP and state/region MP. For ethnic voters, they also have to vote for their ethnic representative. It was quite a complicated process.


There is some talk about the NLD winning because there is a ‘blind faith’ in Aung Sun Suu Kyi. It is true, there are some people who will not accept any criticism of the party whatsoever – this of course is not ideal as people should be able to criticise and scrutinise any politician. However, many people also made a calculated, strategic decision to vote for the NLD. The NLD had a good grassroots campaign, a simple message, the ‘Lady’ at the centre and a platform for change, but also what was evident was that there were also unofficial NLD campaigners not affiliated with the party at all. They were inspired to campaign because they saw this as a perfect opportunity to drive change. Many were not necessarily inspired by the NLD or Aung San Suu Kyi, but they voted for the party almost as a protest vote against the military and establishment. The NLD, despite being a Burman party, was still seen by many as big and professional enough to bring about the policy of change that they promised.


The NLD needed 324 seats to form government. They currently have 390, far more than needed. The NLD have been making all the right noises; Aung Sun Suu Kyi has said to her new MPs, ‘Don’t expect Ministry positions.’ She has publicly noted that she wants her government to push through reconciliation, which would mean it would include ethnic representation, as well as possibly USDP. She also reassured the diplomatic community of the importance of continuity in key sectors, which many also took it to mean that some of the current key people in Finance and Economic positions will stay. It is a smart move, because they idea reconciliation will go towards reassuring the military and powers-that-be that she is not out for revenge, that she is willing to work together, but it will also reduce the risk of triggering a bi-election if she appoints key posts to her new crop of MPs.


Many expected minorities to poll well. A huge majority got steamrolled by the NLD machine. It is worrying that in a lot of states, there will be one very dominant party. Despite the fact that most ethnic voters also made a calculated choice, there are still many questions about how people will be represented under this new regime. There are also still questions about the peace process and dialogue, and whether it will be continued by the NLD.



Gwen Robinson: In this post-election euphoria, it is easy to see the USDP, the President and the old system as a destroyed, dead force, but in fact what we have now is a new configuration emerging that will not be clear for months.


Looking at the elections from the ground, there are a lot of insights. But anyone who can guarantee what will happen must be lying! These are just observations. First, what is clear is the stunned disbelief among the ruling party and military. There were early suggestions before the election of leaked internal polling in the USDP suggesting a ‘worst case scenario’ of the party achieving 5% of the popular vote, which is just about what they received. It was so far beyond anyone’s comprehension that the party could completely collapse. There was no planning for a complete rout. It means that there is a chance for reform minded individuals within the establishment, including the President himself, to have a role in the country going ahead. Many of these people will not just fade into the woodwork. What might emerge is a new party or a reformed USDP which can be an effective force moving forward.


The meeting with the Commander-In-Chief will be an incredibly important moment which could establish the parameters for the ‘horse trading’ compromises in the new configuration. There are probably no ways for the Constitution to change to allow her to become President, however.


Overall, what we might be seeing emerge is an ‘elected autocracy’ or one-party democracy. It is quite ironic that this historic display of democracy ends up giving one single party and a particular figure control over the entire Parliament, save for the 25% allocated to the military. Also ironically, the military will be the only check-and-balance on the extraordinary sweeping power of this popular force. For the moment, this is good. But longer-term, particularly as Aung San Suu Kyi ages, a single person may not be able to sustain the same values in the future. Her limited deputies may not share the same political visions.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s greatest enemy at this point is popular expectations. They are so impossibly high. There is actually nowhere to go but down. Going around the country, she is seen by some as a shining goddess who can fix everything overnight. This is daunting for her. People will be disappointed. But how long will her honeymoon period be before people pass the threshold of disappointment? It could be quite some time as many are so happy she is there.


Her number 1 issue is the proposed changes to the Constitution. There is some speculation that she may be willing to give the military some very significant concessions (possibly more than three seats in the Cabinet) in exchange to lessening its veto power in Parliament over the Constitution changes.


There is also much speculation on who she makes her President. This doesn’t really matter so much, because as long as the President does her bidding, she makes it very clear that she will be running everything herself. Where it does matter is that she must trust this President to do as she demands, as Constitutionally and legally the President does have a great deal of power. She also made an odd and improbable relationship with Shwe Mann in the past few years; he is sort of on the cusp of political wilderness but he might join the NLD as a Presidential candidate. For Aung San Suu Kyi, she could become a very powerful force in Parliament, perhaps as Speaker, but would have to give up her role in the Cabinet. She could also make herself Foreign Minister, giving herself the right to sit in Cabinet and also use her strengths in international diplomacy while keeping a watchful eye over her ‘pet president.’ If she joins the Cabinet, she will have to give up her Parliamentary seat which might damage her legitimacy as a representative of the people. The third option, is to be a shadow shogun with no actual power at all – but will that be seen as transparent enough with her pulling the strings behind the scenes? She has some choices to make.



Jonathan Head: It is hard to think of an election which had as much hope and expectation as this one. The votes clearly meant so much to the electorate. As there was an incredible sense of importance and determination among the voters, it was clear that the NLD would do well. The simple desire for change clearly trumped any of the other issues.


Going forward, a great deal hinges on Aung San Suu Kyi’s personality and how she manages her relationship with the military. It has been a prickly relationship in the past. It is also important how much she prioritises her obsession with the Constitution and whether she is willing to put that aside in order to focus on other issues like the economy (which the NLD did not campaign on at all). Among many in Myanmar, the economy, particularly the poorly managed, over regulated agricultural sector, bitter land disputes and the influence of crony businesses remain major issues. There seems to be a lack of political and policymaking talent in Myanmar which might make it hard for the NLD to press forward on these reforms, administration and economic management. When Then Sien started on his reforms, he was blessed with exceptionally low expectations. He could not have done anything except for exceed them, so people have applauded everything he has done. Opening up the economy has allowed the ‘low-hanging fruit’ to be plucked. The more difficult task of reforming agriculture and finding jobs is far more difficult, and there is a government coming in that does not have any experience with that.


The military is the hardest institution to read and analyse. Under Suharto, the military never allowed a free election; they were always very careful managed. But in Myanmar, the military has allowed a free election and so far they have accepted its result. The military was unable to build its own party, USDP, into a powerful institution as was seen in Indonesia with Golkar. In some respects, the military plan has borrowed from Suharto’s Indonesia, but in others it has moved beyond it. 



Kavi Chongkittavorn: Before 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi had a hope in ASEAN. After the election in 1990, ASEAN members stood up in Luxembourg and lectured the world that ASEAN members do not meddle in each other’s affairs (Myanmar was not yet a member of ASEAN, but was part of Southeast Asia more broadly). During the intervening 5 years, Aung San Suu Kyi had hope that ASEAN would back her up. However, what would have been a landmark meeting in July 1995 was cancelled ASEAN. That was the moment Aung San Suu Kyi lost all hope in ASEAN. But she can no longer avoid ASEAN, she must deal with it.


Talking about changes within the political system, one thing that will continue will be Myanmar’s relationship with ASEAN. For more than 17 years Myanmar completely wasted its time with ASEAN (ie skipping the Chairmanship in 2005). However, it did a great job as Chairman last year, even with low expectations. Recently it has done a great job in ASEAN. Whoever takes the lead in the next government will have to focus on ASEAN (especially as the ASEAN Community kicks off next year).


On the regional front, Myanmar has done well in all of the ASEAN Community pillars. Myanmar has done well, but its improvement has been low-quality, particularly in the financial areas. Overall, the performance of Myanmar within this integration action plan is middle-ranking, better than some of the old members.


The overall economic performance of Myanmar largely depends on small and medium enterprises, around 90%. Myanmar is interested in promoting SMEs, particularly in seeking micro-finance funding, but a lack of experience and administration has hindered SME development. In this area, Myanmar can still do a lot more.


At the moment Myanmar is the coordinating Chair of ASEAN and the United States. This is incredibly important because it will allow Myanmar to play a leading role with one of the most important dialogue partners. Ensuring that Myanmar has a leading and active role in ASEAN is crucial. Aung San Suu Kyi must not mix her old grudges and make sure that Myanmar and ASEAN achievements must be continued and strengthened going forward.


Because of the Myanmar location, so far it has behaved rather uniquely as a game-changer amid Great Power relations. Myanmar was the first country in ASEAN that has gone up against China, which has given the country some credibility in terms of going up against the major powers. It has remained quite balanced and fair in its relations with its neighbours and with the great powers.


In regards to the Dawei port, because of geopolitical concerns Japan has recently accelerated relations with Thailand and Myanmar and has agreed to commit to development of the port. Aung San Suu Kyi does not like this development at all, even though there are a lot of benefits for the country at stake. Hopefully her personal dislikes do not stand in the way of its development. 



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