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Dynamics of Reconciliation in Myanmar

Dynamics of Reconciliation in Myanmar

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Myanmar’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has made enough of a point without derailing her country’s spectacular political settlement by democratic means when she stood up to her opponents and later budged.  Following the National League for Democracy’s virtual sweep of 43 out of 44 MP seats in Myanmar’s 1 April by-elections, Ms Suu Kyi initially refused to take the oath of office to “abide by” the military-sponsored constitution but only to “respect” it. This distinction became a storm in a teacup. Just days later, Ms Suu Kyi backed down and took the oath to abide by the charter. By that time, she had already sent clear signals that she will not be a pushover in parliament and that the constitution will need to be amended. Contrary to some perceptions of her excessive pride, Ms Suu Kyi also showed that she is not unreasonably recalcitrant or above compromise for larger aims.


The recent by-election results for the NLD were a long time coming. From more than two decades of deprivation and repression, Myanmar politics finally appears to have entered an era of democratic deliverance. It has done so in a breathtaking fashion, going from strength to strength and putting next-door Thailand’s democratic contestation to shame. But it is far from being out of the woods of military authoritarianism. A full and direct reversal in Myanmar is now difficult to foresee but deviations and detours from the democratic road ahead cannot be ruled out. Myanmar’s spectacular results spell far-reaching implications for politics at home, the regional neighbourhood and broader international community.


For all stakeholders, how this ethnically diverse country of 60 million at the intersection of China, India and mainland ASEAN refers to itself and how it is referred to by outsiders will hold symbolic and substantive significance at once. Myanmar used to be called Burma. It is still called Burma by many as a show of defiance and despise for the former military regime that brutally ruled the country for decades. Under the iconic and vindicated Ms Suu Kyi, the NLD’s participation and triumph in the by-elections, while yielding less than eight percent of total MP seats, will put pressure on key stakeholders to unify the name under Myanmar as concession and recognition of the legitimacy of recent reforms. There will be holdouts and unconvinced dissidents but Myanmar’s forward momentum rests on its official name, which also may provide greater accommodation to its vociferous ethnic composition.


The NLD’s thumping victory is both portentous and ominous for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military’s electoral vehicle. All things equal, the by-elections suggest the NLD is likely to win a massive landslide when general elections are held again in 2015. Even if the military retains an automatic, constitutionally mandated 25 per cent of all seats, the USDP is unlikely to withstand the opposition’s election onslaught. The NLD as the main opposition party is thus on course to gain control of the national assembly in three years.


It is crucial for the NLD to prioritise the broader reform process over the shorter-term electoral gains and temptations for retribution. Democratic transitions from military authoritarianism in other countries typically took many years, with ups and downs, and with different modalities of civil-military power-sharing during military withdrawals. For Thailand it took five decades to progress from outright military dictatorship to democratic rule, and it has not finished. A key period was the 1980s under a so-called semi-democracy, where the military retained some reins of government and civilians the rest. Myanmar’s reformers from the military era require continued concessions to keep the train on its track. Going back to the barracks – and being confined there – will take time.


Yet a full and direct reversal to another outright dictatorship is unlikely. The beginnings of Myanmar’s reforms with a dubious pro-military constitution and a bogus election have somehow taken on a life of their own. The vested interests for the fruits of reform have become wider and more entrenched. For example, Myanmar will host the Southeast Asian Games next year and assume the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. Misbehaving with more military repression will not only mean a loss of face but also the potential loss of these prestigious hosting opportunities and acceptance in the wider world. The generals suffered a wounded pride when they had to forego the ASEAN chairmanship in 2005 and are presumably not keen to face another regional humiliation. Suitors from abroad for business and commerce, for aid and development, provide additional incentives to maintain momentum.


The immediate implication for the ASEAN neighbourhood centres on democratisation. ASEAN is home to the most diverse regime types among regional organisations. If Myanmar can democratise, why can’t other ASEAN states? Myanmar’s demonstration effects are considerable. The pressure to democratise in ASEAN can only grow. At minimum, Myanmar’s progress will not be a boon to authoritarian regimes. There are myriad positive spillover effects for nearby regimes, not least Thailand’s. The authoritarian road is a dead end even if democratisation can be necessarily messy and problematic.


Along the same lines, the major powers will have much to draw from in Myanmar’s road ahead. The cost-benefit dynamics are clear. It is mainly the Western countries, namely the United States and more and less among the European Union members, which stand to benefit from reforms in terms of values and interests. The same goes for India, although it charts a more independent course not glued to the West. By contrast, it is difficult to imagine Beijing as pleased and enthusiastic about Myanmar’s by-election results. Myanmar’s momentum and latest developments are thus consequential for the superpower rivalry between the US and China in mainland Southeast Asia.


Ultimately, Myanmar’s fragile progress is for the Myanmar people. Its ceasefire agreements with ethnic minorities are still delicate and will need to be solidified. Its overweening suitors will now come from everywhere as if they are in a gold rush. The chief challenge for the country comes from history and time. It has to undergo economic development in warped time, an agrarian country having to grapple with the forces of globalisation not in several decades but in several years. Its best chance is to maintain a moving, adaptable and symbiotic power-sharing arrangement on the immediate horizon and prepare the groundwork for democratic but inclusive and reconciled electoral outcomes in 2015.


The writer is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.