The final stage of Myanmar's path to democracy

The final stage of Myanmar's path to democracy

Last week was the anniversary of Myanmar's mass pro-democracy demonstrations in August 1988, which brought the country to a standstill after its military leaders brutally reacted, resulting in heavy loss of life, and a coup. But 31 years on, the country's long struggle for democracy is far from over, as the country enters, perhaps, the final stage of transition.

The battle lines are drawn, with the people pitted against the military. Although the events of three decades ago paved the way for some changes -- including the National League for Democracy (NLD) government after its election victory in 2015 -- the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw retains its leadership role in politics under the undemocratic 2008 constitution. It continues to wield considerable power: the charter reserves 25% of parliamentary seats and control of three important ministries -- Defence, Border and Home Affairs -- to military appointees.

"The military needs to be removed entirely from politics to allow democracy to flourish and establish a democratic federal union in the country, which are the ultimate goals of the 8888 Uprising," the former student leader Mya Aye, who was at the forefront of the movement at the time, told a gathering last week in downtown Yangon.

But the hope now -- as eloquently expressed at the celebration -- is that this can be achieved peacefully rather than through violence, and that it must be done harmoniously involving the government, the army, all political parties, the ethnic groups and civil society.

That struggle for democracy may be approaching a significant watershed moment, as the country gears up for elections in 2020. In fact, "Syndrome 2020" seems to be dominating everything at present; though currently the main focus for the ruling NLD is the push to change the constitution. Six months ago the government formed a parliamentary committee, with representatives from all the political parties in parliament, to consider amendments to the charter, which were tabled last month and are now to be discussed with the view to drawing up legislation proposing concrete changes.

The fact that this parliamentary move is opposed by the military members of parliament -- on the grounds that it is not constitutional as they have vowed to remain silent during the forthcoming parliamentary discussions -- highlights a pending constitutional crisis: pitting the civilian pro-democracy politicians against the military.

But Aung Kyi Nyunt, senior NLD MP who leads the constitutional amendment committee, believes the parliamentary debate is in fact intended to defuse any future constitutional conflict. He admits that to be successful, it needs a cooperation between the country's leaders. Something, which will have to happen, if the danger of a coup is to be removed -- at least in the run up to next year's elections.

"Without coordination and cooperation [between the civilian government leaders and the top military] difficulties will remain in any attempt to change the constitution," the former speaker of the Lower House, Shwe Mann told a press conference in Nay Pyi Taw earlier this month.

The ex-general also stressed the importance of working with the Tatmadaw to overcome the looming constitutional crisis, but acknowledged that even with such cooperation, only amendments acceptable to the Tatmadaw will be possible. For the NLD, changing the constitution is essential to ensure the country's continued transition to democracy.

"If the constitution is not amended, people will never have a government with full responsibility, and without that, we could never say we are a democracy," said Yi Mon, an NLD MP in the Lower House.

It has in fact been the party's main raison d'être for entering parliamentary politics back in 2012, having boycotted the country's initial multiparty elections in 2010 because of their rejection of the 2008 constitution.

Changing the constitution was a key election promise in the 2015 campaign, Bo Bo Oo, a prominent NLD MP and former political activist recently told me. "So forming the parliamentary committee was the first step towards keeping our election promise," he added.

There is no doubt that this has been central to the NLD government's strategy -- strengthening the country's democracy, including bringing an increased measure of accountability and transparency to government.

The country's civilian leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, has made no secret of her commitment to returning soldiers to their barracks and leaving government to civilians who are democratically elected. Initially she tried to use the peace process, or Panglong, as it has been dubbed, involving the armed ethnic groups and political parties in a process that would result in creating a "federal, democratic state". But that has proved to be a fraught and tortuous path, that seems irreversibly stalled at present. So to try to break the deadlock Ms Suu Kyi seems to have turned to parliament to provide the impetus for constitutional change.

With the country now gearing up for the 2020 elections, time is fast running out, and the NLD his facing a growing urgency to attempt at least to change the constitution, before the run up to the polls. If nothing else, according to local political analysts, it will provide the NLD with its bedrock election platform. But it is dangerous territory as it will undoubtedly increasingly pit the NLD against the military, unless serious steps are taken to defuse the growing tensions and avoid the potential flashpoints.

In fact, the NLD leadership has adopted a strong, tactical and strategic approach to their plans to change the constitution -- though their leaders are being tight-lipped about the details. Aung Kyi Nyunt told me two months ago that the intention of the charter push is not to openly confront the military. The process is intended to draw up a roadmap to complete the democratic transition, according to a senior government insider.

This is most aptly reflected in the NLD's proposed changes to the constitution that would reduce the military quota in parliament gradually -- over the next three elections -- from the current 25% to none. It would be reduced to 15% in 2020 election, 10% the election afterwards and finally to 5% in the 2030 election. This scenario fits with the former military government's roadmap, originally drawn up by the military intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt.

The roadmap outlined a transition government for a period of 10 to 20 years, from the first multi-party elections [in 2010] to genuine civilian rule. Though the roadmap was very thin on details. This was still the plan under Thein Sein's leadership, Khin Nyunt said in 2013. For the former top general, Than Shwe had adopted the roadmap in its entirety, the plans creator insisted.

Senior military officers with knowledge of the army's political intentions have also assured that their game plan was always to repeal this part of the constitution after three terms of transition government -- so after the 2020 elections, the army will be prepared to withdraw from politics, including the parliament, according to these retired military officers.

Of course, parliament is not where the military's political influence stops. They control the border, defence and the home affairs ministries. According to senior NLD officials, the party is prepared to leave these intact, at least for the time being. That said, there are proposed changes to the structure of the home ministry, with the likelihood that the police would be transferred to the President's Office, in much the same way as the local and provincial administration -- the General Administration Department (GAD) -- was last December.

But while this sounds positive and suggests a clear way forward, it will only be successful if there is a consensus between the leaders: State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander-in-chief, Sr Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

This will necessitate talks and negotiations between the two. So far, there are no signs that this is happening, but this is almost inevitable.

Of course, to be successful it needs to be confidential. The recent international attacks on Myanmar's military -- the US sanctions on the army's top brass and the UN's call for international sanctions against their economic and military hardware procurement activities -- will make it essential for the "two sides" to cooperate.

The government's speedy rebuttal -- although very weak -- to the UN's calls for sanctions shows signs that the military and civilian government are finding common ground.

But there is a long way to go before this can spillover into agreement on constitutional change.

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

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