Myanmar reflects Asean domestic dilemmas

Myanmar reflects Asean domestic dilemmas

Supporters of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi hold posters bearing her image as they listen to her speak during a campaign rally. (AFP photo)
Supporters of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi hold posters bearing her image as they listen to her speak during a campaign rally. (AFP photo)

Myanmar's momentous elections on Sunday have a familiar ring to them. Now, just like 25 years ago, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), spearheaded by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is poised to thump the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Part (USDP) by a resounding margin.

The electoral stakes are high not just for Myanmar but also for Asean, its 10-member neighbourhood. What needs to happen for Myanmar to move forward with political stability and economic development is a working compromise over time. In turn, how post-election Myanmar is shaped and formed by the key protagonists will be portentous for its neighbours who face similar domestic dilemmas that have undermined Asean cohesion and slowed momentum towards its vaunted Asean Community at the end of this year.

For Myanmar, the electoral outcomes are a foregone conclusion. Despite myriad questions over voter eligibility and manipulation and ensuing controversies after the poll, the NLD is on course to win big, perhaps up to two thirds of all parliamentary seats in play, with the balance going to the USDP and smaller parties. Such a landslide victory will put the onus on Ms Suu Kyi.

If she takes her anti-military and pro-change mandate as a carte blanche to force charter amendments to make herself eligible for the presidency at all cost, a political tussle and a likely protracted power struggle will follow. But if she can transcend the cut-and-thrust, in spite of more than two decades under military abuse and house arrest after a stolen mandate in 1990, a compromise would mean an accommodation between her and incumbent President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.

It would be a bargain between the NLD and the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, perhaps involving House Speaker and Suu Kyi ally Thura U Shwe Mann. All three men -- Thein Sein, Min Aung Hlaing and Shwe Mann -- hail from an entrenched military regime that has allowed civilianisation, open politics and foreign investment after decades of closure and repression. The irony for Ms Suu Kyi is that she can do so much for Myanmar as its elected leader but not its president.

A sacrificial route could see Thein Sein's presidential repeat, perhaps in a deal for an early retirement that enables a Suu Kyi-approved successor to take over. Myanmar with Ms Suu Kyi as implicit, behind-the-scenes leader is likely to hold more potential and promise than Myanmar with her as the outright, once-and-for-all president. After years of suffering and jilted leadership in view of her father Aung San's independence heroism decades before, Ms Suu Kyi's sense of entitlement and righteous destiny on one hand, and a calling for her personal sacrifice and magnanimity on the other, will have much to say about what happens to Myanmar after the elections.

Myanmar is not alone in facing domestic challenges that limit its role in Asean when the regional organisation is supposed to become more integrated and connected. Malaysia, the Asean chair this year, is hobbled by visceral domestic political polarisation and scandalous corruption allegations involving Prime Minister Najib Razak whose power clique and crony interests are at odds with those of Mahathir Mohamad, one of his predecessors. Asean has been an outlet for Mr Najib to display statesmanship for local gains but he is so beleaguered as to lack focus and resolve to propel Asean forward in this pivotal year.

Asean's leadership shortcomings are compounded by its current secretary-general's bureaucratic blandness, a stark contrast to the charisma and pulling power of Surin Pitsuwan, the previous Asean global spokesperson and general marketer. As capacity-stretched Laos takes rotational charge next year, Asean's doldrums are unlikely to be remedied in the near term, notwithstanding celebratory hoopla to the contrary.

Unsurprisingly, when President Joko Widodo occasionally casts his attention abroad from domestic priorities, Indonesia appears unsatisfied with its traditional leadership of Asean, seeking to use other platforms, such as the G-20, to project and pursue its role and interests. Thailand, under a military government ahead of its once-in-a-lifetime royal transition, is navel-gazing in a holding pattern. Brunei is too small to be significant, and Singapore too affluent and smart to be bogged down with Asean's constraints. Under communist party rule, Vietnam has chaired Asean but it has never led Asean. And the Philippines faces an already fierce electoral contest to succeed President Benigno Aquino III next year.

Asean's trials and tribulations are not new. The organisation has weathered rough waters before, including a region-wide financial crisis in the late 1990s, internal ethno-nationalist insurgencies and jihadist terrorism, apart from the recent haze crisis emanating from Indonesia's Sumatra island. But Asean's intramural friction, domestic introspection and inert leadership come at a conspicuously bad time. From conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea and regional community ambition to great-power rivalry, Asean's role seems more instrumental and imperative now than ever. But the organisation has not provided enough answers amid mounting questions and tensions.

This is a pity because Asia's time has come but it is being squandered through the destructive logic of security dilemmas. Chronic resentment over divergent perceptions of history between Japan on one hand and China and South Korea on the other, undergirded by opportunism and nationalism, signals ill omens for Asia's rise and time in the global sun. It is supposed to be the epicentre of global action but yet Asia is rife with tension and conflict in many directions.

Myanmar's poll outcome and its imperative for compromise and accommodation over time are thus instructive. Its incumbent military regime is untenable, as are established incumbencies elsewhere in Asean, but the forces of challenge and change should not overcome their foes overnight. If Myanmar can emerge from its polls with a semblance of stability and forward movements, it would set a tone for neighbours that need to put their domestic houses in order for their regional organisation to work as a community.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY

A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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