Vikram Nehru on the Myanmar elections

Dr. Vikram Nehru is a senior associate in the Carnegie Asia program in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on the economic, political and strategic issues confronting Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. He has previously served in the World Bank in many senior management positions, the most recent being the chief economist and director for poverty reduction, economic management and private and financial sector development for East Asia and the Pacific. During the last Myanmar election, he was monitoring the election on the ground in Myanmar. He was interviewed by Glenys Kirana '16 and Andrew Sheets '17 on Nov. 25, 2015.

What do you think are some of the implications of the recent election on Myanmar's economic and political landscape?

First of all, I think it's important to remember that these elections were a landmark in Myanmar's history. The last time Myanmar had open elections was 60 years ago in 1955. In 1990, when they did have relatively open elections, Aung San Suu Kyi's party won in a landslide, but the transition lasted a mere 2 weeks before the elections were annulled. So Myanmar’s 2015 elections are a landmark in terms of marking a significant change in the political atmosphere of the country. At the same time, it is important to remember that many things will stay the same.

The most important factor to remain the same will be the army, which will retain control of the key political levers ― especially the security levers ― in the country. 25 percent of Myanmar’s parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, and constitutionally the commander-in-chief oversees three key ministers: defense, border affairs, and home affairs. These three ministers report to the commander-in-chief, not the president.

It is also important to recognize that virtually the entire sub-national system of government at the level of the regions and states in Myanmar is run by the general administration department of the ministry of home affairs. So anything that needs to be implemented at the level of the state or the region has to be done through a ministry that is answerable not to the president, but to the commander in chief. This means significant portions of the delivery mechanism of the administration will remain under the influence or control of the military. Even if Myanmar experiences a smooth transition of power - and that's a big assumption - and it has an NLD-dominated parliament, and the president and one VP are also NLD candidates, it will still be a government heavily circumscribed in what it is allowed to do. Its effectiveness could easily be undermined by this parallel military administration, which will have the key security positions under its control. If there were to be any orders by the NLD government in directions that the military does not agree with, the military could easily undermine such orders or simply refuse to carry them out. The military could potentially even take control of the country at any point in time on the grounds of a national emergency. In short, the military will always be an imposing presence in Myanmar, even as it stays in the background.

As a result of the continuing presence of the military, one of two things could occur: either there’ll be a relatively independent NLD government, which will then be circumscribed by constraints imposed by the military, or there’ll be an NLD government which will make deals with the military in advance. The military’s key interest will be to ensure its position in the country as the guardian of the nation’s security and territorial integrity, and more importantly, as the protector of the country’s elite, mainly ex-generals who have accumulated vast amounts of wealth and their businessmen friends who have amassed fortunes through their mutually symbiotic relationship with the country’s military junta.

What is the probability that there will be changes to the constitution? I think the probability is very low, at least in the short term. From my reading of what's happening in Myanmar, the military is very clear that it does not want Aung San Suu Kyi to ever be the president. Therefore her remarks that "I will be above the president" or "I will represent the country with the president next to me in international meetings" are not going down very well with the military. The military was taken by surprise by the elections. They very likely feel threatened by the current situation, and will be sensitive to potential threats to their position in the country. In a meeting of the Myanmar Peace Center just yesterday, tensions were high. The NLD representative was unfortunately dismissive of the USDP and the military who then reacted badly. This is a country which has deep wounds inflicted over 60 years of military rule, that there's a lot of accumulated "poison" that has to be gradually released. As a result, at any point, small missteps could be misunderstood or misinterpreted which could then derail the transition itself.

As to the second half of the question of what'll happen to the economy, I’m not sure anyone knows. The economic part of the NLD platform was written by an Australian economist and does not truly represent thinking within the NLD. At the same time, no one really knows what the NLD thinks about economic policy because this is a party that has not focused on policies but on one single personality - Aung San Suu Kyi's. And Suu Kyi hasn't made a single statement, as far as I'm aware, on economic policy. Her entire focus appears to have been on changing the constitution. She's been virtually silent on economic issues and deflected questions on other sensitive questions, such as communal problems and the Rohingya issue in Myanmar. Frankly, at this point, the NLD’s intentions on economic policy are somewhat of a black box. One can only hope that once in power they stay the course on creating a market-based economy, strengthening macroeconomic stability, and supporting infrastructure development, but we'll have to wait and see.

So do you think the military's power will decrease overtime in the future? Does the parliament have any power to change the constitution to limit the military's power?

No, I don't think the parliament has any power to limit the authority of the military because Myanmar would need to change the constitution for that to happen – and parliament needs a super majority of over 75% to change the constitution. Since the military occupies 25% of the seats in parliament, it essentially has a veto on constitutional amendments, so on the face of it, there is little likelihood that parliament will amend the constitution, at least in the short term. Having said that, the military is not a monolithic institution. If you look at the electoral map of Myanmar, almost 80% of the seats went to the NLD, which was a huge landslide victory. Even the constituencies in the capital region, Naypyidaw, a town of bureaucrats and the military, voted mostly for the NLD. This tells you that even the military and the bureaucracy – which are ostensibly supporters of the USDP – want change. But the military members of parliament that occupy 25% of the seats will follow the orders of the commander in chief and vote en bloc. This has been the case in the past, and is likely to be the case in the future. They are very unlikely to support changes to the constitution, unless they receive instructions to do so from the highest ranks of the military ― which is very unlikely.

Now will the military eventually reduce its grip on power? That’s what everyone hopes will happen in the long run, but it will depend on their assessment of the NLD’s policies and the direction of the country. This makes it incumbent on the NLD to be extremely careful in their interactions with the military. Given the lack of trust on all sides, a small misstep could easily be magnified and derail the smooth and peaceful transfer of power.


You said that tensions are really high between the military and other groups. How high of a chance is there that the transition might fail and what might happen then if it does fail?

Well that's a tough question. Since the USDP will no longer be a major political factor in the new parliament, the military and the NLD Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi will have to deal with each other directly. President Thein Sein is no longer as big a factor as he was earlier and will leave the political stage once the new president takes over. So with the NLD having to work directly with the military, the probability that things could go wrong should not be underestimated. One would hope that the new NLD administration will act in an inclusive, calm, and competent manner. At the same time, the probability that the peaceful transfer of power will be disrupted is also low only because the military knows the world is watching, and I believe the commercial and military elite would like to see a gradual transition to a more sustainable political system ― for their own benefit. They have accumulated vast amounts of wealth abroad which they would like to bring back to the country and invest. Do remember, that Myanmar’s military junta devised a seven-step roadmap to democracy in 2004, and so far it looks as if this 7-step transition process has been followed. This latest election process, however, has accelerated this process somewhat faster than even they expected. Before the election, the senior leadership of the USDP was confident they would win a decent amount of seats to either head a coalition government or to at least be a serious player in the presidential election, but that's not what happened. They completely misread the mood of the electorate. Since they were taken so much by surprise, the enormity of the landslide and the vulnerability of their position are only just beginning to sink in. Their vulnerability makes it difficult to predict how they will react to unexpected policies or measures by the NLD government. So the country is in a very delicate and difficult situation and we'll have to see how things evolve.

You also mentioned that personality plays a big part in Myanmar’s politics, so how do you think that Aung San Suu Kyi can ensure that her momentum carries through in the government’s strategies and policies in the coming years.


First of all, Aung San Suu Kyi needs to display an air of calm competence. Her public statements should emphasize inclusion, and she has to reach out to different groups in the country. She also needs to build bridges with the military.

The second thing she needs to do is to start putting together a competent and effective cabinet. Unfortunately, the NLD, which may be full of young, smart activists, has very few people with administrative talent or military experience – hardly surprising since their entire existence has been spent either in prison or in the political wilderness. So Suu Kyi is going to find it hard to put together an experienced and competent cabinet. Moreover, the NLD should use the next three months to brief the cabinet-in-waiting on the major issues confronting the country. The last thing the NLD or Suu Kyi would want is to install an incompetent administration because any sign of social or economic chaos would give the military an excuse to once again take power. Previous civilian administrations in Myanmar have a miserable governance record; their misguided policies and internal political squabbles created the conditions for a military takeover. I hope I’m wrong, but my worry is that this may happen again.

The third thing Suu Kyi needs to do is identify two candidates for president and vice president -- people who will have the respect of the military and who will be willing to do as she asks. That probably rules out Shwe Mann so she’ll have to think of other possible candidates. It will likely prove difficult to find someone who enjoys the respect of the military and is also willing to follow her orders without question.

Her fourth challenge will be to actually devise the policies and programs that will address the huge challenges ahead. Thanks to the USDP and the military that have destroyed the country’s institutions, the administrative structure she’s going to inherit is in a deplorable state. As worrying, the highest echelons in ministerial departments are all occupied by ex-military people who may not necessarily feel much loyalty to the NLD. So she will not only have to manage competing political centers of power, but also have to work with a bureaucracy that is incompetent and perhaps even hostile. And she has only has three months to prepare herself and her NLD colleagues for this challenge. Put in this perspective, she has a huge hill to climb.


How do you think Myanmar’s transition to democracy affects autocratic regions in the region, particularly Vietnam and China? Do you think it has any ramifications outside of Myanmar at all?

Myanmar’s transition to democracy will make very little difference to the political regime in Thailand. Other political regimes in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam will also very likely remain unaffected. Yet, the success of the transition will undoubtedly have an economic impact on Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia because it has been the one economy in the region that has lagged behind the rest. Its strategic location and rich natural resources give it considerable economic potential, and with the right policies supportive of stability and sustainable growth, Myanmar’s resurgence will have enormous implications for its Southeast Asian neighbors, as well as India and (to a lesser extent) China.

How would you say that the elections have accentuated ethnic tensions in the country? There have been a lot of concerns over exclusions for Muslims and other minority groups. Do you think the new government will push for reforms to allow these marginalized groups to have a more active role in Myanmar’s civil society?

During the build up to the elections, communal tensions had been ratcheted up by vitriolic statements from the Ma Ba Tha, a politically powerful Buddhist organization led by influential monks. Now that the election is over, hopefully some of this tension will subside.

I do not think the NLD is ready to do very much about enfranchising the Rohingya or assisting them with their path to citizenship. Like the USDP, the NLD is a reflection of Burmese society as a whole which, across all strata, holds a deep distrust of the Muslim community which they believe are temporary migrants from Bangladesh who could eventually overrun the country.

This deep distrust of the Muslim community is reflected in a number of ways. For example, even when Muslims have acquired citizenship, they have found it difficult to exercise their rights as citizens, including their right to vote. Moreover, Myanmar’s newly elected parliament will be very different from previous parliaments because for the first time there will be no Muslim members of Parliament. The Union Election Commission disallowed most Muslim candidates from standing as candidates in the election, and of the nine that eventually ran for parliament, none were elected. Even previous members of parliament were disbarred from standing in this election.

Any approach in Myanmar toward granting citizenship to members of the Rohingya community who have lived for generations in the country has to be accompanied by an effective immigration policy and agreement with neighboring Bangladesh that would prevent a further influx of migrants. Just as the United States has its own immigration challenges from neighboring Mexico, and Europe is having to deal with an unprecedented wave of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, so too is Myanmar confronting a problem of similar magnitude and complexity. Neither the current government, nor probably the NLD, is prepared to start granting citizenship unless there’s a clear solution to preventing further immigration from neighboring Bangladesh. This is a complicated issue with very deep roots and I don’t see any solution to this moving forward except over a long period time.

The peace process with the ethnic groups is an altogether different challenge. Although Suu Kyi has not been directly involved in the peace negotiations, the NLD campaign platform promised a federal structure and she has hinted that she may give the ethnic groups a better deal than President Thein Sein has been willing to do. Given that a ceasefire agreement was signed with eight ethnic armed groups, preparations are now underway to discuss the framework for a political dialogue and it will be instructive to see how the NLD approaches these discussions.

As far as the ethnic groups are concerned, there is a huge hunger for peace, but there is also widespread distrust as the fighting continues in some of the ethnic states. Installing a lasting ceasefire in these areas is going to be difficult because the military continues to press ahead with its own operational imperatives. Unlike other militaries, the Myanmar military is only partially financed by the government’s central budget. Regional commanders have been asked to pursue a war for 60 years without being properly financed, so they’ve been given the authority to raise resources from within their own areas. At different times and in different places, they have used forced labor, land confiscation, smuggling, protection rackets, and extortion of various kinds to raise the resources to fight their wars (and to line their own pockets). Since these regional military commands often run their own parallel administrations, they don’t always follow orders from the center, which makes it difficult for the government to ensure that ceasefire agreements are honored on the ground. Consequently, unless Myanmar sees a change in the financing arrangement for the military and strengthens the line of command, ceasefire agreements will always remain tenuous. Any solution is going to depend on the willingness of the central government to have a federal arrangement with the ethnic states. Fortunately the military has begun to accept this as a possibility, which is an important step forward.


What do you think are some of the key things that the international community should be watching out for in the next few months?

The most important thing the international community will need to watch for is whether the transfer of power will be smooth and peaceful. There are a number of practical considerations that require discussion and agreement between the incoming and outgoing administrations in Myanmar. These would include: the work of the lame-duck parliament which will continue to consider the passage of new laws for the remainder of this year; the exact timeline over the next four months that will see a new parliament and a new President; the election process for the president and the vice president which will be conducted by members of parliament – civilian and military; the ability of the new parliament to work freely and without intimidation; the peace process and the actions of the military in the unsettled ethnic states; and the state of communal relations between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority, especially in Rakhine State.

The international community will also be watching to see how the Union Election Commission deals with the hundreds of complaints that have been lodged regarding the electoral process. Given the Union Election Commission’s performance in ensuring that the 2015 elections were relatively free and fair, there is some expectation that the electoral complaints will also be handled in a fair and transparent manner. Nevertheless, it will be a process that bears careful scrutiny.

The reality is that Myanmar has entered a very complex phase in its democratic transition. The country is essentially in uncharted waters and will need the attention and support of the international community as it makes its way forward. It is essential that as the international community watches and waits as developments unfold, it should understand that there will be many hiccups and missteps along the way. Instead of rushing to judgment, and so long as progress is being made and the country is moving in the direction, the international community should grant Myanmar the benefit of the doubt and support the process as best they can.

Glenys Kirana CMC 16Student Journalist
Andrew Sheets CMC 17Student Journalist
"Myanmar's Lower House" by European Parliament — Own work. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons —
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