Changing Myanmar: Two years after that fateful meeting

burmaOn August 19, 2011, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw. Photographed together for the first time, with Aung San’s portrait in the background, they signalled a joint resolve to change their country. Assessing their achievements two years later, I believe they have surpassed everyone’s expectations, including their own.

Transformation in Myanmar has been ‘unprecedented,’ as the president often reiterates. At the same time, Suu Kyi asserts aptly that the task is unfinished. A perception has emerged that, while easier issues have been resolved, more complex problems stare the nation in its face. Besides, ennui is setting in. Where is Myanmar heading in the next two and a half years?

Past and future

suu-kyiThe age of ‘New Myanmar’ may have theoretically begun with elections on November 7, 2010 or the release of Suu Kyi from house arrest a week later or  the inauguration of Thein Sein as president on March 30, 2011. But real change began only after that momentous meeting between the retired general-turned-civilian president and the Lady. It resulted from numerous behind-the-scenes efforts, including by the US government. Reconciliation followed when the military-backed government was convinced that a) it needed international support, capital and technology to pull the country out of its quagmire, and that b) it would never get the West on board until it made up with Suu Kyi. Experts debate the importance of the US hand in guiding Thein Sein to work with her, and in encouraging her to become more pragmatic. The rest, as they say, is history.

Release of prisoners of conscience, political and economic reforms and freedom enjoyed by the parliament are developments that define the new era. But ethnic and religious strife in the Rakhine state that spread to other parts of the country, armed conflict in Kachin and Shan states between the military and ethnic groups, and absence of progress in resolving the pivotal ethnic problem highlight the underside of change. Meanwhile, the president and the parliament have reached the mid-point in their five-year tenures. Elections, due in end 2015, are beginning to cast their shadows on the plans of key players, thereby helping us to identify emerging trends.

Key trends

Assertiveness of the parliament is a principal trend. Initially perceived to be ‘a rubber stamp’ for the military, this institution has been functioning with much freedom and openness. The ruling party, USDP, feels free to criticize and oppose the president; the military faction acts with an unexpected democratic spirit; and NLD, despite its small presence, exerts significant influence derived from Suu Kyi’s charisma. Towering all this is the Speaker of the lower house, Thura Shwe Mann, who has led the parliament to take adversarial positions vis-à-vis the government on a host of issues.

Although the military is no longer ruling the country directly and has seen its share in government budget plummeting significantly, it is still a crucial factor in politics, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing is the youngest of the country’s top leaders and has the matchless rank of ‘Senior General’. A key indication of the military’s influence comes from the unspoken competition among Great Powers to cultivate the Tatmadaw. US, UK, Russia, China and India all have arranged high-level interactions between their brass and the C-in-C.

burma-suu1Constitutional reform has now emerged as a pivotal issue, with the parliament setting up a 109-member committee to examine it. Reform may primarily be about changing qualifications for presidential and vice-presidential candidates, for, if left unchanged, the present constitution bars Suu Kyi’s candidacy due to her marriage to a foreign national and for having children who are foreign citizens. But it is also about other subjects: the role of military, distribution of powers between national and provincial governments, and independence of judiciary. These issues are complex and will no doubt take years to resolve.

On ethnic reconciliation, the government’s endeavours have met with little success so far. Ethnic groups are divided and lack consensus. Scars of religious clashes since June 2012 and mounting trust deficit have vitiated the atmosphere, making it impossible for negotiating a give-and-take that is essential for compromise.

Who will be next president?

burma-speakerSuperimposing on the future of reform is a question uppermost in everyone’s mind: who will be the next president? The country seems to have four choices. Thein Sein, hailed as the architect of reform, seems tempted to continue and seek a second term, but he will be 70 in 2015 and has frail health. Probably like Mandela, he may retire after one term as president. C-in-C Min Aung Hlaing is ambitious, but has given no public indication of interest to be president.  His may be considered as the candidacy in reserve. This leaves two real candidates – Speaker Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi. Both have announced their candidacies. A close understanding exists between the two.  There is a growing perception of a ‘deal’ between the two. This scenario suggests that the constitutional amendment needed by Suu Kyi will become a reality after, not before, 2015 elections. Suu Kyi may agree to let Shwe Mann become the president on the understanding that later he would vacate the office for her. One might ask: ‘Later? When? No clarity is available at present.

burma-obamaWhat is clear is that the constitutional amendment that is needed by Suu Kyi is impossible without all the other three candidates being on board. The establishment will find a way to complete complex formalities, only if the military accepts it.  Weighing various considerations, one may surmise at this juncture that Suu Kyi has better chances to be the speaker rather than the president after 2015 elections. But the show is on and the final act is yet to come.

External Angle

burma-chinaThe way Myanmar has been wooed by the international community in recent years lacks parallel. Myanmar leaders have paid visits to many parts of the world, and world leaders have been to Myanmar. Perhaps two trends may be underlined here.

Firstly, Myanmar has succeeded in getting much out of the West without sacrificing its relationship with China. The Chinese lost Myitsone Dam project, but they have every reason to celebrate as the Myanmar-China gas and oil pipelines become operational shortly. This is a project of immense economic and strategic significance. Myanmar has again demonstrated astuteness in balancing its external relations.

India-Myanmar ties on upswing

burma-indiaSecondly, India-Myanmar relations are on a clear upward trajectory. While our strategic community’s attention is focussed on relations with China and Pakistan, South Block has invested heavily in deepening ties with our ‘neglected’ eastern neighbour. A quick look at the high-level exchanges in past three years is instructive. From India, the prime minster, key ministers (i.e. external affairs, defence, commerce and industry), speaker, and all three service chiefs have visited Myanmar. From their side, the president came to India twice and the list of other visitors includes the foreign minister, the C-in-C and the navy chief, besides the exceptionally important visit by Suu Kyi herself. No other neighbour has received this kind of political attention from India in a long, long time. This series of high-level exchanges promises that the changing Myanmar will remain committed to a lasting relationship with India.  bhatia

(A former ambassador to Myanmar, Rajiv Bhatia is Director General of Indian Council of World Affairs, India’s preeminent think tank. The article reflects his personal views, and has been written exclusively for India Writes,