Myanmar’s democratic transition: Doomed to stall

The constitution must be amended to give civilians “full control of the legislature and the military” in Myanmar.

Thein Sein
While Thein Sein has mandated his peace envoy to engage in ceasefire negotiations and peace talks, the President's power to make promises is severely circumscribed by the lack of governmental control over the military [AP]

Myanmar’s transition to democracy has been widely lauded. In a visit to Yangon last November, US President Barack Obama publicly praised President Thein Sein’s reform agenda, and most recently, donor countries agreed to cancel over $6bn of debt. But has the international community had the wool pulled over its eyes?

Certainly, Myanmar has made progress on some dimensions of democracy. Restrictions on participation in politics have eased, as was witnessed during last April’s Parliamentary by-elections which saw opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gain a place in the legislature.

Civil liberties have also been strengthened, with greater media freedom and fewer restrictions on the right to assemble. Many political prisoners have been released (though many still remain behind bars) and some exiled dissidents have been granted permission to return home without the fear of persecution.

Certainly, there is a great deal to be done before Myanmar reaches the level of a full liberal democracy on these dimensions, but the vast improvements cannot be denied.

I witnessed these changes in Yangon last year and was shocked at the difference in atmosphere since I last visited. People spoke freely of their political views, wore Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirts and held public political gatherings, activities which they would never have dreamt of doing only a few years ago.

But on other critical elements of democracy, like the recruitment of the President or ensuring civilian control over the military, Myanmar has made no progress. This is because of an institutional Catch-22: to make these changes necessitates amending the constitution, which requires over 75 percent of the votes in Parliament (called the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw).

Because a constitutionally-mandated quota of non-elected military representatives composes 25 percent of the Parliament, any change to the constitution requires the approval of the military representatives. This means that the constitution cannot be changed without the military’s approval, virtually ensuring that the military will retain its iron grip over the political system. 

 President Obama visits Myanmar

This issue is central not only to the country’s political transition to democracy, but also to the prospects for peace. War rages in northern Kachin state and threatens to re-erupt in neighbouring Shan state and Karen state.

While the President has mandated his peace envoy Aung Min to engage in ceasefire negotiations and peace talks, the President’s power to make promises is severely circumscribed by the lack of governmental control over the military.

Leaders from many insurgent groups are aware of this fact and are therefore reluctant to withdraw forces or make agreements with the government.

Indeed, negotiations between insurgent groups and government representatives bear no influence on whether the military will actually abide by these agreements. This was seen in recent weeks when the President declared a unilateral ceasefire, but the army continued to shell Laiza in Kachin state.

In order to resolve many armed conflicts in the country, the government must be able to exercise control over the military and credibly make promises to insurgent leaders that it will be able to do so in the future.

The importance of this constitutional stalemate seems to be lost on the international community, which has chosen to focus on elections as the primary component of democracy.

Even if free and fair elections are held as planned in 2015 and democratic parties (like Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy) take all the seats, they will still find themselves sharing the Parliament with non-elected military representatives and lack the numbers necessary to make changes to the constitution.

For a full transition to democracy to ever occur, the constitution must be amended to give civilians full control of the legislature and the military. But this cannot be done without an initial concession from the military to allow a constitutional amendment which would absolve them of their right to hold mandated seats in the Parliament.

The international community should be pushing the military for such an amendment to the constitution, using its vast array of carrots and sticks for this end. The military is keen to retain international goodwill, as the inflow of investments and development aid promises to further line the pockets of the generals and their cronies.

There is good reason to think that the military may be responsive to international pressure to make these reforms. Myanmar’s leaders are playing a clever game: as long as Myanmar appears engaged in a democratic transition and peace talks, there is actually no incentive to ever achieve either of these ends; the country is rewarded by the international community for the process itself even if the end is ultimately unachievable.

Dr Kristine Eck is an Assistant Professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University and a Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO).