Myanmar: Still a Disciplined Democracy?

Editor’s note: 
Dr Lee Jones is senior lecturer in international politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He has written extensively on Myanmar including in his books: ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work (Oxford University Press, 2015); and, with Shahar Hameiri, Governing Borderless Threats: Non-Traditional Security and the Politics of State Transformation (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He tweets @DrLeeJones.

 

Following fieldwork in Myanmar in 2012, I wrote two articles on Myanmar’s regime transition that, due to the vagaries of academic publishing, appeared only in 2014 and 2015. These were: “The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition”, published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, and “Explaining Myanmar’s Regime Transition: The Periphery is Central”, in Democratization. Both pieces tried to grapple with the rapid and dramatic changes in Myanmar since 2011, to explain the transition and how the new political regime would work in practice. My central thesis was that the new regime was not merely a charade, but would exhibit some autonomy within certain firm constraints. Now seems like a good opportunity to take stock. Following the recent landslide victory by Myanmar’s National League for Democracy, is Myanmar still a disciplined democracy? The answer, I suggest, is “yes”.


My articles had two goals. First, to rebut the facile notion, circulating among many academics and activists, that the post-2010 regime was merely a military junta in disguise, a superficial change with Senior General Than Shwe even continuing to pull the strings from behind the scenes. Second, however, also to rebut the equally facile boosterism of organisations like the International Crisis Group and the Asian Development Bank that everything had changed and glory days awaited. I wanted to recognise Myanmar’s political system as a distinctly new type of regime, while also recognising the severe political constraints operating upon it.

 

The core arguments made in these articles were:

  • The change was not “sudden” but had been slowly and meticulously planned by the previous military junta, which had laboured for 15 years to impose the 2008 constitution. This was virtually identical to that which the regime had proposed in the National Convention in 1993. While the army was initially too weak relative to ethnic-minority rebel groups and the democratic opposition to impose this constitution, it had strengthened by the mid-2000s, enabling it to move. The sheer time and effort the military devoted to imposing its preferred order meant that it would not accept change in the system lightly.
  • The constraints the junta designed in the 2008 constitution stemmed from two sets of concerns:
    • The military concern for the state’s stability and integrity when confronted by 60 years of communist and ethnic insurgencies.
    • The military’s belief that civilian politicians have historically failed to safeguard the state due to their pursuit of narrow political advantage and self-interested squabbling.
  • Accordingly, the logic of the post-2008 regime is a “disciplined” political system where the elected government can exercise some autonomy, but only within “red lines” laid down by military:
    • The maintenance of stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, i.e. no “dangerous” concessions to the minorities.
    • The perpetuation of the military’s role in governance, as a check on supposed civilian incompetence, and the safeguarding of its corporate interests.

 

In addition to these formal limitations, I identified further structural factors that would constrain the new political regime:

  • The dominance of the economy by a small number of conglomerates owned by regime “cronies” and the military, which would place limits on reform.
  • The political complexes of the borderlands, where military and state power are fused with local ceasefire groups.
  • The Union Solidarity and Development Party’s (USDP) resource base and tight links to the military and bureaucracy. The prospect that it might convert itself to a dominant party, à la Cambodia – though there was little sign of this happening, even in 2012, raising the possibility of more genuinely competitive politics, à la Indonesia.
  • The weakness and corruption of the bureaucracy and judiciary.
  • I also worried about the NLD’s failure to mobilise a strong counter-hegemonic coalition among farmers (over land grabs), reformist monks, urban workers and so on; the NLD’s lack of strategic nous; and continued divisions among the pro-democracy opposition.

So, after an NLD landslide, how well does this analysis hold up?

Like many Myanmar watchers, and indeed – initially at least – Myanmar citizens, I have to admit being surprised by the sheer scale of the NLD electoral victory. As I had predicted, the 2015 general elections did not simply mirror the very clean 2012 by-elections that led to a clean sweep for the NLD and the arrival of over 40 of their legislators in parliament. Rather, there were endless “dirty tricks” in the run-up to the election. USDP figures, backed by constituency development funds, used local pork barrel spending to court popularity. The Union Election Commission released flagrantly inaccurate voter rolls and cancelled voting in 25 percent more village tracts than in 2010, disenfranchising around three million people. The campaign period was marred by allegations of vote-buying (and efforts to suppress reportage of it), intimidation and violence towards opposition campaigners, interference by the army commander-in-chief, massive state media bias, and the illegal anti-NLD, pro-USDP campaigning of Ma Ba Tha. Yet, notwithstanding the debacle of advanced voting and over 420 allegations of election-day irregularities, voting was overwhelmingly free. I had expected a greater degree of manipulation on the day that would deny the NLD a total landslide and at least preserve the USDP as a political force. But there was simply not enough bribery, coercion, ballot-stuffing and so on to override the vast personal popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi. The USDP was wiped out.

Why? Clearly, USDP elites utterly failed to build a dominant party system like the Cambodian People’s Party. There was never any real leadership in this direction. Moreover, the USDP could not rely on state forces to help them rig the election.

Why not? Because, as my articles argued, the military had designed a “discipline-flourishing democracy” that is permitted to function somewhat freely, but within certain red lines. There is no doubt that most of the army is probably not happy with the idea of an NLD landslide. The generals are not “smiling”, as Maung Zarni suggests. But they have enough faith in the constraints they have put in place to let the system run – for now. Of course, this also means that this isn’t a “Mandela moment”, as some of the more naïve commentary has implied.

 

So what are these “red lines”? The new NLD-dominated regime will face two main forms of constraint: formal, mostly constitutional constraints; and wider structural limitations.

In terms of formal, legal and constitutional constraints:

  • Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from being elected president, so she must seek to have a proxy elected. However, the executive is deliberately insulated from popular and legislative control: the president and all ministers must resign their party affiliations on taking office. This could deepen the inevitable principal-agent coordination problems Suu Kyi will face.
  • The military continues to dominate key state agencies.
    • The military commander-in-chief (CinC), not the president, controls all military affairs. The military commands all state coercive apparatuses including the police.
    • The CinC also appoints the ministers of home affairs, defence, border affairs. This gives the military control over vast swathes of the most crucial public policy – especially the crucial issue of Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies and a political settlement of these.
    • The CinC also controls 5 of the 11 members of the National Defence and Security Council which ‘floats’ above the executive, superintending government business.
    • Any attempts to cut the military budget will be resisted on grounds of security and “sovereignty”. A 2011 law allows the military to source funds independently anyway.
    • 80% of senior civil servants are ex-military.
    • The army remains Myanmar’s most powerful and coherent institution.
    • By virtue of its control of 25 percent of parliamentary seats, the military retains a de facto veto over constitutional change and will not permit changes with which it disagrees. Accordingly it has been far easier to achieve economic than political reform in this parliament. The purge of Shwe Mann prior to the 2015 elections showed what happens when someone ventures to cross the “red lines”.
    • CinC Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly stated that the military will relax its grip only when assured of “stability”, meaning the pacification of Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies and assurances that civilian politicians will run the state along lines acceptable to the military. Progress on ethnic peace in particular can only be achieved with military buy-in.

There are also a range of non-constitutional, informal, structural constraints that will continue to shape what is possible in Myanmar.

  • The political complexes of Myanmar’s borderlands will likely be resistant to change. In many areas, military-ceasefire group collaboration is the foundation of stability and basis of rule, not government authority. Elsewhere, armed struggles persist.
  • Corruption remains endemic. Suu Kyi’s “rule of law” mantra is a facile slogan in a country where 70 percent of judges are estimated to take bribes.
  • Communal tensions remain deep and severe. There is widespread Islamophobia among Bamars, even among NLD supporters fearing a government dominated by Muslims – despite their purge from the NLD’s ranks. MaBaTha, while chastened by its de facto defeat, remains a highly organised force and could quickly return to prominence if the NLD appears to challenge Buddhist supremacy.
  • The continued economic dominance of “crony capitalists” – whose wealth and expertise are widely thought necessary to the functioning of the modern economy, despite their deep unpopularity – will constrain economic policy options. A full opening to foreign investors seems unlikely. Even those cronies ousted from parliament are gearing themselves up to thrive under the new dispensation.
  • The NLD continues to be a relatively weak party, being little more than a personal vehicle for Aung San Suu Kyi. Although its election campaign was very successful, inspiring people to overcome their initial cynicism about the likely fairness of the election, serious problems remain. Many are concerned about Suu Kyi’s haughty and authoritarian leadership style, the dominance of rigid, elderly activists, the absence of explicit policies and the absence of any articulated strategy to resolve Myanmar’s myriad problems.

 

There are, in short, huge expectations for “the Lady”. But she will certainly struggle to deliver.