‘Aungsaning’ Burma or what next?

Editor’s note:
After a brief hiatus for the holidays, we’re back to a regular posting schedule for 2016.
Maung Bo Bo, a History PhD candidate in SOAS, the University of London, is a journalist with a keen interest on the Burmese politics and culture. His family was involved in the Burmese socio-political institutions and the press for over a century in Mandalay.

It is now over two months since Burma’s elections. The world is watching a complicated power transfer in Burma and it is difficult to know from who to whom that power will be transferred, as the 2008 constitution structures a complex power-sharing arrangement between the government and the army. Though the civilian opposition was able to win a landslide victory, it is not certain that they can win full control from the army and the old regime. Not only are a quarter of the seats in the parliament reserved for the military, with control over at least three important ministers post, posts in the local governments, over half of the council members in the powerful defence and security council, the green men will stay. In terms of the government’s bureaucratic structure, nobody knows the percentage of ex-army officers holding civilian posts and in control of the ministries. Even amongst the pagoda trustees, retired colonels and generals hold key posts.

Some may argue that appointing a general as the defence minister in the cabinet can be linked back to the WWII-era Burmese state, under the Japanese. Yes, even before the modern state structure, the Burmese feudal court did not divide the role of officers between civilian and military posts, and all had to serve in both services. General Ne Win, who later controlled the Burmese state for over 26 years, served in the civilian cabinets as the minister of defence as well as the deputy prime minister in 1949-1950.

Suu Kyi’s followers also point out that the army should follow its founder Aung San’s example and ask generals to resign from army posts if they want to join in politics. However, they forget that Aung San also maintained paramilitary forces like the People Volunteers Organisation (PVO), Burma Army Striking Forces, and UMP forces as auxiliary forces to use, as the Burma Army was under the control of the British after he left it. There are even writings, like Shelby Tucker’s Burma: the Curse of Independence, that mention Aung San using PVOs as his private army, with these PVOs intimidating voters in the 1947 election against the agreement with the British in Kandy. Doing politics while holding influence over the army is not uncommon in countries with on-going civil wars.

So, what can Burmese do next after the elections? Should they watch the elites’ fascinating dealings over power-sharing, or expand the democratic sphere by themselves, before the coming government’s reforms against the challenge of the military’s stronghold over the state? For now, the whole country watches, waiting for the opposition leader’s direction, ready to follow whatever she says, even to pick up the garbage and clean their environment according to her speech. The personal cult is like in the Stalinist states and in dozens of towns, the town folks erected statues of Aung San in memory of his centenary this year. Though the failed USDP candidates said the NLD used his image to win the vote, we can see that the NLD leaders promoted Aung San as their icon even before the election season.

Books, songs and art pieces highlighting Aung San as a superhero or the main leader of the Burmese independence movement became popular after press censorship was abolished, after some reforms were introduced in 2011. Though mentioning him or his daughter was mostly allowed in the past as a part of the state’s propaganda attacks on his daughter, now he is remembered as the founding father of the Burma Army (Tatmadaw) and the nation, by both the state and opposition. This situation makes the daughter appear as more powerful in the public sphere, and she even exclaimed her electoral campaigns as for a second independence.

Nobody knows how much she can move forward in the coming parliamentary term, but it is certain that her family’s image will be still powerful in Burma if she can bargain power-sharing with the generals from the army her father founded. However, the worst case scenario can come true— if she cannot do much to improve the socio-economic status of millions of poor Burmese under the army-state’s control, or if she fails to expand the civilian power control of the state in opposition the army— her father’s image, even in Burma, will fade as she loses the public’s trust.