There have been rumors circulating that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could actually become President. These rumors have oozed out of secret negotiations held between her and the Commander in Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Even the state media reported “positive talks.” The move would require Parliament to suspend by vote Article 59(f) – the clause which prohibits Myanmar nationals with foreign family members from holding executive office. Even if, against all odds, Daw Suu becomes President, it is worthy to note that Myanmar would still remain a state with two governments: one civilian and the other military.
Before examining why it is a state with two governments, let us examine the merits of Daw Suu becoming President. First, the move is simply an affirmation of the democratic legitimacy Daw Suu now possesses after winning the general elections in November. She has a right to be President. Whether that right is actually realized is a question that is determined not by law, but by politics. Second, being President would give her more legitimacy and power in seeking constitutional reform, particularly in relation to decreasing the role of the military in politics. Daw Suu has already said that she will be “above the President” if she is not allowed to assume the top office; in essence, she will be the real decision maker. Thus the powers gained if she is the President are not actually the executive powers afforded to the President, but the power to legitimately pursue constitutional reform. Moreover, it gives her the power to circumnavigate any challenges that could be posed by the military if she were to actually exercise power by being “above the President.”
Regardless of whether Daw Suu is either above or is the President, one element remains the same: Myanmar is a state with two governments. The challenge is to have one government, preferably a civilian one. It is worth remembering that when President U Thein Sein called on the military to stop its strikes against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in November 2011, the military simply ignored the President’s request. If President U Thein Sein – once top general turned civilian politician – cannot persuade the military to stop fighting, Daw Suu will have a harder time.
This is because the military as a government is an entity independent of the civilian government, but has a strong foothold within it. The military controls the Ministries of Defense, Border and Home Affairs. It also appoints one Vice President, and has veto over constitutional reform in Parliament through its 25% unelected seats. But beyond the threat of veto and a military takeover, it can also pose challenges to the new NLD (National League for Democracy) government by creating bureaucratic impediments.
The Ministry of Home Affairs is a powerful ministry that not only controls the police force of the country, but also the General Administration Department (GAD), the civil service of Myanmar. The military’s control of the GAD is a problem that many in the NLD have realized. Could the military impede legislation passed by Parliament by ordering the GAD not to implement the law? The force of law does not exist without implementation of the law. The new government faces the same problems with the police force. The police could potentially be arresting student activists and political opponents of the military. This would severely damage the credibility of the NLD-led government. The challenge the NLD faces is more complicated than ever.
The moment Daw Suu walked into a Parliament filled with MPs wearing orange tite pone (Burmese traditional jacket) was historic. For her and for the many MPs that were there, it was a moment that they had awaited for 26 years. Some of the NLD MPs who won seats in the 1990 general elections that was abrogated by the military would only get to take their seats in Parliament in 2016. The battle the NLD faces now has moved from the streets to the political arena. And politics is definitely more complicated than protests. NLD must now gauge the interest of the military, its stake, the constraints it faces, and the fears it has. Admittedly, the NLD is already on an uneven playing field given the vast powers the military has. This, however, should not be the concern. Throughout this democratic struggle, there has never been an even playing field. But what is present now that was not there before is the best opportunity to achieve genuine democracy for Myanmar. We must all seize this opportunity.