Towards Democracy and Reconciliation (Part 1: Politics and Governance)

On Monday, 15 February, Burma/Myanmar scholars came together for a day-long workshop, “Towards Democracy and Reconciliation: Challenges Facing Myanmar’s Incoming Government,” cosponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall and the Programme on Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College. Following the recent November 2016 election, participants asked not only what Myanmar’s future might look like after a landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, but also what unique obstacles will stand in the way of the newly-formed government come the start of April.

The workshop was structured around four major themes: “Politics and Governance,” “Sustainable Development,” “Societal Interventions,” and “Displacement, Ethnicity and Peace,” though speakers drew on expertise to bring a number of cross-cutting concerns to the forefront, from issues associated with gender, religion, and migration, to core questions around land rights, international investment, and education. In order to do justice to the speakers’ comments and the lively discussions that followed, we will be separating each thematic panel into separate blog posts.

On the theme of Politics and Governance, the question of how Myanmar’s two rulers— the elected, civilian government and the military—might negotiate the sharing of power, was a key question broached by a number of speakers. Hervé Lemahieu of the International Institute for Strategic Studies faced this question head-on, looking back into Myanmar’s history and asking what the re-emergence of a “diarchy” in Myanmar might mean for civil-military relations in the country. While perhaps Myanmar’s current situation of “rule by two” may not be the dramatic change that many observers had hoped for in that a number of constitutional “red lines” remain in place, Lemahieu argued that it is key that we now ask what the current civilian-military power-sharing arrangement might mean for both big-picture questions— such as those of constitutional reform and, relatedly a Suu Kyi presidency— as well as for general day-to-day operations of a newly-formed government.

One key question was whether the NLD might seek to weaken or supplant the existing General Administration Department (GAD, currently controlled by the military and responsible for much of the bureaucracy) or whether they will try to work with it as a way of maintaining effective service provision and decision-making in a context of scant experience in day-to-day governance. Also on the topic of existing institutions, Lemahieu brought up the fact that, with so much attention on issues related to the constitution, many questions would likely be brought before the Constitutional Tribunal, especially if military and civilian MPs cannot agree. The NLD supported the impeachment of the Tribunal in 2012 and put forward a proposal to abolish it in 2014. What role will this institution play in the power struggle between the ruling party and the military?

Lemahieu also raised the question of whether an NLD government, with its long-standing commitment to non-violence and inclination toward centralization, might put further pressure on ethnic armed groups to sign the ceasefire agreement. Considering the seemingly widespread public support for military involvement in last year’s Kokang conflict, we could see moments where the legitimacy of continued armed struggle might be questioned by the new government, which could even lend strength to the military’s continued campaigns against ethnic armed groups that have not yet signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

What practical, everyday shifts we might see in a transitioning Myanmar was also addressed by Zunetta Herbert of Partners Asia, who drew on Nick Cheesman’s research to propose that a coherent understanding of the concept of “rule of law” (as opposed to “law and order”) would provide the framework necessary for a number of achievable, short-term political improvements, such as that of police reform, of effective legal aid to those in need, and of much-needed movement on land issues. Herbert also invoked Ozan Varol’s notion of “stealth authoritarianism,” warning that, historically, discourses around “rule of law” have allowed many governments to mask authoritarian tendencies, while providing legal coverage for their actions; whether this will be the case in Myanmar is still to be seen, but she worried that the emphasis on “rule of law” meant that few people inside or outside of the country were talking about “human rights” anymore.

Despite the areas of control reserved for the military, Herbert noted that the NLD government will have significant power to influence the law and its enactment. There is scope to add at least three more members to the Supreme Court, which would shift the balance of power away from the military. This is particularly meaningful as it is the only forum where GAD decisions can be challenged. She also advocated for giving the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission more scope of authority and for speeding up the trial process, which is currently unbearably slow and creates a drain on the resources and emotional stamina of defendants and counsel.

Herbert summarized many of her points with reference to a single concept: accountability. This is what has been missing from the justice system in Myanmar and it is what the NLD will have to try to re-infuse, even as it struggles with other governance challenges. One reason for optimism is that many new MPs in parliament were elected on the strength of their work in various communities fighting for land claims. This not only means that the new legislative body will have experienced and dedicated advocates for land reform, they will also have incentives for creating a culture of accountability in this critical area.

Min Min of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma, also provided words of warning, reminding attendees that, despite recent political shifts, there remain 129 political prisoners awaiting trial in prison, with another 280 still facing trials while on bail. As a former political prisoner himself, he discussed the way in which activists who fought for freedom and rights in many different areas would continue their struggle once in prison, shifting their focus to demonstrate for prisoners’ rights. While acknowledging evidence of political change in areas such as freedom of the press and the growth of the media in Myanmar, Min Min reminded the audience “there can be no real democratic transition in Burma, as long as there are political prisoners.”

Min Min began his comments by highlighting the striking contrast between the free-ranging and often sharply critical debates and protests carried out by student unions and other student groups in Western countries and the treatment meted out to students in Myanmar, many of whom are still imprisoned because of their roles in the protests that occurred at the start of 2015. In response to an audience question, he acknowledged the disappointment and even anger that many felt when the NLD was silent in response to the violence that security forces used against the students. But he also expressed hope that the incoming government would do the right thing not only with regard to the students but for all political prisoners, especially since so many new parliamentarians were political prisoners themselves. Some in the audience remained unconvinced, wondering how much patience the NLD government will display when faced with protests against its own policies.