Myanmar: Transition Within Transition

Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: Surian Soosay)

Myanmar's long-term transition from the 50-year military rule to democracy began in March 2011, with a retired general as the president. As he prepares to demit office, the short-term transition between elections on Nov. 8, 2015, and the end of President Thein Sein's innings on March 30, 2016, has gained momentum. Important developments are unfolding that may impact the shift from the present "controlled democracy" to full-fledged democracy in the long run.

The internal political scene has been dominated by two key issues: the new, emerging equation between the winner in elections—the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi—and the military leadership; and ethnic reconciliation.

On the first issue, the deal is almost clear. The military and the NLD are engaged in devising a mutually acceptable framework for power sharing. To begin with, it will be strictly in accordance with the constitution. This means that Suu Kyi will have a president of her choice (but not her, as the constitution doesn't allow) and may be free to define her relationship as "the leader" of NLD with him. However, there will be no reduction in the military's political role or powers. Besides, the new ruling party will need to cooperate with the new opposition (in the parliament), comprising a truncated group of USDP members and the military-nominated group of 166 MPs. The latter will be serving defense services officers, led by a major general in the lower and the upper house each.

The Myanmar polity promises to be a car driven by two drivers. It will move forward only through their mutual agreement.

The constitutional reforms that were aimed at increasing the quotient of democracy or redefining the relationship between the national government and states/regions would have to wait for an indefinite period. Little progress on this dossier should be expected until sufficient trust develops between the NLD and the military.

This trend became clearer with the issue of ethnic reconciliation. A conference was convened by the outgoing government, in the capital Naypyitaw from Jan. 12 to 16, attended by 700 delegates. The conference, building on the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed last year, furthered the process of political dialogue for bringing reconciliation and peaceful resolution of problems among diverse ethnic groups and their political and armed wings.

Eight of the armed groups that signed the NCA attended the conference, but seven of the invited groups (who had not signed the NCA) boycotted the peace conference. A notable feature remained the continuation of serious differences among ethnic groups, the military and the NLD. They largely swear by a commitment to Myanmar as a "federal union," but differ about the roadmap for achieving it. While the fear of secession has almost disappeared, the military remains distrustful of delegating more authority to states/regions, a common demand of most ethnic groups. Thus the NLD may find itself between a rock and a hard place.

Suu Kyi has stated that she is ready to take responsibility for the peace process, in accordance with "the mandate given by the people." She can afford to alienate neither the military nor the ethnic minorities. However, if it comes to a choice, she—as a hard-nosed Burman politician and a strong leader by temperament—could favor the military's viewpoint.

Foreign governments and businesses are anxious to know more about the incoming government's economic policy. The NLD has not been very articulate so far. Policies to liberalize the economy, attract foreign investment and establish special economic zones will continue. Suu Kyi will strive hard to enhance inclusiveness in development by expanding opportunities for agriculture, employment, health, education, skill development and use of IT for youth empowerment. Yet she may find it difficult to fashion an economic policy essentially different from the policy pursued by outgoing President Thein Sein.

In the domain of foreign policy, however, the new government could face a major challenge. How to balance the NLD's perceived proximity to the West, especially the United States, with Myanmar's need for a good relationship with China, is a dilemma. This comes in the wake of Thein Sein's successful endeavor over the past five years to arrest the expansion of Myanmar-China relations without endangering them, while simultaneously creating new space for cooperation with the United States, the European Union, Japan and other countries. Though belatedly, China has signaled that it would cooperate with Suu Kyi. The country, though, has its concerns. It needs to turn Myanmar more accommodative than it was under Thein Sein. By stressing that Suu Kyi's government would lay "more emphasis on its relations with neighbors," she has indicated her readiness to be an active player in the new great game unfolding in Myanmar.

In fact, the next phase of the game has already begun. Anthony Blinken, deputy secretary of state of the United States, has recently visited Myanmar to convey a complex but important message from the Obama administration. He urged that political reforms should continue until "an elected civilian government is truly sovereign and all the country's institutions answer to the people." The United States expected to work in close partnership with the NLD government in pursuit of the identified goals—democracy, development and national reconciliation. Both Myanmar's military brass and Beijing must have already noted the implications of this message from the United States.

One should expect that a warmer phase in Myanmar-China relations may begin soon, possibly with a bilateral visit by the president of China to Naypyitaw in 2016. But to paint Suu Kyi as the Dragon's Lady, as a columnist has done in The New York Times, is unconvincing. Top leaders and foreign ministers of other key countries interested in Myanmar would not like to lag behind. Eventually the new government may end up following a balanced foreign policy, much like the outgoing president did.

Two developments from April onwards will evoke considerable interest: which countries will send their top VIPs to visit Myanmar and which countries will be visited by Suu Kyi in the early months after the change of government.

India's Ministry of External Affairs has been keeping a close watch on developments, and will no doubt make its moves at a suitable time. As an analyst put it, Myanmar is heading towards "an unchartered political terrain." The expectation is that it will move forward with a blend of caution, calibration and some creativity.

This feature was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Rajiv Bhatia is a distinguished fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Programme at Gateway House, former ambassador to Myanmar and author of "India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours."