I’m just back from two weeks in Myanmar. In the first of a series, I take a look at the country’s prospects for becoming a successful democracy
Every year, around mid-April, Myanmar slows to a crawl for nearly a week. This is the time of the Water Festival, a Buddhist celebration that culminates in the Burmese New Year. Shops are shut, transports are down, and the whole country gets soaked in a gigantic water fight that kicks off at dawn.
In a nation where crowds of more than five have long been forbidden, the festival has traditionally served the people’s need to let off steam. This year the restriction no longer applies, but the party’s madness is no less for it. The Burmese are indeed celebrating something big: their first elected civilian president in 50 years was officially sworn in at the beginning of April.
It’s tempting to see the event as a triumph for democracy. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of long-time opponent Aung San Suu Kyi, won a vast majority in both houses of parliament last November, making it sure its candidate for the presidency would win (in Myanmar the president is elected by lawmakers). Thein Sein, the military-backed incumbent, handed over the job peacefully. Even the head of the army says it backs the democratic transition.
Travel around Myanmar and you’d think the population got what it wanted. Suu Kyi portraits are everywhere, as are photos of her father, who led the nation to independence before being assassinated in 1947. The press is remarkably candid about the military, criticising its assaults against separatists at the country’s borders. Monks and youngsters spend more time on Facebook than meditating or at school.
But as locals will tell you – while asking to remain anonymous – is that the transition remains incomplete. “To have real change you need to get rid of the roots”, a young guide told us. “In this country we trust the weather more than we trust the government”, we also heard.
This scepticism partly lies in the fact that the army continues to wield serious power. It has a quarter of parliament seats reserved by law, allowing it to veto any changes to the constitution (which is heavily tilted in its favour). Amendments to the text require a majority of more than 75 percent.
The army also holds the defence, border affairs and home affairs ministries, the latter giving it control of the state administrative backbone right down to the village level. Without effective authority on the ground, NLD officials may find it hard to have their policies implemented.
Ominously, the army also dominates the National Defence and Security Council, an opaque organ that can dissolve parliament, impose martial law and run the country. It could have a pretext to do so should conflicts worsen at the country’s borders. The army has made only lukewarm efforts at respecting a ceasefire it signed with eight armed ethnic groups last October, with regular breaches on both sides responsible for a recent flare-up in violence.
In the face of all this, Myanmar’s civilian government is weaker than it seems. And yet in the areas it does control it is probably too strong: on the political chessboard, the NLD doesn’t have any rival. Small parties found themselves marginalised in the run-up to the elections, as voters decided to play it safe by backing Suu Kyi. “It was a complete power grab on her part,” said a Western adviser we spoke to.
This dominance doesn’t bode well for Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. “In five years’ time, if I’m not happy with the government, whom am I supposed to vote for? I’m not going back to vote for the army, am I?” a company executive told us.
Nor is the NLD a model of pluralism internally. Observers underline Suu Kyi’s autocratic style and reluctance to delegate. The Lady, whom the constitution prevents from being president, has bypassed the ban by creating the role of state counsellor, which gives her powers similar to that of a prime minister. She also heads the foreign affairs, education, energy and presidential office ministries, and is the only government member allowed to talk to the press.
“All this amounts to a lot of responsibilities for someone without prior experience of government. She’s a determined and strong woman but at some point she’s going to run out of juice,” an political adviser told us. He noted that Suu Kyi, now 70, isn’t grooming a class of politicians capable of succeeding her.
With the new government not even a month old, it would be unfair to level charges against her. Myanmar’s political opening, unthinkable less than a decade ago, needs time to ripen. NLD supporters insist that Suu Kyi’s status is temporary; they hope to be in a stronger position to negotiate constitutional changes with the army in a year’s time.
Whether Suu Kyi eventually shares power will be key to Myanmar’s future as a democracy. But a lot will also depend on what her people expect from her. “It may be that the Burmese don’t really want democracy as we mean it,” says a European observer. “Perhaps what they’d like to see is an enlightened dictator, someone like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.”
Despite his authoritarian tendencies, Singapore’s founding prime minister is widely admired for having made the country a wealthy place that is honestly governed. But the comparison with Suu Kyi doesn’t hold very well. Lee stepped down from the top job in 1990 – when he was 67. The city-state he ruled currently counts 5.4 million people, a tenth the population of Myanmar.
Still, there is a lesson for the Lady in this. After the death of its founding father last year, Singapore has not collapsed, largely because Lee was pragmatic enough to design a system to outlast him. Under house arrest for fifteen years, Suu Kyi did not decide she would become Myanmar’s leader that late. She must now ensure the country can also work without her – or risk finding herself treading water once the party is over.