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Myanmar: From Elections to Formation of the New Government

Paper No. 6089                                  Dated 25-Mar-2016

By C. S. Kuppuswamy

“Most likely is that Myanmar will become an example of the "new normal politics" in Southeast Asia -- a hybrid regime, with an elected executive, powerful military, and deeply entrenched elites dominant in much of politics and, particularly, the economy.” – Ashley South, Nikkei Asian Review – March 19, 2016.

The fact that Myanmar is moving towards a full-fledged democracy is evident from, the free and fair elections conducted in November 2015, the military’s nod for a civilian government and the election of Htin Kyaw, a civilian, as president on 15 March 2016 after over five decades of military and quasi-military rule.  However, the Tatmadaw (armed forces) continues to have a firm grip over the administration, with an ex-general as a vice-president, with 25% of the seats in both houses of parliament for the military men in uniform and with three ministers for the Home Affairs, Defence and Border affairs nominated by the Commander-in-Chief from among the military personnel.

The elections were held on 08 November 2015 in a free and fair manner with observers from both international and domestic organisations to monitor the elections.  The main opposition party, National League for Democracy (NLD), under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi had a land slide victory by securing over 75% of the elected seats in both houses of parliament.  It had also dominated the seven (Bamar majority) regional parliaments and five of the seven ethnic predominant states.

Myanmar is perhaps the only country where there is a long gap (over 4 months) between the elections and the date when the new government takes over.  The new parliament was convened on 01 February 2016 and the new government takes over on 01 April 2016.

Keeping in mind the events in 1990 when the election results were annulled by the military, Aung San Suu Kyi, on achieving a resounding victory in the 2015 elections, repeatedly said that she is looking for a ‘national reconciliation’ government and her party will not be seeking revenge for all that the party had suffered at the hands of the military junta since 1990.  With this aim in view she had meetings with President Thein Sein, C-in-C Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the powerful erstwhile military ruler Sr. Gen. Than Shwe and the lower house speaker Thura Shwe Mann during the period of over two months (since the election results were announced) for  a smooth transfer of power.

Speculation was rife in the media that in her talks, Aung San Suu Kyi was exploring ways and means to amend or circumvent Article 59 (f) of the 2008 Constitution which debarred her from becoming a president because of her two sons being British citizens.  There were also reports to indicate that the military was bargaining with its own conditions and demands for amending the constitution to enable her to become the president.  By early March 2016 when it became evident that her talks with the military had failed, she nominated Htin Kyaw as her proxy president who was duly elected on 15 March 2016.

On convening of the parliament on 01 February 2016, the first major item on the agenda was the election of the speakers and the deputy speakers of both houses and the regional parliaments.  NLD has given due representation to the ethnics in nominating the personnel for these posts at the centre and in the regional parliaments.  The new appointees are:

Lower House (01 February, 2016)

  • Speaker - Win Myint – a long time NLD member
  •  Deputy Speaker – T-Khun Myat – an ethnic Kachin from Northern Shan State

Upper House (03 February, 2016)

  • Speaker – Mahn Win Khaing Than – an ethnic Kachin NLD MP
  • Deputy Speaker – Aye Thar Aung – a Senior leader of the Arakan National Party

Regional Parliaments

Myanmar’s local legislatures elected speakers and deputy speakers on 09 February 2016.  In 12 of the 14 regional assembles NLD nominees have taken up these appointments.  The USDP nominees have secured these posts in the Shan State parliament and the Arakan National Party’s nominees have been successful in the Arakan State Parliament.

In Myanmar, the president (the chief executive) is elected by an electoral college, consisting of the members of both houses of parliaments.  Three nominees (one from the lower house, one from the upper house and one from the military) contest for the president.  The winner becomes the president and the other two become vice-presidents. 

Election for the President took place on 15 March 2016 and the results are as under:

President – Htin Kyaw – Secured 360 out of a total of 652 votes – of Mon-Bamar heritage – 69 years old Oxford Graduate – a former employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – a trusted and loyal confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi – presently an executive committee member of the Daw Khin Kyi foundation.

First Vice-President – Myint Swe – Secured 213 votes – 65 years old - of Mon heritage – a former Lieutenant General who rose to be a Quarter Master General.  He was Chief Minister of Yangon since 2011.  Was earlier tipped to be a Vice-President to replace Tin Aung Myint Oo who retired in 2012.

Second Vice-President – Henry Van Thio – Secured 79 votes – 57 year old Christian MP – an ethnic Chin law maker of the NLD – a retired army officer.

Some major decisions taken by NLD

  • The proposal by NLD to reduce the ministries from 36 to 21 was discussed by the new parliament and was accepted.  This was one of the pledges of the party during the polls.
  •  A Hluttaw (Parliament) Development Coordination Team was formed with Aung San Suu Kyi as the chairperson of this team.
  • A new ministry has been created for ethnic affairs.  This indicates the importance attached by NLD for improving the relations between the centre and the ethnic groups and the peace process.
  • Shwe Mann, former parliament speaker has been appointed as chairman of the 23- member Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission. He was ousted from the Union Solidarity and Development Party presumably as he was considered a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Till the 21st March 2016, speculation was rife in the media on the role Suu Kyi will play in the new administration – as prime minister by creating such a post – as party head controlling her proxy president like Sonia Gandhi – as a mentor minister like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore – or as a foreign minister so as to find a place in the National Defence and Security Council.

All these speculations were put to rest on 22 March 2016, when the NLD announced in the parliament a list of 18 union level ministers in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s name was at the top.  The proposed cabinet was ratified by the parliament on 24 March 2016.

The list of the cabinet members along with their likely portfolios as indicated in an NLD communication is attached at Appendix A to this paper. (The Irrawaddy, March 24, 2016).

Aung San Suu Kyi will be in charge of four portfolios – foreign affairs, education, electric power and energy and President’s office.

The cabinet includes six NLD MPs, six technocrats, two from the USDP, one ethnic politician and three Generals from the military. Both the nominees from the USDP are known to be close allies of the former speaker Thura Shwe Mann.

Aung San Suu Kyi will be the only female member of the cabinet and there is only one ethnic minority politician in the cabinet.

The President and the new Cabinet will be sworn in on 30 March 2016 and will take over power on 01 April, 2016.

Major Challenges to the New Government

  • To carry forward the peace process initiated by the previous government by bringing in the major groups that have not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and make it more inclusive and also fulfil at least the major demands of ethnic groups.  The cooperation of the military is vital for any major breakthrough in this process.
  • After the failure of talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing prior to the presidential elections, the civil-military relationship is not expected to be very smooth though outwardly the military chief has promised cooperation with the new administration.  The current tenuous civil-military relationship will also have an impact on the political stability of the country.
  •  The country’s economy has picked up since the last administration took over power in 2011 mainly due to easing of sanctions by the Western nations and flow of FDI.  However, the country continues to be affected by poverty, corruption, poor infrastructure, land confiscation and lack of funds for education and healthcare.  To kick start the economy is going to be a mammoth task especially when the military is still in control of the major industries through its companies and cronies.
  • The rising Buddhist fundamentalism in the country has gained an impetus with the previous government’s enactment of the four so called “race and religion laws” directed mainly against the Muslims.  The treatment meted to oust the Rohingyas has also put the country in bad light.  Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been non-committal on these issues.

News Analysis

The nation voted more for Suu Kyi rather than her party (NLD) with the fond hope that she will become the head of state.  The people of Myanmar are unhappy at the outcome though jubilant for the fact that a civilian government will be in power from 01 April, 2016.

The nomination of former intelligence chief Myint Swe as a Vice President has rattled the NLD.  He is known to be a hardliner and is believed to have been nominated at the behest of Sr. Gen. Than Shwe.  The civilian president Htin Kyaw will find it difficult to work with him.

After the long military rule and the bureaucracy filled with former military personnel the new cabinet will find it difficult to govern the nation because of weak institutions, lack of expertise and proper guidance despite the presence of some technocrats in the cabinet.

Despite the president being a close confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi, he being the chief executive and she, a minister under him, many an embarrassing situation is likely to crop up especially while dealing with visiting foreign dignitaries and delegations or while attending regional summits

Aung San Suu Kyi has exhibited tact, diplomacy, patience and pragmatism since the elections in dealing with the military and to ensure that a civilian government is in power against all odds.  The international community should help Myanmar in this difficult phase of transition to democracy.

Appendix

Aung San Suu Kyi            -      Foreign Affairs, President’s Office, Education, Energy & Electric Power

Thura Aung Ko                 -      Religious and Cultural Affairs

Aung Thu                           -      Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock

Khin Maung Cho             -       Industry

Kyaw Win                          -       Planning and Finance

Dr Myint Htwe                  -       Health

Nai Thet Lwin                  -      Ethnic Affairs

Ohn Maung                      -      Hotels and Tourism

Ohn Win                            -     Natural Resources and Environment

Pe Myint                            -     Information

Than Myint                       -      Commerce

Thant Zin Maung             -     Transportation and Tele Communication

Thein Swe                        -      Labour and Immigration

Win Khaing                       -     Construction

Win Myat Aye                    -     Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement

Lt Gen Sein Win                -     Defence

Lt Gen Kyaw Swe             -     Home Affairs

Lt Gen Ye Aung                 -    Border Affairs

 

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