Is the Myanmar regime splintering?

Author: Adam P MacDonald, Halifax

With one year remaining before Myanmar’s general election there is growing concern, both internationally and domestically, that the reform process is at best beginning to stagnate and at worst rolling back in some critical areas.

Members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) work at a souvenir stall beneath posters of Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the party headquarters in Yangon on 19 November 2014. (Photo: AAP).

The recent high profile and rare roundtable talks by President Thein Sein involving the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the military (Tatmadaw) and ethnic groups seem to have been little more than a public relations move to massage international concern over the pace and direction of reforms ahead of the East Asian Summit in Naypyidaw.

Recently the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has voiced concerns over existing laws restricting freedoms in civil society and the media. Ongoing ethnic violence in Rakhine State and other borderlands (which has led to the continued internal displacement of over 600,000 people) is another major concern and is directly affecting the stability of the state. Also, the recent signing of the Political Party Registration Law has effectively disenfranchised the entire Rohingya community, nullifying any possible political participation.

By all indications next general election, if it is free and fair, would yield a civilian government. As the general election steadily approaches, it is evident that the reform process is increasingly being manipulated by the regime to consolidate its rule.

But there appear to be signs of division within the regime’s ranks. Alongside the limits of reform, we may also be seeing the limits of regime solidarity in Myanmar.

Myanmar is no longer a military regime. Instead, multi-party elections have become the avenue for political power. As a result, the political landscape is increasingly becoming ‘messy’, populated by an ever increasing host of diverse actors — many which were marginalised and actively suppressed for decades. This transformation of the political system has been entirely led by the military and the inclusion of formerly persecuted entities must be noted as a monumental change in Myanmar.

But whether the military is willing to see these actors as potential leaders instead of (junior) partners remains to be seen. The opening of the political realm does not eliminate the possibility of other forms of authoritarianism from taking over.

There are important indications that while the military and their allies will retain power (or at least remain powerful political actors) after the 2015 elections, their position is increasingly coming under strain — including from within. The ruling Union of Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in particular stands at a crossroads; it must decide whether to continue the democratic reform agenda or use its dominant position to dilute the democratic substance of these structures to ensure its continued rule.

Within the ruling regime there has been a slow but growing divergence between the President, the USDP and the military. All remain closely aligned, due to their unwillingness to cede power and concerns over possible prosecution for their involvement in the previous military junta. But their political positions, centres of power and legitimacy are different and, in some ways, conflict with one another.

There is now a formal demarcation between the military and the government, although obvious overlaps in mandates, power and personalities still exist. The military relies on a national security narrative, specifically their role in ensuring the safety and integrity of the state, as their raison d’être as a political actor. The USDP, on the other hand, depends on an electoral mandate, a main component of which has been their self-promotion as genuine reformers.

Recent actions of the military, specifically the use of violence in the borderlands, have contradicted the government’s stance and led to serious questions about Naypyidaw’s ability to restrain the military. While the USDP may continue to struggle to determine the degree to which it should interfere in the next election to ensure its rule, the military — which is not bound by public support — may angle to retain its political position over saving the USDP as the ruling party.

Even within the USDP competition between President Sein and Chairman Speaker Thura Shwe Mann may erode the party’s support base and complicate attempts to ensure regime maintenance. There is a growing divide over political responsibilities between the USDP, as a parliamentary party wanting to hold the executive accountable, and the Sein government, whose members resigned USDP membership and desire a greater hand in legislating.

Indications that Senior General Hlaing may enter politics after he retires next year may further enflame the power struggle between the former generals. Senior military figures are alleged to have recently stated behind closed doors that they are responsible to no one, including their retired brethren in office.

At the highest levels there remains no clear succession plan either within the military or in the protocols governing the transition of former generals to politicians via the USDP. Barring electoral manipulations, the ascension of the NLD into government (even if Aung San Suu Kyi remains barred from the presidency) would result in a serious degradation, if not a total elimination, of the USDP as a political entity.

The eradication of the USDP would deny military generals this avenue of political involvement once they have retired. Even if constitutional change is not achieved before 2015, the removal of the USDP would force the inclusion of military and civilian personnel into government, bringing them directly into contact and dependent on one another in the running of the state.

The return of direct military rule is becoming increasingly unlikely in Myanmar, particularly due to how this would undermine the economic benefits of the reform process. But the degree to which the current regime remains a unified entity will directly affect the country’s future trajectory and its prospects for a democratic future.

Adam P MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada.

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