edge review14-20 June 2013

Photo: Chile’s presidential palace, La Moneda. Giovanni Iaboni/flickr. 

Post-Pinochet Chile may hold clues to Myanmar’s political future

This year’s World Economic Forum on East Asia, held in Myanmar’s showcase capital of Naypyidaw last week, is the most significant event of its kind to be held in Myanmar since political reforms got underway in 2010. The Forum provided President Thein Sein’s civilianized government with a coveted stamp of international legitimacy, and gave it a platform to tout its successes to date to the world’s business elite.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s appearance at a televised panel discussion moderated by BBC presenter Nik Gowing was among the week’s biggest highlights. Queried by Gowing on her political aspirations for the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi stated unequivocally, “I want to run for President and I’m quite frank about it,” marking the first time she has publicly stated her intention – which was widely presumed – to vie for the highest office in the land.

But constitutional barriers lie in her path. The most obvious is a stipulation that bars anyone from becoming president who has relatives or a spouse who are “subject[s] of a foreign power or citizen[s] of a foreign country.” Suu Kyi’s marriage to the late British academic Michael Aris, and the British citizenship held by her two sons, would therefore bar her from becoming president unless constitutional reforms are undertaken.

Breaking with her antagonistic stance towards the previous military junta, Suu Kyi has proven willing to engage with Thein Sein’s administration over the past two years, and has held a seat in Myanmar’s parliament since last year. For this reason, many have speculated that her former jailers might be willing to allow her to contest the presidency in 2015. If this occurred and Suu Kyi were to win, Myanmar’s government would achieve a level of international legitimacy that a thousand World Economic Forums could never accomplish. They may very well feel it is in their interests to do so.

In keeping with his aloof style, Thein Sein has dropped precious few hints as to whether he is open to the idea of Suu Kyi becoming president.  In an interview with Australia’s ABC on Monday, Thein Sein claimed he had little influence over the constitutional amendment process as the head of the executive branch, which “does not have any influence or say over the legislative body or the judicial branch, so I have no authority over the parliament at all.”

So it apparently all comes down to what parliament decides. But who are the parliamentarians that will be making the decision? And even if the provision barring her from the presidency is removed, what kind of constitution will Myanmar be governed under by Suu Kyi?

As it stands now, constitutional reforms require the approval of 75 percent of parliamentarians to be passed. A quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses are reserved for the military directly, in accordance with the 2008 constitution. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, comprised largely of figures from the old military regime, controls most of the rest.

The ongoing role of the military in political life is an important aspect of the roadmap to a “discipline-flourishing democracy” laid out by the former junta in 2003. Far from being a clean break with the past, the institutions of the “new Myanmar” were planned years before reforms finally got underway in 2010. The semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian system outlined in the constitution has parallels with the South American bureaucratic-authoritarian dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s – and it is in their eventual demise that clues to Myanmar’s political future may be found.

The Chilean constitution of 1980, in particular, serves as a prime example of a military regime trying to achieve a degree of legitimacy previously denied to it, while at the same time retaining a role for the military in political life. Following the September 1973 coup d’état that swept Augusto Pinochet to power, the previous constitution was suspended by the military, and a new document granting it a permanent tutelary role was put in place seven years later. As with the 2008 Myanmar constitution, Pinochet’s constitution contained provisions for multi-party elections to ultimately occur while maintaining the military’s stature as a “shadow government,” overseeing political affairs. These provisions were intended to lay the foundation for a “modern and protected democracy” similar in substance to Thein Sein’s “discipline-flourishing” Myanmar.

The Chilean constitution is a sophisticated document: it was devised in an attempt to institutionalize the ideological foundations of the military dictatorship in any and every possible post-junta political outcome. Even if a communist – like Pinochet’s predecessor, Salvador Allende – were to assume the presidency, Pinochet reasoned that the role of the military enshrined in the constitution would limit their ability to push “radical” agendas that would harm the interests of the state and national security.

In 1988, Pinochet went ahead with a plebiscite on his rule as stipulated in the constitution, overestimating his own popularity and underestimating the organisation of his rivals. The electorate denied his bid for a second eight-year term, paving the way for a civilian administration to assume control in 1990. Chile today is among the world’s most vibrant democracies – but it retains the same constitution put into place during the darkest days of the Pinochet regime. Undoing the authoritarian excesses of the Pinochet era has entailed a 20-year process of constitutional reform that is not yet complete, but the core of the constitution has provided a workable foundation for truly democratic governance in Chile.

Like its Chilean counterpart, Myanmar’s current constitution was intentionally drafted to thwart reforms, because it gives the military effective veto power over constitutional issues. “This constitution is said by experts to be the most difficult constitution in the world to amend,” Suu Kyi said. “So we must start by amending the requirements for amendments.” The military is likely to vote as a bloc and would presumably be against reforms that would limit their role in political life. Suu Kyi noted that even if the “civilian” elements within parliament were to vote unanimously, “we would still need one brave soldier to stand with us” to push ahead with reforms.

If Suu Kyi is able to muster the military’s support for limited reforms – starting, perhaps, with her own candidacy for the presidency – the authoritarian elements of Myanmar’s constitution may ultimately be written out over time, as progressives and democrats slowly chip away at the military’s dominance over political life. As has been the case in Chile, this process may take several decades, and hardliners within the military establishment will invariably balk at the idea of submitting to civilian oversight.

Whether or not Suu Kyi will be allowed to run for president will be the result of a calculated decision by the military: do the legitimizing benefits of having Suu Kyi as president outweigh the potential risks of opening the Pandora’s box of constitutional reform? Even a relatively minor concession – like changing the rules in Suu Kyi’s favour – might lead to further reforms later and a reduced role for the military in political life. This is a precedent the military may not be willing to set. Whatever the outcome, the road to 2015 will certainly be an interesting one.

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