12 December 2014edge review

Sunrise over Bagan, the ancient royal capital of Myanmar (Rajesh_India/Flickr).

2014 laid bare the frictions in Myanmar’s increasingly supine political reform process

As Myanmar enters 2015, a year that will make or break the legitimacy of its three-year-old civilianised government, all is not well.

After its cautious embrace of the outside world, how open Naypyidaw will be to further meaningful reform in the run-up to next year’s polls – scheduled for October or November – remains in question.

Myanmar is certainly more free now than before reforms began in 2011, and it should stay that way. The military’s draconian surveillance forces are far less active, and the government regularly responds to public grievances, even if it is not always sympathetic.

Myanmar’s new semi-democratic political system is entrenched enough to make a return to the repressive days of direct military rule unlikely. But there are also few signs of any further meaningful reforms.

After a banner year as chair of ASEAN, Myanmar looks set to slide comfortably into the Southeast Asian soft-authoritarian status quo.

The military may have stepped back from day-to-day governance, but it has morphed into a state within a state, accountable only to its own hierarchy.

Proposed constitutional amendments that would allow Nobel Prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to assume the presidency have been firmly shelved.

A nationwide peace process, stuttering at the best of times, has all but collapsed over the past few months, with revived fighting in largely peaceful areas of southern Myanmar and renewed hostilities in the north.

In early November, 23 ethnic cadets were killed by an army shell in an attack on a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) base, auguring poorly for the meaningful revival of the peace process anytime soon.

Closer to the heartland, activists and journalists continue to face harassment, intimidation and jail. Noxious anti-Muslim sentiment remains a serious issue that no political leader has the will or desire to address, even if outright violence was less frequent this year than last. But for the million-strong Rohingya, who remain mostly stateless and subject to mobility restrictions, life has worsened.

The post-reform goodwill bestowed upon Myanmar’s political, military and business elites by Western governments has served them well: by May 2013, most financial sanctions had been lifted against a backdrop of ebullient promises by the government to keep the reform juggernaut moving.

Barack Obama sought to count Washington’s revitalised ties with Naypyidaw as a rare foreign-policy win for his administration amid the rise of Islamic State militants and a seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan.

But, tellingly, he has pulled few punches in his recent criticisms of Naypyidaw’s failings. Ahead of his second visit to Myanmar in November, he warned of “a slowdown and backsliding in reforms”, and stressed that “abuses and human rights … have absolutely no place in the new Burma”.

If next year’s polls are free and fair – not a foregone conclusion – Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is all but certain to triumph. In 2012, the NLD won 43 out of the 44 by-elections it contested, marking its re-entry into formal politics after being barred from power in 1990 and giving Suu Kyi her seat in parliament.

Throughout 2014, Suu Kyi was vocal about overturning the constitutional measures barring her from the presidency and little else. Ultimately, the NLD’s efforts to remove them have come to nothing. Last month, Shwe Mann, a former general and the powerful speaker of Myanmar’s parliament, announced that any amendments, if approved in a referendum next year, would only take place after the next elections.

Although the NLD’s pro-democracy credentials play well in the court of public opinion, the party has few members capable of running the country or a successor to Suu Kyi, who – despite some missteps – remains venerated to a degree that would be the envy of a minor Hindu god.

The military, which retains an automatic 25 per cent of the seats in both houses of parliament, and the incumbent, military-derived Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have come out in favour of changing the electoral system to proportional representation (PR), which would make it easier to form coalitions aimed at blocking next year’s anticipated NLD onslaught.

In late November, however, Shwe Mann shelved plans to introduce PR, although they may be revived by other elements within the government before the elections.

The explanation for this position, unfavorable to the USDP, may lie in his close relationship with Suu Kyi. The prospect of a face-saving alliance between the two could see the NLD throw its weight behind a Shwe Mann presidential bid and grant Suu Kyi the vice-presidency or house speakership. Something that would have been utterly inconceivable in the recent past now appears increasingly plausible.

One thing is certain: Myanmar’s political system remains defined by palace intrigues and factionalisation that could swing next year’s polls either to reformists or hardliners. But however it plays out, the lofty expectations for Myanmar’s democracy held by outside observers and citizens alike two years ago appear thoroughly vanquished.

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