Myanmar’s stable leadership change belies Aung San Suu Kyi’s growing political vulnerability

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (L), newly elected Myanmar President Win Myint and his wife Cho Cho pose for a photo at the presidential palace at Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sai Zaw/Pool - RC1F126CB6B0

Myanmar stands at a critical crossroads in its democratic transition. In late March, the Union Parliament elected former Speaker of the Lower House U Win Myint as the country’s new president. U Win Myint is a longtime member of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and a trusted partner of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. His election and the peaceful transfer of power from the military-backed Vice President U Myint Swe, who held the presidency for the week following former President Htin Kyaw’s surprise resignation, cement an important democratic precedent. While the election signals the continued strength of the NLD’s power, beneath the surface and outside the halls of parliament, another political dynamic is becoming evident: The military is poised to make a political comeback by revamping its public image while undermining the civilian government at every turn.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s enduring domestic support notwithstanding, the constraints of the rigid political system she is working within impede progress toward further democratic consolidation. Such benchmarks of progress would include lifting repressive laws such as that regulating freedom of assembly and revising the controversial Telecommunications Law, which has been used to muzzle journalists. However, the country’s peculiar hybrid form of government limits the civilian leadership’s ability to push forward reforms. As stipulated in the 2008 constitution, the military is empowered to carry out its security functions independent of civilian oversight, and its hold over a quarter of parliamentary seats is sufficient to veto any constitutional amendments that threaten this control. While these provisions were put in place as safeguards during the waning days of junta rule to preserve the military’s interests within a democratic system, they have also proven to be effective pressure points to actively hem in the NLD government and reassert control over the country’s politics.

That is not to say the military is plotting a violent overthrow of the current political order. To be sure, military leaders remain deeply suspicious of Aung San Suu Kyi’s intentions at the two-year anniversary of her inauguration. Nevertheless, the military has benefited from the power-sharing status quo, while it continues to wage counterinsurgency campaigns across the country in response to decades-long civil wars. After nearly half a century of junta control marked by economic mismanagement and violent bouts of suppression against the populace, Myanmar’s democratic transition since 2011 has made some progress toward restoring the people’s trust in the institutions of government. In turn, the country has been able to shake off its international pariah status with the lifting of sanctions and an influx of foreign investment. Perhaps counterintuitively, these developments may have actually strengthened the military’s hand over Aung San Suu Kyi.

The notion that the military holds the keys to further democratization because of its leverage over constitutional change has proven advantageous to its political position on multiple accounts. First, other countries eager to restore ties with Myanmar have been willing to overlook ongoing military offensives against ethnic minorities and engage directly with military leaders, enabling them to burnish their international credentials to a domestic audience. Several European countries including Germany and Italy have warmly welcomed Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who is widely believed to harbor presidential ambitions, during a series of high-profile foreign visits since the NLD came to power. Second, the NLD’s opposition to the military’s counterinsurgency campaigns against ethnic minorities has been notably muted, suggesting that the civilian leadership is sensitive to the need to build trust with the military if it is ever to be able to coax its leaders into relinquishing some of their constitutionally-mandated government control.

Such is the case in Rakhine State, where ongoing sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims has presented a path for the military to carry out a popular drive to eradicate the Rohingya Muslim minority, whom local Buddhists have long regarded with suspicion. As Francis Wade notes in his book “Myanmar’s Enemy Within,” the military has actively cultivated this longstanding and particularly virulent strain of ethnic nationalism to rebuild its domestic support. Violent clashes in Rakhine State in the summer of 2012 displaced roughly 140,000 Rohingya, who have been confined to internment camps there ever since. In August 2017, a small but organized attack on military outposts by a group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army caused the military to launch a violent counterinsurgency, which led to the outflow of nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees across the border with Bangladesh. The civilian government has denied international allegations of ethnic cleansing and maintained that the military is merely conducting clearance operations aimed at terrorists.

Whereas for decades the people of Myanmar were united in widespread opposition to the military junta’s ferocious repression, today the military enjoys a newfound popularity across the country. The majority Buddhist population has rallied around the military’s campaign against the Rohingya. Min Aung Hlaing has boosted his own popularity through Facebook and domestic media, which he has deftly used to refute allegations by the United Nations and human rights groups of the military’s atrocities and downplay the exodus of Rohingya, whom he refers to as “Bengalis” to deny the group’s right to citizenship.

Meanwhile, as the international community has condemned Aung San Suu Kyi’s apparent unwillingness to quell the violence in Rakhine State, the military has quietly reaped all the benefits of instability. As Myanmar analyst David Scott Mathieson observes: “They are pinching themselves. They hit the jackpot. They are six years into the democracy era, and they are more popular than in decades.” Aung San Suu Kyi likely believes she is unable to confront the military on the Rohingya crisis due to the outsized political influence of a nationalist, xenophobic Buddhist base and fears she will be painted as pro-Muslim.

The military is poised to wield its influence at the ballot box and further entrench its ability to steer the national agenda.

As Myanmar’s next national election in 2020 looms on the horizon, the NLD’s unrivaled electoral dominance may be increasingly at risk. While Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD still retain much of the popularity that fueled their historic rise to power, there are palpable fissures in this support amid growing disillusionment about the flagging economy and the persistence of repressive laws. The situation in Rakhine State has caused the country to face a level of international ostracism not seen since the end of military rule. Consequently, Aung San Suu Kyi is in danger of losing the advantage that has been key to the NLD’s political success, namely the prospect that she can use her moral authority to bring about positive domestic change. Now, with a proven electoral system and an increasing siege mentality among the electorate, who feel the international community has been unfairly critical of the Buddhist majority’s security concerns, the military is poised to wield its influence at the ballot box and further entrench its ability to steer the national agenda.

The centrifugal forces building inside Myanmar threaten a return to military political dominance, albeit of a type born of popular demand through democratic mechanisms. Setting aside the potential for the further deterioration of a human rights crisis that has spilled outside the country’s borders, a politically rejuvenated military is likely to make the already bleak prospect of national reconciliation that much more remote. For the United States and the West, such a scenario poses a lost opportunity to mitigate the influence of countries such as China and Russia, which have long exploited Myanmar’s disunity to their political and economic benefit. Washington would be well-served to find ways to encourage a civil national dialogue in Myanmar that weakens the military’s growing political clout while its window of time to assist the current NLD leadership remains open. Much work must still be done to help Myanmar develop a professional press corps and educate the population to stymie the rampant disinformation that provides fertile ground for the military’s political ascension. Only Myanmar’s people can ultimately determine the long-term viability of a truly civilian government and, if current trends continue, time may be running out.

Brandon Paladino is an employee of the United States Government (USG), which is funding his fellowship at the Brookings Institution. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis are those of the author and do not reflect the official position or views of the USG.