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The ghosts of dyarchy haunt the future

With the results of Myanmar's Nov. 8 election now final, headlines worldwide have reinforced the sweeping victory of the National League for Democracy under its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and its right to form the next government. But the NLD-dominated government will also have to find a way of cooperating with the army, for the military officer corps remains a powerful political force under the terms of the 2008 constitution.

     Not only does the military control a quarter of the seats in national and regional parliaments, which will choose the next president; it also controls the powerful National Defence and Security Council, a body with which the president coordinates foreign and defense policies and which has ultimate authority over national security. The council is made up of five civilians and six serving or recently retired military officers.

     Moreover, whatever cabinet is formed, the three key ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs will be army officers chosen from a list provided by the military's commander-in-chief. This means the ministers responsible for law and order, civil administration and ethnic minority affairs will be military men reporting to the commander-in-chief as well as to the president. This situation is uncharted territory, since the first and only government formed under the current constitution was dominated by retired officers from the former military regime.

Shared power?

In effect, if the terms of the constitution are adhered to, the new political order will constitute a form of dyarchy, or shared government. Regardless of Suu Kyi's contention before the election that she would choose and direct the new president if her party won a clear parliamentary majority, once the president is chosen, the buck stops with that official leader.

     While this is new territory in Myanmar's post-colonial era, it is not completely unknown in the country's political history. As a province of British India until April 1, 1937, Myanmar was, somewhat belatedly, provided with the same constitutional policies as the remainder of British India. This meant that Myanmar's first legislative election for a majority of parliamentary seats was not held at the cusp of independence in 1948 but in 1922. Thus began what the British saw as tutelage of the Burmese to introduce self-government and democracy under imperial auspices.

     This system was known as a dyarchy. Under it, two Burmese ministers, responsible to the Legislative Council but ultimately under the control of the British governor, were given responsibility for education and other domestic matters, such as public works, agriculture and local government. The governor and his civil servant councilors were responsible for all other powers. Thus British Burma, like the rest of British India, was taught to appreciate the virtues and processes of parliamentary democracy. This ideal was to be fully realized at some unspecified time in the future.

     In 1937, just 15 years later, a further instalment of tutelary democracy was granted by the British parliament. The Government of Burma Act, passed in 1935, separated Burma from India and granted greater governing powers to an enlarged and elected legislative council, with a cabinet and first minister, or premier, in charge. This cabinet had greatly enhanced areas of governmental responsibility. Burmese ministers were responsible for all areas of administration except defense, foreign affairs, finance and some parts of the north, including the Shan states and what was known as the Frontier Areas. The latter were regarded as "politically backward" and placed under the sole control of the governor and his civil servant advisers.

     Encouraged by this system, British civil servants and army officers saw themselves as "holding the ring" while Burmese politicians fought their political battles, preferably inside but occasionally outside the legislative assembly. Under this dyarchy, political parties were formed and four elections held between 1922 and 1937, before World War II interrupted the electoral process. A remarkably free press emerged, and politics were indeed lively and creative. Had the Japanese not invaded Burma in 1942, the system might have evolved as the British hoped, mirroring what eventually occurred in India, which saw the establishment of the world's largest democracy and a political system that has been immune to military coups, unlike most other post-colonial nations.

Getting along

Aung San Suu Kyi is clearly an advocate of democracy for Myanmar and has often criticized the army for first denying and then limiting the extent of democracy. When last I met her, on the morning she was first placed under house arrest in 1989, she displayed on the coffee table in front of us a single large volume, an illustrated history of the British Parliament. She lived for several years in India, where her mother served as Myanmar's ambassador under Prime Minister U Nu and Gen. Ne Win. There she could have studied how Indira Gandhi wielded power as prime minister. Her subsequent years in Oxford may also have led her to admire British parliamentary democracy. 

     But Suu Kyi and her party must now work with the army, which sees itself as a critical "balancing wheel" in Myanmar's system, as described by state media before a hasty referendum led to the adoption of the 2008 constitution. This balancing wheel is meant to provide a check on the behavior of elected politicians until the political system matures, at which time the military is to abandon its political prerogatives and revert to being a purely professional army -- or so it has said.

     This view explains the unwillingness of the military to permit any amendments to the constitution prior to the 2015 election and why it will almost certainly exercise its veto power over any effort by the NLD to amend the charter in future, at least until the new system proves its worth from the military's perspective.

     This "guardian" role for the army will almost certainly be repudiated by many, in the same way that Burmese nationalists, such as Suu Kyi's late father, Gen. Aung San, criticized the British colonialists.

Potential workaround

As leader of the majority party in both houses of parliament, Suu Kyi has proposed a role for herself as both president-maker and president-puppeteer, having declared she will be "above the president." This is provocative language to some. It not only contradicts the spirit and meaning of the constitution but also ignores normal human behavior: Once a person becomes used to being called "Mr. President," there is a natural tendency to balk at taking orders from anyone.

     A curious feature of Myanmar's 2008 constitution is that it contains no discussion of the cabinet. Rather, it states how ministers, some specified, others not, are to be appointed and under what qualifications. The existence of the cabinet is merely a convention followed by President Thein Sein from previous regimes. If Suu Kyi really wishes to govern Myanmar, a possible way around the constitutional bar on her doing so would be to bring in a new constitutional convention rather like the French constitution which provides both a president and a prime minister.

     That is, the new president could appoint her as a minister and she could then be known as the prime minister, chairing the cabinet and speaking with the authority of head of government but not head of state. Then she would be able to run the government, under the president's responsibility to the elected legislature, formally as the president's agent.

     Otherwise, the only politically significant role available to her now is as the chairperson of the majority party, a role rather like Sonia Gandhi sometimes had as president of the Indian National Congress. What Suu Kyi will do next, how the army interprets her actions, and with what consequences remain pressing but unanswered questions.

Robert H. Taylor is a senior visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore) and author of "General Ne Win: A Political Biography" (ISEAS, 2015) and "The Armed Forces in Myanmar Politics: A Terminating Role?" (ISEAS, 2015).

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