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The odd and inspiring politics of Myanmar

NAYPYITAW   The image of an elegant woman clad in a traditional htamein sarong, walking purposefully in her kitten heels into Myanmar's grandiose parliament to oversee the handover of power to her party was striking though hardly dramatic. But for many regional observers, the ascent of Aung San Suu Kyi from political prisoner to de facto leader of Myanmar signified a democratic shift as momentous as the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

For in the space of just five years, Myanmar has gone from being Asia's embarrassing problem child to an inspiration -- albeit somewhat dysfunctional -- for new democracies everywhere. With the advent of a popularly elected government led by Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, Myanmar's extraordinary transition from harsh military rule and economic decline to emerging democracy and economic revival is now in its most critical phase since Gen. Ne Win's 1962 military coup.

Why and how the country arrived at such a historic moment is the subject of endless debate among scholars and observers. The widely accepted conclusion is that the generals who ruled Myanmar in such secretive and often brutal style for decades finally realized in the late 1990s that only an opening to the West, a rollback of U.S. sanctions and serious structural reform could save the country's collapsing economy. They knew that some political opening would be required to convince Western countries to lift curbs, revive investment and develop the economy.

What they did not envisage, most experts agree, was that Thein Sein, the candidate hand-picked by former dictator Senior Gen. Than Shwe to lead the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party into the 2010 election and an era of pseudocivilian government, would go further than ever envisaged on political as well as economic reform.

Indeed, the military's "dream of continuing dominance over a 'discipline flourishing democracy' came to an early end thanks to intense divisions within the regime and an unexpectedly broad reform program initiated by Thein Sein," wrote Min Zin, a Myanmar expert and country analyst for U.S.-based Freedom House, citing Than Shwe's "road map" to reform, unveiled in the early 2000s.

COMPLEX GAME   By any standards, Suu Kyi's Myanmar is a flawed and curious democracy -- the result of moves and countermoves in a complex political chess game between the NLD leader and the powerful armed forces. The oddities are multifold, like a child's game of "what is wrong with this picture?" The system might look acceptable: a rising Asian democracy with an active, mainly elected parliament; a reform-minded cabinet; and seemingly boundless public support and enthusiasm for the party leader, Suu Kyi.

But the oddities start with the country's official president, Htin Kyaw, who was neither the ruling party's nor Myanmar's choice. Rather, he is a figurehead for the party leader Suu Kyi, who is constitutionally barred from the post. Htin Kyaw has happily acknowledged his readiness to take instruction from the "state counselor," a position created for Suu Kyi in a bill passed by the NLD-controlled parliament days after the NLD took power.

For Suu Kyi, the unprecedented role equates to a particularly powerful prime minister with influence in the legislative and executive branches. Even so, the military maintains through its craftily drafted 2008 constitution an institutionalized grip on power through its 25% allocation of parliament seats and three security-related seats in the cabinet.

The conundrum at the heart of this skewed setup is the military's unexpected role as one of few alternative forces to a party that otherwise has overwhelming control of the executive and legislative branches.

Democratic dictatorship or benign autocracy, whatever the term, it is clear within the new administration who calls the shots. Before the NLD unveiled its plan to create the state counselor position, Suu Kyi allocated herself four portfolios in the cabinet -- minister of foreign affairs, education, energy and the president's office. She has since jettisoned the education and energy roles to concentrate on foreign affairs and the state counselor position -- and micromanaging every aspect of her administration.

Beyond the party it is not so clear who is in charge. On one level, the NLD is coping with a system that entrenches the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, as the key to constitutional revision and all security matters. Within that constraint, however, Suu Kyi has played a sharp, and dangerously combative, game since her party took power at the end of March.

Every move by Suu Kyi since April 1 to consolidate and broaden her power has raised the ire of the military leadership, which sees itself as what Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing has called the "guardian of democracy" and protector of the constitution. The appointed military lawmakers raised strong verbal objections to legislation establishing the position of state counselor and have objected in other debates -- for example on land-grabbing issues, widely blamed on the former military regime.

But in the new political era, the military has shown it would rather abstain from voting than actively oppose popular proposals. "The election has disrupted the status quo and granted legitimacy to the NLD, and no one in the USDP or military wants to go down in history as a spoiler," noted Min Zin. Even so, military officials have signaled their displeasure at what they see as subversion of the constitution.

"If you look at it from their point of view, they feel they 'own' this transition, that they are responsible for what happens next," said a Yangon-based Western diplomat. "They foresaw a gradual broadening of democratic processes -- now they clearly fear being cut out. ... [T]he question is, what if they feel things are going too far? A violent takeover is inconceivable, but tense times are certainly ahead."

Despite strenuous efforts to gain military support for revising the 2008 constitution to allow her to take the post of president, Suu Kyi has reluctantly gone along with the constraints after declaring she would appoint a proxy and remain "above the president," overseeing the role in an unofficial capacity. Her subsequent moves are what Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. envoy to Myanmar, called Suu Kyi's "workaround revolution." "When any one path to her goal was blocked, she found several others," Clapp noted in a recent essay.

But Clapp warned that the NLD strategy to assert civilian supremacy so boldly is risky "because the fact is that the party must rule in partnership with the military for the next five years. ... The constitution guarantees the military enough political leverage to erect roadblocks to major NLD policy objectives, beginning with its priority goal of achieving a peace agreement with the country's warring ethnic armies." Such an agreement is fundamental to amending the undemocratic provisions of the constitution and assuring the country's stability and economic development, she added.

Even more than the military-backed regime it replaced, the new administration's biggest vulnerability is inexperience and a glaring lack of capacity. Due to decades of military rule, few in the party's upper echelons have ever worked in or alongside government. That was starkly exposed within days of the March 30 handover, when Suu Kyi and her confidants put in place a cabinet featuring hasty -- and in some cases poorly judged -- appointments of some key ministers and officials. Within days came exposes of bogus qualifications of two key economic ministers.

The cases highlight an issue that goes beyond a single political party to the dark days of military rule, when thousands of people, many highly educated, were imprisoned or persecuted. In that respect, "degree-gate" raises more fundamental issues, not least in the context of adequate talent to advance Myanmar's new reformist era, said Nyantha Maw Lin, managing director of Vriens & Partners, a government relations consultancy.

ONE-PARTY FLAVOR   The greatest irony about Suu Kyi's rise, however, is that the NLD's sweep into power has given Myanmar the flavor of a one-party state -- with an increasingly agitated military as the main competing power center. The setup has been reinforced by the NLD's perceived reliance on the popularity of one person.

The lack of any obvious successors to the leadership, and the determination of Suu Kyi to set and control all agendas has led to weak party institutionalization for the NLD and lackluster ties with traditional supporters such as ethnic organizations and civil society groups, noted Min Zin. "Key civil society groups now see the NLD as having abandoned its democratic principles," he concluded in a recent paper, citing the party's reluctance in 2015 to condemn crackdowns by security forces on public protests.

Ye Htun, a former lawmaker for the Shan National Development Party, told the Myanmar Times that Suu Kyi should consider devolving some responsibilities. "If not she is likely to become a dictator," he added.

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