Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Is Mother Suu's position in Myanmar actually democratic?

I am a bit confused by Aung San Suu Kyi position in Myanmar, or, for that matter, her intentions there.
The diminutive pro-democracy icon is constitutionally barred from leading the country as its president, ostensibly because she married a British man and has children who hold British passports, but mainly because the military-drafted 2008 constitutional says so. It seems she is Burmese (Myanmarish?) enough to hold the position of MP, which she achieved in 2012, but not President. She is also the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which is the main opposition party to the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of ex-President Thein Sein, which held power in Myanmar for some 25 years until last November, in defiance of the national will and even election results.
However, regardless of the constitutional ban (which is still the law of the land, say about it what you will), Mother Suu came out with guns blazing last year, stating unequivocally that, "If the NLD wins the elections and we form a government, I'm going to be the leader of that government whether or not I'm the president. The leader of the NLD government will have to be me because I am the leader of my party."
Well, the NLD did indeed win the November 2016 election, by a landslide, and Myanmar finally began to see light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Then, yesterday, the legislature voted for Htin Kyaw (a childhood friend of Suu Kyi, and from a family with long-standing ties to the country's democratic movement) to take the helm as the country's new president, and he is expected to take his place on 1st April.
However, true to her word, Ms. Suu Kyi will apparently occupy some ill-defined position ABOVE the president, as Mr. Htin Kyaw himself confirms. So, Mother Suu will be wielding power through a man who is basically her hand-picked appointee, with Htin Kyaw just acting as a mouthpiece or puppet while Suu Kyi pulls the strings.
This is not a very convincing democratic set-up, and the political optics are horrible. Add to that the fact that the military retains a quarter of the legislative seats (courtesy of that same constitution), names three of the government's most powerful ministers, as well as even the first vice presidency (because the military candidate in the presidential election, Myint Swe, received the second-highest number of votes), political life in the Myanmar legislature is going to be far from pleasant, and probably much less productive than the frustrated population might want or expect.
The military also holds effective veto power over constitutional changes (like those needed to allow Ms. Suu Kyi to become president, for example), as well as maintaining huge economic sway from its extensive corporate holdings. Corruption is still rampant in Myanmar, and activists and journalists are still being imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Even the influential and radical (although theoretically non-political) Buddhist monks of Myanmar present a challenge to the country's nascent democracy movement, as they are vehemently anti-Muslim, and have been hugely supportive of recent "race and religion" laws passed by the military-backed government.
The story from Myanmar in recent months has been largely a happy one, with the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the triumph of the pro-democracy NLD in largely peaceful general elections. But the road ahead is rocky and uncertain, and the next couple of years will be crucial ones for the country's development and stability. Keeping the military in check, maintaining religious freedom, modernizing the country, and turning around its lamentable economy, will all be huge challenges for its young inexperienced government, and the expectations of ordinary people for rapid progress are unrealistically high.
Even given all that, though, I'm just not sure that this kind of riding rough-shod over democratic rules is the right way for it to start.

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