Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Army Still Controls Burma Despite NLD Landslide

YANGON, Myanmar — Amid the mold-covered facades of downtown Yangon are police stations, a five-story building housing the Special Branch state security agency and government offices where citizens are required to register out-of-town houseguests.

They are all vestiges of a police state in Myanmar that has yet to be fully dismantled. And all these government offices will be outside the control of a new administration led by the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate whose organization achieved an apparently lopsided triumph in landmark elections held Sunday.

With official vote tallies seeming to confirm the scope of the victory, Myanmar is electrified by the prospect that the long-suffering democracy movement will wrest control of Parliament and the executive branch from a military establishment that has governed in one way or another for the past five decades.

Yet under the terms of the Constitution drawn up by the generals, a large and powerful part of the bureaucracy will remain under the direct control of the military, with powers including issuing passports and running a domestic security apparatus that spies on Myanmar citizens.

Thant Myint-U, a historian who has advised the government, called the victory for the opposition a “crushing win.” But he cautioned that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would be forced into a fragile power-sharing arrangement with the military, which kept her under house arrest for the better part of two decades. “This was not an election of a government,” Mr. Thant Myint-U said. “It was an election for a spot in a shared government with the army.”

The military has always been a highly politicized institution. But its role extends well beyond politics. The military has business interests in jade and ruby mines, a brewery, bus lines, tobacco, textiles and banks.

Years of military rule also created a vast centralized bureaucracy across the country that is often still led by former military officers. Known as the General Administration Department, it is what Richard Horsey, a political consultant and former United Nations official in Myanmar, calls the “backbone of all local administration.”

Like the country’s entire police force, the General Administration Department falls under the Home Ministry, one of three ministries controlled by the military. The other two are defense and border affairs.

Mr. Horsey says the military’s control over such a crucial part of the administration will require Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to collaborate with the military. “It will be impossible to administer the country without having the Home Ministry on their side, and that means ultimately the commander in chief of the military,” he said. But the degree to which Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is willing to compromise with her former captors is unclear.

During weeks of campaigning she spoke often about the importance of reconciliation. “I do not believe in persecution and revenge,” she said last week. But she has also challenged the military’s political role, often criticizing a provision in the Constitution that allocates to the military a quarter of the seats in Parliament. And she says she plans to circumvent the ban on her becoming president that the generals wrote into the Constitution.

In some of her strongest comments on this potential source of friction, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said Tuesday that as head of the party with a parliamentary majority, she would be empowered to pick who will be president, whom she described as subservient to her.

“I make all the decisions because I am the leader of the winning party,” she said in an interview with Channel NewsAsia. “And the president will be one whom we will choose just to meet the requirements of the Constitution. The president will be told exactly what he can do,” she said.

Police are controlled by the military in Burma.
Mr. Horsey warned that the relationship between Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the generals was critical to a functioning government. “If they get off on the wrong foot and it’s confrontational, there’s plenty of room for things to go wrong,” he said.

The jubilation of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political movement has been matched by the shock of the former generals at the breadth of their defeat.

The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar news site, reported Tuesday that nearly all candidates who had served in the cabinet of President Thein Sein had been defeated. Other governing party losses included the speaker of the lower house of Parliament and the chairman of the party.

Even in a district in the capital, Naypyidaw, that is heavily populated with soldiers, a former general and defense minister lost to a poet from Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. Out of 657 Parliament seats in contention, the National League for Democracy had been officially declared the winner of 163 seats, compared with 10 for the governing party.

The election commission announced Wednesday that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had been re-elected to her seat.

Mr. Thant Myint-U said the victory had raised enormous expectations for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to clean up corruption and improve the effectiveness of long-neglected and underfunded government services. But he cautioned that lack of direct control over institutions as crucial as the police, itself a focal point of corruption, could make that job much harder for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Ex-generals who knew the system well had trouble changing it,” he said. “It’s going to be even more difficult for outsiders.”