With late 2015 seeing direct elections scheduled for parliament and indirect balloting for president, Myanmar is currently passing through a crucial period of political debate, against the background of an era that was marked by rapid economic growth and international openness.
These events come just over a decade since the government began moving on its “Roadmap to Democracy”, and three years since the country’s most prominent human rights activist, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, took her seat in parliament.
Much has changed in recent times, with discussion continuing on the next steps for the country. The role of powerful and important institutions, such as the military and the clergy, is still evolving, while the country also possesses one of the most ethnically diverse populations in South-east Asia. The population is made up of 135 different ethnicities, with the largest group being the Burman, or Bamar, which accounts for around 68% of the populace.
Balancing the needs and expectations of all these different groups is undoubtedly one of Myanmar’s greatest political challenges.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, too, the country also faces the task of finding the most efficient and equitable way to translate surging investment, economic activity and international goodwill into sustainable growth. This is also happening at a time of high popular expectations of rapid change – both in terms of an elevated standard of living and political and economic freedom. Myanmar’s political arena therefore looks likely to continue to be a vibrant one in the year ahead.
A Land Of Many Histories
The earliest known archaeological evidence has indicated that the area was inhabited around 13,000 years ago. The country known as Myanmar today experienced an early bronze age roughly contemporary to that of the Anatolian middle bronze age, in 1500 BCE. Local peoples had begun utilising iron weapons and tools by 500 BCE, and the region’s agricultural practices, including rice cultivation, commenced.
While the Ayeyawady River and its wide plain have long dominated the geography of Myanmar, this 2170-km-long waterway has also dominated the country’s history and politics. It was into this fertile region that the Pyu – the first recorded inhabitants – arrived from Yunan in the 2nd century BCE, bringing Therevada Buddhism with them.
Dynasties & Empires
Another group, the Mon, then colonised the southern regions of the river plain, to be joined in the 9th century CE by the Mranma, or Burmese, who established the Bagan empire.
This early medieval state was the first to establish wider control over the Ayeyawady, while also bringing into its boundaries some of the more mountainous territories on the river’s periphery. This lasted until 1287, when repeated invasions by the Mongols finally brought the empire down.
Following this, several other dynasties and kingdoms came to battle for control of this lucrative region. One of the most successful was the Taungoo dynasty, which re-established the Bagan empire and expanded it further, incorporating the Shan States, the region of rugged mountains and forests in the north and eastern parts of Myanmar. The Taungoo also occupied parts of modern China and Thailand, up until 1752, when the Mon rose up in rebellion, taking Ava (Inwa), the capital, and establishing the restored Hanthawaddy kingdom.
This was to be short-lived, however, with the Konbaung dynasty re-establishing control. This lasted until 1885, by which time three wars with the British empire – by then in control of neighbouring India – had resulted in the downfall of the kingdom and the beginning of British colonial rule. Thibaw Min, the dynasty’s last king, or “Lord of the White Elephants”, abdicated in November 1885.
British rule lasted until 1948, and was resisted by many Burmese. Some took this as far as alignment with Japanese forces in the Second World War. This included Daw Aung Saung Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung Saung, who led the pro-Japanese Burma Independence Army, later the Burma Defence Army and finally the Burma National Army (BNA) during the Japanese occupation of the country from 1942. As the tide in the war turned, however, and Japanese promises of Burmese independence failed to crystallise, in 1945, the BNA launched an uprising against the country’s new rulers, joining the Allied side.
The war ended with the British reoccupying the country, a move met by widespread protests and calls for independence. An executive council, bringing together nationalists, socialists, communists and liberals, then began negotiating with the British government, culminating in independence on January 4, 1948.
Yet this was a far from peaceful transition. Assassinations – including that of General Aung Saung – insurgencies by rival communist factions, buoyed by the Chinese communist victory in 1949, along with incursions by defeated Chinese Kuomintang armies, gave the country a shaky and violent early start.
Other insurrections were mounted by the Mujahid, composed of Arakanese Rohingya Islamists, and the Karen National Union (KNU), made up of ethnic Karen from the eastern mountains.
In 1962, there was a military coup, led by U Ne Win, which instituted the “Burmese Way to Socialism”, a path that involved the nationalisation of local industry and the isolation of the country from global markets and international aid. Many in the opposition were expelled, imprisoned or killed, while conflicts continued with the KNU, the Rohingya Muslims and the Parliamentary Democracy Party, which was based over the border in Thailand.
In 1988, a major uprising occurred, followed by a fresh coup and martial law, administered by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). SLORC then changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, and convened multi-party elections for a constituent assembly in 1990, at which the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide. The military would not let the assembly convene, however, and instead kept the NLD leaders under house arrest.
In 1992, General Than Shwe took over as the leader of the military regime. Conflict continued with the KNU, although peace settlements were reached with the Wa and Kachin hill tribes and the Kokang, along with several of the warlords that by then were controlling parts of the Shan States.
In 1997, SLORC was replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which in 2003 announced a seven-step roadmap to democracy. Two years later, a constitutional convention was convened, but the NLD and others were not invited. That year, the government also moved the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw. In 2007, another major uprising occurred, led by Buddhist monks, which was brutally suppressed. However, the SPDC then announced that a constitutional referendum would be held, along with elections, by 2010.
In 2008, the referendum did indeed take place – while the country was being badly battered by the devastating Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 130,000 people. Nonetheless, the SPDC announced the constitution had been approved and a general election was held in 2010 under the new rules. It was won by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but was dismissed by the opposition, with the NLD boycotting the ballot.
Yet clearly, 2010 marked a watershed. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, with the pace of reform quickening. In 2012, the NLD took part in a series of by-elections, winning 41 out of 44 contested seats across the two houses of parliament and entering the legislature for the first time.
The widespread expectation is that the reform process will continue, with elections for parliament now scheduled for November or December 2015. This process is still a controversial one, with issues such as power sharing between the government and the opposition, the military and civilians – and between the country’s many ethnic groups – continuing to pose challenges.
The 2008 constitution, which has subsequently been subject to amendment, describes the country as a unitary, presidential, constitutional republic. Under the constitution, the president is the supreme executive power, head of state, and head of the Cabinet and government.
A special clause in the requirements for eligibility as president states that a president’s spouse or children may not owe allegiance to a foreign power, a clause that appears to rule out Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s future candidacy for the position, given that she is the widow of a UK citizen and her children have UK citizenship. The current president is U Thein Sein, a Burmese from Kyonku in the Ayeyawady delta who became a lieutenant general in the Tatmadaw, the popular name for the military.
The president is elected indirectly, via the Presidential Electoral College. This is made up of three sections, or committees, with the first drawn from members of parliament (MPs) representing each region or state, the second from MPs representing the population at large and the townships, and the third from MPs appointed by the military.
Each committee nominates a candidate, and then the parliament, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union, AU), convenes as the electoral college to decide the winner, with the two runners-up becoming vice-presidents (VPs).
The president, who is elected indirectly by the legislature, serves a five-year term and may be re-elected once. He or she then chooses the Cabinet, except for the ministers of border affairs, home affairs and defence, who are chosen by the Tatmadaw. The president has wide powers of appointment elsewhere, however, with these able to be extended via the declaration of a state of emergency.
The head of state may be impeached by a two-thirds majority of the parliament with the VP who received the highest number of votes from the electoral college taking over in such circumstances.
The AU, meanwhile, consists of two houses, the lower, Pyithu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly, PA) and the upper, Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities, HN). The PA has 440 representatives within it; the HN, 224. Both houses are made up of 75% elected MPs and 25% MPs appointed by the military. The speaker of the PA is Thura U Shwe Mann, while the speaker of the HN is U Khin Aung Myint, who is also chairman of the combined AU.
The 330 directly elected members of the PA represent population and township constituencies. The 2012 by-elections saw the USDP maintain its position as the largest party, which it secured at the 2010 balloting, with 212 seats. The NLD had 37, after having boycotted the 2010 vote.
Some 10 other parties are represented in the assembly by two or more seats, with the largest after the NLD being the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, with 18 seats, and the formerly military junta-backed National Unity Party, with 12.
Many of the parties have an ethnic base – such as the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party with nine seats, the All Mon Region Democracy Party and the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO), both with three seats. Several of these parties are also the political wings of former armed groups which have signed peace agreements with the government – with the PNO being an example, controlling the Pa-O people’s Special Region 6 in the southern Shan States.
The 168 elected representatives of the HN, meanwhile, are divided into groups of 12 from each region or state, and include one representative from each self-administered division (SAD) or self-administered zone (SAZ). The military appointed members of the house – all of whom are Tatmadaw personnel – are appointed in groups of four for each region or state.
Myanmar divides into a patchwork of local level administrative units. There are seven regions or divisions – Ayeyarwady, Bago, Magway, Mandalay, Yangon, Tanintharyi and Sagaing – and seven states – Chin, Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Kayah and Kayin. In addition, there is one SAD – the Wa SAD within Shan State – and five SAZs, four also within Shan, and the fifth within the Sagaing Division.
In general terms, the regions and divisions tend to have an ethnic Myanmar majority, while the states, SAZs and SAD have non-Myanmar ethnic majorities. The states and regions have their own local governments – either state or regional hluttaws – which are unicameral bodies, composed of two elected members per township, ethnic representatives and military appointees.
The president selects a chief minister for each state or region, with this choice then having to be approved by the local hluttaw. The chief minister then chooses Cabinet ministers, whose portfolios are assigned by the president. Local security and defence officials are appointed by the Tatmadaw.
The division of powers between the central and local authorities varies between types of local authority, with the self-administered areas enjoying greater local responsibility. The issue of decentralisation remains contentious in Myanmar, with national ministries often exercising greater authority at a local level, while local budgets remain relatively small.
The third estate is headed by the Supreme Court, with its head, the chief justice, currently U Tun Tun Oo. The legal system is based on a combination of English common law from colonial times and traditional codes. Recent Myanmar legal codes are also enforced. The medieval Dammathat, which covers many civil matters, and the Phyathon, a collection of royal court rulings, are therefore both still important foundations for many judicial decisions in the country.
The hierarchy descends from the Supreme Court to the state and division high courts; the SAD and SAZ courts; then district, township and other local courts. There is also a constitutional tribunal to hear matters concerning the constitution, while military courts-martial govern the Tatmadaw.
Much of the country’s political debate concerns amendments to the current constitution, with the NLD and a number of ethnic parties advocating constitutional reform. This has become particularly acute in the run-up to the general election towards the end of 2015, which may result in an NLD-dominated AU, although with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi barred from the presidency.
In addition, the Tatmadaw also continues to exercise great power and influence within the political system, with its future role by no means certain. For constitutional change to take place, a 75% majority of the AU is necessary – a figure difficult for any party to achieve – followed by success in a referendum. This appears to put a considerable brake on future moves towards reform. At the same time, ethnic and religious conflicts continue to present a challenge to any government. Yet Myanmar has some enormous strengths – including a major commitment to reform among its large and youthful population. The country is also blessed with significant natural resources, as well as a great deal of international good will.
The year 2015 may thus turn out to be a key moment in the country’s progress, with much at stake – and plenty of opportunities to play for.
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