Myanmar’s military desperate to hold power

A billboard for Aung San Suu Ky.

Campaigning kicked off on September 8 for the first competitive elections in Myanmar (Burma) since the 1950s. The November 8 poll will pit the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) against more than 100 opposition parties, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

Myanmar’s military ceded power to a quasi-civilian government through 2010 elections that were boycotted by the NLD, ending a military dictatorship that spanned from 1962.

Many political commentators, foreign governments and investors highlight the country’s economic liberalisation and transition to democracy, but the military clearly remains in control.

With the NLD likely to win a solid majority in these elections, the armed forces — known as the Tatmadaw — have recently shown signs of desperation to cling to power.

Created by the Tatmadaw as its political vehicle for the 2010 elections, the USDP holds about 60% of seats in the lower house of the national parliament. Another 25% of the seats are nominated by the armed forces themselves.

All ministers are nominated either by the president or the Tatmadaw, and more than half of all current ministers — 15 of 26 — are former military men.

The Irrawaddy reported on August 11 that 45 senior military officers retired from active service to join the USDP to contest these elections. These “retirees” include four chiefs of the Ministry of Defence’s Bureau of Special Operations.

The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School claims that at least one of these army chiefs, Khin Zaw Oo, and home affairs minister Major General Ko Ko, are guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Military discipline is the norm, but a recent midnight coup within the USDP highlighted the level of desperation within the ruling party.

Around midnight on August 12, led by cabinet ministers supported by police, the USDP headquarters was raided. Thura U Shwe Mann, USDP’s chairperson, speaker of the lower house of parliament and a former general, along with his closest supporters, were detained.

Sithu Aung Myint said in the Myanmar Times on August 26 that Shwe Mann’s “crime” was that he “used all his power and influence to angle for a shot at the presidency”.

He “made every effort to amend the constitution so that the president, vice presidents and ministers should be drawn from elected members from parliament. This would have precluded serving military members from electing one of their own for the presidency … This really made the men in green angry.”

The same article notes that such action is seen as normal or justified, because “the military formed the USDP as its own organisation, so they consider the USDP’s internal affairs an extension of their own internal affairs.”

Shwe Mann was back at work on August 14, but not as the party’s chair. The Irrawaddy noted: “If anyone had doubts, it’s clear that the military still calls the shots in Myanmar.”

This internal party coup highlights sections of the 2008 constitution, which was written by the former military dictators to ensure they continue calling the shots.

“The former military dictators drafted the constitution so that they could maintain power even after their official retirement”, says Myanmar Times reporter Sithu Aung Myint.

This constitution allocates 25% of parliamentary seats — in the lower house, upper house and regional and state parliaments — to the military. Any change to the constitution requires 75% of the vote, thus giving the Tatmadaw veto power.

The constitution states that the commander-in-chief of the defence forces and the president will jointly rule the country. The commander-in-chief appoints the ministers of defence, home affairs and border affairs.

Moreover, under this constitution, the country’s most popular and well-known political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is ineligible to become president, regardless of the election outcome.

Article 59(f) of the constitution states that if one of your children “owes allegiance to a foreign power”, you are ineligible to be president. The fact that both her sons have a British passport thus bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.

With the 25% military bloc guaranteed, the USDP only needs a further 25% of the seats in parliament to form a majority and elect the president.

After a brief debate on changing these more contentious sections of the constitution, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a joint lower and upper house sitting of national parliament, voted on June 25 to maintain the status quo.

Brigadier General Tin San Hlaing was not surprised, saying: “We are making the country’s situation stable by putting 25% military MPs in the parliament.” Even an apparently modest proposal to cut the percentage required to change the constitution, from 75% to 70%, was soundly defeated.

As the election campaign kicks off, a key issue has been inaccuracy in the voter lists. In late June, after a significant delay, the Union Electoral Commission (UEC) made voter lists available for public scrutiny.

These lists were available in township government offices for some three weeks. Many of those who did venture to check the lists found mistakes.

Mizzima reported on August 10 that NLD youth leader Thant Wai Kyaw found that, “75% of the voting list was wrong, so now after the flood, 100% of it will be ruined. If it is to continue like this there will not be free and fair election.”

With about 31 million eligible voters, the “error rate on preliminary lists is between 30 and 80%”, according to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Besides errors in the voter lists, the UEC is struggling to gain legitimacy. UEC chairperson Tin Aye was a lieutenant-general in the Tatmadaw and an elected member of parliament for the ruling USDP before taking up his current role.

He also chaired the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holding Limited, one of the Tatmadaw’s largest companies. His family is said to be worth $100 million.

In a June 29 interview published in The Irrawaddy, Tin Aye was asked whether he wanted the USDP to win. He responded: “I love it. I love the country. I love my organisation. I love the military. I am willing to sacrifice my life for them … I want the USDP to win, but to win fairly, not by cheating.”

With the “cronies” — another common term used for the Tatmadaw by almost everyone here without links to the military — owning some of the country’s largest companies, and controlling most aspects of the economy, some commentators even question whether the upcoming elections will lead to any significant change.

David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch, for example, said: “The elections will in all likelihood be conducted transparently and with extensive civil society participation, far more than the tightly controlled farce of 2010, but the military knows full well that the elections won’t substantively challenge their interests, even when in 2016 a more representative parliament is formed.”

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