Has power gone to Suu Kyi’s head?

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By Nehginpao Kipjen

The National League for Democracy (NLD) chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi on November 19 met representatives of more than 50 countries, including Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.  After waiting for 25 years since her party’s electoral victory in the 1990 general election was annulled by the military government, Suu Kyi is convinced that her time has come to lead Myanmar.  In conjunction with her political ambition, Suu Kyi took steps not to antagonise the majority voters of the country, who are predominantly Buddhists. She not only maintained silence on human rights violations against the country’s minority Muslims, but her party avoided fielding Muslim candidates.  As a politician, Suu Kyi’s electoral strategy worked well in her favour, much better than many analysts had predicted before the election.

As the NLD prepares to form the next government, there are some concerns. One major concern is the possible confrontation between NLD and the military, which still remains a powerful force and essential element in the country’s polity.  Before the election, Suu Kyi said “If we win, and the NLD forms a government, I will be above the president.the constitution says nothing about somebody being above the president.”   In response, Zaw Htay, a senior official at the President’s office, said Suu Kyi’s comments were “against the constitutional provision” which states that the president takes precedence over all other persons.  After the election on November 10, the NLD leader continued to say that the president “will have no authority, and will act in accordance with the decisions of the party…because in any democratic country, it’s the leader of the winning party that becomes the leader of the government.”

Suu Kyi’s pre and post election remarks unequivocally show that she is keen and ambitious to lead not only her party but also the next government. Since NLD now has majority seats in both houses of the parliament, the party is in a position to elect the president and one of the two vice-presidents. The participation of NLD in the 2015 general election means that the party has agreed to respect the 2008 constitution, which protects the inherent role of military in politics. There is no doubt that Suu Kyi would act with due diligence not to provoke the military leaders. And at the same time, she will play more or less the role of Sonia Gandhi during the Congress-led government in India.

However, there is a danger that the military may find it difficult to tolerate should the country president becomes a puppet of Suu Kyi. If such situation arises, the military will target the president for being incompetent.  There are two main concerns that can provoke the military to intervene or disrupt the civilian government – the peace process with ethnic armed groups and the question of constitutional amendment. If the military sees that the NLD government is incapable of resolving the decades-old ethnic minority problems and feels that there is an imminent threat to the country’s national and territorial integrity, it will find a reason to intervene.  Similarly, if the military thinks the NLD government uses its power to try to amend or replace the 2008 constitution with the objective of reducing or eliminating the role of military in politics, it will act.  The people of Myanmar and the international community should understand that the democratisation process in Myanmar is a kind consensual transition in which the authoritarian leaders actively participate in the process of change by controlling or limiting the change. This transition entails some degree of political continuity between authoritarianism and the elected government. To avoid confrontation with the military and the country’s ethnic minorities, Suu Kyi must ensure that both these groups are either consulted or included in all major decisions the NLD government takes.  It would be a wise move on her part if Suu Kyi can allocate some important portfolios to ethnic minorities. Even if she acts as the architect or above the president, she must act diligently not to provoke the military leadership and not to betray the trust of ethnic minorities.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is a US-based political scientist.

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