Burma’s incentive for reform?

Burma’s “reform process” – to the extent it is one – defies easy labels. It certainly isn’t a People Power Revolution like the one that overthrew Marcos – that has not been a serious possibility in Burma since 1988. Nor is it a negotiated transition along the lines of South Africa’s release from apartheid. Importantly, unlike New Order Indonesia, the regime does not face any significant economic or political crises. The atmosphere in Burma perhaps resembles the gradual loosening of political restrictions under Gorbachev’s glasnost – an analogy President Thein Sein would surely abhor.

In the midst of this ambiguity, Burma watchers have debated the sincerity and depth of Burma’s glasnost. Bertil Lintner suggests it’s all to beguile the international community, while Andrew Selth remains cautiously optimistic. Unfortunately, the debate has focused too much on Thein Sein’s reformist credentials, removal of sanctions, or even Than Shwe’s religious beliefs. However, none of these possible motivations sufficiently explains why the government has engaged in these reforms now as opposed to, say, 10 years ago.

With the exception of the late Dr. Nay Win Maung, few have thought through how Burma’s new political institutions have changed the rules of the political game. Indeed, after most transitions to democracy, former authoritarian elites usually retain some power (except, of course, when removed through a revolution). What produces democracy and good governance is not necessarily removing the old elites, but rather giving them an incentive to constrain themselves through democratic institutions. The real question then is not whether Burma’s “reform process” is “genuine” but rather whether the new rules of the game give political elites an incentive to sustain reforms.

While former junta officials fill the cabinet and the military remains powerful, under the 2008 Constitution political elites must now compete for power through the legislature (Hluttaw), the state and region governments, and even the Constitutional Tribunal. The mechanism for presidential elections is particularly important. Under the 2008 Constitution, the Hluttaw nominates and elects the president and vice-presidents, so politicians who seek the presidency must get the Hluttaw’s support. This makes presidential aspirants dependent upon Hluttaw MPs and, if the next elections are free and fair, indirectly upon voters.

Obvously, any analysis of Burma’s political elites depends heavily upon secondhand anecdotes and rumor. Nonetheless, it seems clear that for the two most prominent “reformers” in the government, President Thein Sein and Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, the new institutional structure presents opportunities as well as risks. While outsider observers who have met both men claim they are genuinely interested in reform, in the short term they both have a political incentive to push for reforms: to be elected president in 2015. In fact, many analysts had predicted that Shwe Mann would be tapped for the office last February.

In theory, presidential candidates could just garner support amongst the military and Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) MPs. Under the constitution, the military holds 25% of the seats in each chamber, while the USDP won around 80% of the contested seats in 2010. However, neither option represents a viable path to power for either Thein Sein or Shwe Mann. While insiders claim the army supports the president’s reform agenda, it is not clear whether that implies military MPs will vote for him in 2015. Under the junta, Thein Sein was never known for his fighting experience or following amongst the troops. Even more surprisingly, the military MPs have not always voted as a unified bloc, but rather tend to follow their chamber leader. This means that military MPs in the Amyotha Hluttaw would probably support that chambers nominee over Thein Sein or Shwe Mann.

If, as Lintner maintains, the USDP serves only as “a vehicle for the military’s political interests”, it certainly has not been a very effective one. On several key votes USDP members defected and voted with the opposition, suggesting that legislative leaders could not discipline them. Moreover, neither Thein Sein nor Shwe Mann possesses effective control over the party. Under § 64 of the constitution, Thein Sein must refrain from any party activities, so he is in no position to corral members to support him. As speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw, Shwe Mann has little formal influence over USDP MPs in the Amyotha Hluttaw.

The USDP is also fractured between reformists and hardliners. Unlike parliamentary systems, where the head of government also serves as head of the party, Burma’s presidential institutions have created a leadership gap. Speaker Thura Shwe Mann is still only acting chairman of the party. Some analysts claim this is because hardliners refuse to confirm a permanent appointment – a very public display of factionalism if true. USDP hardliners would probably nominate one of their own, such as Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo, for the presidency over either Shwe Mann or Thein Sein. In short, the USDP lacks the leadership and party infrastructure of its counterparts in the Vietnamese Communist Party or Malaysia’s UMNO to act as an effective authoritarian party.

On the other hand, Thein Sein or Shwe Mann might be able to build a support coalition amongst more reformist USDP MPs, parts of the military, and the opposition. Thein Sein’s reform initiatives are well known: legalizing trade unions, relaxing censorship, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, and suspending construction of the unpopular Myitsone Dam. Shwe Mann has been particularly aggressive in courting Pyithu Hluttaw MPs, defending the chamber’s prerogatives against the Constitutional Tribunal, encouraging opposition members to debate bills, and establishing a committee to review corrupt judicial decisions.[1] The Hluttaw has surprised many by evolving beyond a rubberstamp, which should make many MPs grateful to Shwe Mann when 2015 arrives.

However, if, as I suspect, Thein Sein and Shwe Mann are courting the same constituency, there is a risk that they might begin to compete against each other. The two men have already found themselves on opposite sides of key debates. The biggest threat to the “reform process” would be infighting amongst these two, either with one turning to side with the hardliners or the military using the rift as pretext for a coup. As the 2015 presidential election nears, Thein Sein and Shwe Mann will either have to come to a power-sharing agreement or risk competing directly.

We also need to consider Aung San Suu Kyi’s incentives to engage with the “reform process.” Despite Lintner’s claim that she has simply caved in to foreign diplomats,[2] Aung San Suu Kyi is joining the political process because she now has leverage. Even after 20 years of censorship, she remains the most popular political figure inside Burma. When the NLD boycotted the 2010 elections, she denied the government legitimacy, both domestically and abroad. This was a raw demonstration of her political authority and it worked – the government realizes it needs her inside the tent in order to achieve its goals. The same foreign governments that had disparaged the political process back in November 2010 are now hinting at removing sanctions, largely based on Suu Kyi’s expressed wishes.

Right now, it is in Daw Suu’s interests to support the “reform process” and use her leverage to advance gradual reforms whilst she has the opportunity. However, once in the Hluttaw she will be forced to make tough decisions, some of which might alienate activists, others that frustrate the government. Internationally, as the E.U. and U.S. build deeper relations with Burmese officials they will depend less on her to guide their foreign policy. I suspect that, like Nelson Mandela or Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi will never go out of style, but it will be interesting to see how she manages these competing tensions.

Finally, time and tide wait for no man, even dictators. While only Than Shwe’s astrologers know how much longer he will live, many Burmese assume his departure would free the government and allow democratization to quicken. However, religious beliefs aside, Than Shwe’s relationship with the new government is not entirely clear. Is he the trump card hardliners play when they want to dampen the pace of reform? Or is he the only individual capable of reining hardliners in?

Ironically, Than Shwe might have an interest in seeing democratization through, if only to prevent the rise of another strongman who could disrupt his retirement (the ghosts of Saw Maung and Ne Win still haunt him). Some Burma watchers believe that Than Shwe ended the infighting that erupted last summer by telling Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo to stop obstructing Thein Sein’s administration. On the other hand, he is said to dislike Aung San Suu Kyi and probably abhors the thought of an NLD government. The question then is whether Burma’s political institutions will develop quickly enough before his departure shakes the political scene.

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[1] I predict Shwe Mann will become noticeably less enthusiastic about legislative power if he becomes president in 2015.

[2] I find it hard to believe a woman who endured decades of house arrest and refused to even leave the country to visit her dying husband would be intimidated by the U.S. Foreign Service.

About Dominic J. Nardi, Jr., Guest Contributor