By Sithu Aung Myint*
Sept 3, 2017
A forum hosted in Nay Pyi Taw earlier this month allowed stakeholders involved in Myanmar’s transition to discuss some of the most important issues that still need to be addressed.
On August 11, the Forum on Myanmar Democratic Transition opened in Naypyitaw. Sponsored by the Ministry of Information, the forum brought together those who took part in the transition, lawmakers, politicians, members of the Tatmadaw, and scholars, researchers and analysts from Myanmar and abroad. State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi delivered the opening speech.
Although the forum was mostly free and open, discussion about how and why the democratic transition came about was not broached. This is disappointing, because unless there is an understanding and acceptance of why the military gave up power after 50 long years we may struggle to avoid a change in direction, a detour from the right track. The journey ahead will not be smooth.
Looking back to 2015, the Union Election Commission formed by President U Thein Sein announced that the election would be held that November. But when the time was drawing near, they spread news that the election would be postponed in order to gauge the public response.
Considering the earlier behavior of Myanmar’s dictators, they caused people to have doubt about whether the election would really be held. And even if it was, would it be free and fair? And would the winning party be allowed to form a government – would the dictators really transfer power?
People were genuinely concerned about these questions. But to the surprise of the people of Myanmar and the international community, the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won the election in a landslide. The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw was called, the government formed and power transferred – all smoothly and peacefully. At least four factors were needed to bring about this wonderful outcome.
The first one was that the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army troops led by Pheung Kya-Shin attacked and invaded the Kokang region in early 2015. The Tatmadaw was able to recapture most of the territory lost, at a steep cost in terms of lives.
But that war changed the attitude of Tatmadaw leaders towards neighboring China. China was a political and economic ally for the country’s military regime when it was isolated by the international community. Former officers and Tatmadaw leaders knew that if they ignored the 2015 election result – like they did in 1990 – they would again be isolated by the international community and as a result would have to seek support from China. But after the Kokang war in which the Tatmadaw suffered a heavy loss, the military realized it could not depend on China. It is thought that because of this, the Tatmadaw decided not to follow the way of 1990 and instead acknowledged the 2015 election result.
Another important factor was the major split within the Union Solidarity and Development Party. The split between the group led by Thura U Shwe Mann, the speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw, and the group led by President U Thein Sein created a great rift among former generals. This split contributed significantly to the terrible defeat of the USDP in the election. The fact that the election was largely free and fair enabled the NLD to win a landslide victory.
U Soe Thein, a minister for the President’s Office, had permitted international observers to monitor the election process. The UEC, led by former general U Tin Aye, found itself unable to manipulate the result. Even if it planned to manipulate the results, the conflict within the USDP would have made it unclear which group to back. All of this contributed to a free and fair election in 2015.
The last but arguably most significant factor in the NLD’s election win was Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign strategy and her relentless effort.
The NLD’s landslide victory and the Tatmadaw’s recognition of the election result constituted the start of the democratic reform process.
In view of all these factors, Myanmar’s democratic transition neither occurred through the toppling of dictators by democratic forces nor those in power willingly undertaking democratic reform. This has to be clearly understood.
Because of this, one can’t guarantee that dictatorship will not be resurrected in Myanmar. We cannot rest assured thinking that the democratic transition will go ahead smoothly and harmlessly regardless of the circumstances.
The success of Myanmar’s transition depends on the complete removal of the underlying forces that could give rise to a return to dictatorship. Identifying and acting to negate these forces is the task of all of those – whether they are from the government, Tatmadaw, other politicial parties, or other groups – who do not want to see any backtracking.
*The writer is a senior journalist based in Yangon, Myanmar.