NLD-Military relations: Who really holds power?

Photo: Comune Parma/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Yangon Chief Minister’s apology over comments against the military illustrates how little progress has been made in creating a democratic Myanmar.

By Oliver Ward

In Myanmar, even government ministers are not entitled to the luxury of full freedom of expression. The Yangon Region Chief Minister, Phyo Min Thien, made a public apology to the Military Commander-In-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing after remarks he made at the launch of a Political Prisoners Fellowship Program.

Considered by some to be a rising star in Myanmar’s government, Phyo Min Thien said that “there are no civil-military relations in the democratic era”, adding that if Myanmar was really democratic “the position of the military’s commander-in-chief would be on the same level as that of a director general”.

Almost as soon as Phyo Min Thien made the comments, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, began applying pressure on the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to take “necessary action” against the Chief Minister. Despite the NLD maintaining the stance that there was no need to take action against the Chief Minister, Phyo Min Thien himself apologised to the Commander-In-Chief. The incident raises questions about who is really in control of Myanmar, NLD or the Tatmadaw?

Who really controls Myanmar?

Despite the optimism amongst pro-democracy groups when Aung San Suu Kyi swept to power in the 2015 elections, the military has maintained an iron grip on control of the country. Military personnel fill one-quarter of all parliamentary seats. The army also selects one of the two Vice Presidents, the Defence Minister, the Home Affairs Minister and the Border Affairs Minister.

Even if the NLD government is able to pass legislation, the implementation of it has to be coordinated by the civil service, of which 80% of positions are filled by the military. Then the legislation would need to be enforced, but the military retains control over both the police force and the justice system.

As a result, the “democratic” government looks a lot like the previous military junta

With the NLD positioned firmly at the mercy of the military, it is little surprise that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government policies closely resemble those of the junta.

Silencing tactics and oppression are still widely used across the country. Reports on the human rights situation in Rakhine State describe systematic abuse and harassment of the Rohingya Muslim population and suggest the presence of a deliberate “clearance operation” against the Rohingya people. However, the government fiercely denied any wrongdoing and refused to allow a U.N fact-finding mission to investigate. The government’s own, deeply flawed, investigation found “no evidence” of crimes against humanity.

The country’s press also remains under scrutiny. Three journalists were arrested in June after contacting an ethnic rebel group. Aye Nai, one of the arrested, described how the army regiment, not the police, conducted the questioning of the three journalists. The case should fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, but the military is handling the case instead and has filed the six charges of “unlawful association”.

The government’s hands are tied

The NLD has very few options available to it to curb the army’s control and further transition Myanmar towards democracy. To limit the military’s power through constitutional amendment, it would need to receive more than 75% of Parliamentary votes. The 25% of seats held by the military effectively gives them a veto for any constitutional change and prevents their power from being rescinded through constitutional amendment.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government are not in the position to strangle the military financially either. The military sets its own budget and the NLD is allowed to allocate whatever funds are left. Because of this, Myanmar’s military budget is higher than both education and health put together. In 2014, the military’s budget was just under 3.6% of GDP, health expenditure was 1%.

If anything, the victory of the NLD helped the military junta

During the 2015 elections, the junta knew Aung San Suu Kyi had the popularity to win, yet it did not rig the elections or delay or terminate them. The incumbent military government had the political weight to undermine the entire democratic process, yet it did not.

In October 2016, during Aung San Suu Kyi’s state visit to the US, President Obama announced the US would lift the economic sanctions in place on Myanmar. The decision removed banking restrictions and allowed the export of Burmese jadeite and rubies. As soon as the restrictions were lifted, Myanmar experienced a rush of foreign investment. Between April and December of 2016, Myanmar received US$3.5 billion in foreign investment.

By putting a democratic leader at the head of government, but retaining control over the country, the junta was able to open Myanmar up to increased investment, without relinquishing power. They could portray the illusion of democracy to the west to open up investment opportunities, but in reality, keep democracy firmly under lock and key.

Myanmar is not even transitioning towards a fully democratic future

With so many restrictions placed on the NLD, Myanmar is democratically stagnant. Many lauded the election of Aung San Suu Kyi with the hope that it represented progress towards a democratic Myanmar, but the junta ensured that it was only the appearance of progress.

Without full control of the finances or parliament, the NLD is powerless to move forward towards Myanmar’s democratic dream. There is no transition, only a continuation of military government. The NLD government is the attractive storefront designed to lure in foreign investment, but make no mistake, the whole store is owned by the military.

The only authority which can limit the military’s power is the military themselves. But, while their main objective is to preserve the institution of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar will remain in democratic purgatory until the military sees fit.