Military still marching to its own tune

The Tatmadaw is in no hurry to release its grip on the seven-step roadmap for the transition to a ‘disciplined’ democracy it unveiled in August 2003.

A year ago the comedian and political activist Zarganar said prophetically that the 2015 general election would be a distraction and that genuine democratic change should not be expected before 2020.

Despite the excitement about the November 8 ballot, if it is not delayed the result will not change the underlying nature of Myanmar’s political landscape.

The military will remain in control, although increasingly behind the scenes. This was how junta leader Senior General Than Shwe planned the gradual transfer of power to civilians, and only after they proved they could be trusted.

The junta’s seven-step roadmap for a transition to a “disciplined” democracy was unveiled in August 2003 by then Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt. A few weeks later at the ASEAN summit in Bali he said the transition would take 10 to 20 years.

Pressed about this time frame last year, he told me the “’battle plan” was still in play and that Senior General Than Shwe completely endorsed the roadmap. Don’t expect major change any time soon. The strategy and vision will remain intact even if there are changes to the personnel enacting the roadmap.

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The problem now is that the roadmap from 2010 to 2020 is not as detailed as it was for the period leading to the beginning of the transition, even though the final stage remains the military’s withdrawal from politics. Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was personally selected for the job by Senior General Than Shwe, indicated as much in a recent interview with Kyodo News.

“Once we have this [multi-party democratic] system in place and the country’s political and security conditions become stabilised, I’m sure the military’s involvement in the parliament would be gradually reduced,” he told the Japanese news agency.

So it would seem everyone is committed to a peaceful transition to democracy – including apparently the military. But it’s the speed and timing of the changes that are at issue. The military insists it should be in the driving seat and control the course to constitutional change. The democracy movement – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, the 88 Generation and most of the ethnic political parties – are impatient and may not trust the military to keep its word.

For most political activists, amending Section 436 of the Constitution – which gives the non-elected military members of parliament who hold 25 percent of its seats an effective veto over charter reform because it needs the support of 75 percent of the hluttaw – is the first prerequisite to a real transition to democracy. They want a gradual reduction of the number of seats the military holds in parliament until they are no longer appointed to the legislature.

From a democratic perspective, other key areas in need of reform include devolving more power to regional and state parliaments, including allowing them to elect chief ministers, and moving towards a federal state.

Sources close to military leaders say the army top brass is prepared to consider all these options in due course. The issue, for them, is the sequence of the changes.

According to some retired senior military officers, before the 2010 election the Tatmadaw’s top four generals agreed there would be no changes to the Constitution in the parliament’s first term. Amendments would only be considered in the post-2015 parliament and only after a national ceasefire was signed and there had been a political dialogue among the executive, military, legislature and the ethnic leadership.

The danger is that the election campaign may antagonise the army. Here Zaganar also had some insightful advice. “It’s too early to throw down the gauntlet,” he said. “The army’s role needs to be reduced slowly: [we] shouldn’t challenge the army; shouldn’t annoy the army, shouldn’t use confrontation.”

Regardless of what happens in the election, including the unlikely event of the NLD winning an absolute majority, the Tatmadaw will continue to play a crucial role in running the country.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing also hinted in Kyodo News interview that the army would be prepared to work with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. “If we could all join hands and cooperate with each other, I believe that she is also a person who will benefit the country,” he said.

The ball is firmly in her court.

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