The Myanmar Impasse

Partyforumseasia: While most of the international media give the impression that there is a way to democracy by supporting the opposition and the demonstrators, the bloodshed continues. Bilahari Kausikan, a retired top diplomat from Singapore, has a more sober and probably more realistic view of the impasse. We publish here an interview he just granted to our partner organization Global Review from Germany:

Global Review had the honor to have an interview with Bilahari Kausikan about Myanmar and Asia. Bilahari Kausikan is currently Chairman of the Middle East Institute, an autonomous institute of the National University of Singapore. He has spent his entire career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During his 37 years in the Ministry, he served in a variety of appointments at home and abroad, including as Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, and as the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry. Raffles Institution, the University of Singapore and Columbia University in New York all attempted to educate him.

Global Review: Mr. Kausikan, you claim that the West approached Myanmar through a misplaced sense of moral superiority, rather than through strategic calculation ad that an accurate appreciation of the strategic context must be the basis of policy goalsWhat do you think are the strategic interests of the West, if there is one West? Is the Sino-American conflict the strategic context alone?

Bilahari Kausikan: US-China relations are the core issue in contemporary international relations and no issue is more important.By ‘West” I mean the US and its Asian allies and partners – Japan, Australia, South Korea, India and some ASEAN member states and some European states, primarily France and the UK.  Germany is inching in that direction too but is not yet there.

The EU as EU is too strategically incoherent to play any meaningful role in Asia or Myanmar. I think what you are hinting at is that standing up for values is also a strategic interest. I don’t entirely disagree, but any strategy must be informed by a sense of priority and that sense of prioritization is missing from the EU. If the EU stresses values, it is because it is incapable of agreeing on anything else as far as Asia is concerned – on Myanmar the EU only wants to feel good and look good because it is incapable of doing any good.

By the way,  why do you insist on insistence on using ‘Burma’ to refer to Myanmar?  That is a perfect illustration of the European attitude. The United Nations recognises the official name of the country as The Republic of the Union of Myanmar. To pretend otherwise, is only to give yourself a warm feeling of being virtuous without achieving anything. It impresses no one but yourself.

Global Review: You think that the goal should be restoration of some form or semblance of civilian and constitutional rule which  is not the same thing as the restoration of ‘democracy’.However, the Burmese opposition rejects the 2008 constitution, demands the return of Aung San Suu Kyi to power and democracy, while the Burmese military doesn´t want that or even the status quo ante. How could such a civilian or constitutional rule look like? Are the Burmese militaries thinking about the Thai option, that a general becomes a civilian president?

Bilahari Kausikan: The Burmese opposition better grow up and accept the bitter reality that bravery is not enough; Idealism is not enough.

 The Tatmadaw is a central reality that must be part of any solution. I think after the Tatmadaw is absolutely certain that they have politically neutered Aung San Suu Kyi, they will have some form of elections under the constitution they drafted, perhaps with additional safeguards for its own position – something like the Thai option but not identical to it – the Tatmadaw’s role will be clearer than the military’s role is in Thailand. It is not a subtle institution.

The sooner the opposition and everybody else recognises that there is no solution that goes against the Tatmadaw’s interests the better. It is cruelly irresponsible to give the opposition false hope by allowing them to believe that anyone is going to intervene in Myanmar on their behalf to fight the Tatmadaw and put Aung San Suu Kyi back into power. That is only going to prolong the killings.

And the long-term damage to the economy will be disastrous. The economy has already reached a state of near collapse. The Tatmadaw has no understanding of how to run the economy. The protestors have no understanding of the damage they are doing for a futile cause either.  Its truly a tragic situation.  Between the two of them, the Myanmar economy is going to take many years – perhaps decades — to recover and while demonstrators being shot down in the streets is horrific, the long-term impact in terms of malnutrition, increased infant mortality, disease and all the consequences of economic collapse, may well be worse. This is yet another reason to try to stabilize the situation as quickly as possible, even at the cost of accepting a less than idea and morally ambiguous accommodation with the Tatmadaw.

Global Review: Parts of the opposition call for a revolution, even for  a people´s army and armed struggle. Do you think this realistic? Is the Burmese military such a monolithic bloc or do you think it could disintegrate? However, you think that such a scenario could lead to the disintegration of Myanmar, even a new Syria and failed state in South East Asia. How big is the danger that things will develop like that? Would China or other foreign powers intervene to restore stability or fight a proxy war?

Bilahari Kausikan: I think those parts of the opposition that think so should be disabused of that delusion as soon as possible.  The Tatmadaw is incompetent at governance but it is a formidable fighting force and if the opposition takes up arms against it, they will massacred. All an armed struggle will achieve is to prolong instability and make it more difficult to reach any sort of resolution.

I don’t think it is very probable that the Tatmadaw will split, fortunately so because but if it splits, the danger of Myanmar fragmenting as the armed ethnic groups try to take advantage of the situation. There will be a bloody and confused internal conflict.

I don’t think China or any of Myanmar’s neighbours will intervene. Intervention cannot be surgical or limited in time. If you intervene, you’ll have to stay engaged, probably for decades, to try and stabilize the situation. After the examples of Iraq, Syria and Libya who is daft enough to do that? It is more likely that China and other neighbouring countries will just try to seal their borders. They won’t succeed, or at least not entirely, but that is a less bad option than intervention.

It is possible, but again not very probable, that Senior General Min Aung Hliang could be eased out by other generals. But that will not materially change the situation as the Tatmadaw will still be in charge.

Global Review: You claim that the Tatmadaw is not just the problem, but an irreplaceable part of any solution.However, how do you think you could influence the Burmese generals?

Bilahari Kausikan: The Tatmadaw has to be reassured that their institutional interests will not be ignored and individual officers and soldiers will not be prosecuted.

Global Review: You think that Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) is not without responsibility for the current imbroglio and that ASSK and the Tatmadaw are too much alike in fundamental ways to make working together comfortable for either side. Should new leaders on both sides replace them, e.g Man Win Khaing Than, acting vice president and try to find a compromise while both get an amnesty?

Bilahari Kausikan: I don’t think any amnesty that leaves Aung San Suu Kyi with a political role will be accepted by any set of Tatmadaw leaders. We – the opposition and outside powers – should focus on securing her personal safety.

Mind you I don’t think it is very likely that they will physically harm her because of who her father  was as Aung San is widely respected in the Tatmadaw. Besides they did not physically harm her during all the years she was under house arrest. But no harm seeking assurances for her personal safety. That gives the Tatmadaw something that they can agree to.

It may he marginally easier to reach some sort of accommodation if there are new leaders on both sides, but any realistic accommodation will not materially change the situation as the Tatmadaw will still be in charge.

By the way the CRPH (Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) the parallel civilian government some parliamentarians who either escaped Myanmar before they were arrested or were too insignificant to be arrested, lacks credibility and is making extreme demands. I doubt the Tatmadaw under any leadership will deal with it.

Global Review: The Burmese opposition is teaming up with the armed struggle of the ethnic minorities and also declared that they won´t return to the 2008 constitution, but want not a mainly Bamer nationalistic state, but a federal multicultural state. Hoqw could a further escalation be prevented?

Bilahari Kausikan: The armed ethnic minorities have their own agenda and are taking advantage of international sympathy for the opposition and the Tatmadaw’s distraction to advance their own agenda. Some of these ethnic groups have issued vaguely worded statements that some people have interpreted as support for the opposition. But I see it as more motherhood statements of sympathy.

Recently the spokesman of the Karen National Union, one of the armed ethnic groups, said “the NLD only looked to get along with the military. It did not just ignore ethnic armed organizations  but adopted policies to supress them” The spokesman went on to say, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi might now understand that she was wrong to think she could change the military and that her national reconciliation efforts have failed.” This does not suggest great trust or confidence in the opposition.

Global Review: Will the Burmese military accept such a federalism or does it perceive it as the beginning of the end of Myanmar as it could strengthen separatist forces? Are there still ethnic minorities who still demand a separate state?

Bilahari Kausikan: They may accept it tactically or as a temporary expedient but probably not as the end-state for Myanmar.

Global Review: You wrote: “Neither the US nor China really want to do more than they have already done on Myanmar. Both have other priorities, and are acutely aware of the strategic context of their rivalry. Neither wishes to do anything that could inadvertently give the other an advantage. Still, both could be pressed by domestic pressures into actions that they know to be strategically imprudent: the US because of the Tatmadaw’s growing human rights abuses; China because the demonstrations have taken an anti-Chinese turn.” How could such an escalation be prevented? Can the ASEAN or India act as a mediator pr is the situation already out of control?

Bilahari Kausikan: Well, stop directly or indirectly encouraging the protestors to sacrifice their lives in vain. To me, minimizing further loss of life should be the immediate priority. That requires restraint on both sides.

ASEAN must keep contact with the junta. It is a very delicate balancing act for ASEAN – it has to be tough enough to maintain international credibility but yet not alienate the Tatmadaw.  At some point the Tatmadaw will feel secure enough to seek a solution and ASEAN has to retain their confidence so that it can help.

I don’t know when that point will come. I know for your own domestic reasons you cannot say or do nothing. That’s understandable.  But outside powers –not just the US and China but Europe too which is always tempted to strike virtuous postures and has seldom resisted that temptation – should do nothing that will increase the Tatmadaw’s insecurity or complicate ASEAN diplomacy. Primum non nocere – first, do no harm – should be the guiding principle.

 Global Review: Is  a solution without Aung San Suu Kyi in power thinkable? Wouldn´t the opposition be decapiatetd and loose a heroic icon and integration figure if she retreated? Or has the opposition in the mid and long term emanicipate itself from her leader and find an appropriate new  charimsatic leader? But is thies possible as Aung San Suu Kyi has her authoirty also to the lineage oto her father who was a national hero. How would the ASEAN react if the Burmese general kill her or imprison her for life time?

Bilahari Kausikan: If you think that a solution without Aung San Suu Kyi is unthinkable, then give up hope of any sort of solution.

As I said in my reply to a previous question, I think it is very unlikely that the Tatmadaw will physically harm Aung San Suu Kyi. But we should nevertheless make our goal securing assurances of her physical safety our priority.

What can anyone do if she is imprisoned or put under house arrest for life? Are you going to shun Myanmar forever if that happens? What will that achieve except to make yourself feel virtuous? If she is imprisoned for life, it is all the more important to engage the Tatmadaw to try and make sure she is treated minimally well – receives medical treatment and so on..

Global Review: The Burmese military fears that Myanmar could become a semicolony of China, but on the other side it could be forced to rely on China. How does the Burmese military perceive the New Silkroad and the RCEP? You also said that China was supporting some ethnic minorities? Whom and for what purpose, if China want to have good relations with the central government?

Bilahari Kausikan: First of all the RCEP is an ASEAN initiative not a Chinese initiative. Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are members of the RCEP and that makes it unlikely that it will be captured by China. There is no reason why Myanmar should not participate in Belt & Road (BRI) projects and as a matter of fact the Chinese have not found the Myanmar pushovers. Several BRI projects in Myanmar have made minimal progress, to Chinese frustration – the Kyaukphyu Deepsea Port and Special Economic Zone, the China-Myanmar Border Cooperation Zones, the New Yangon City Project, and of course the Myitsone Dam was cancelled by the previous military regime and not reinstated by Aung Suu Kyi’s civilian government despite strong Chinese pressures. Myanmar will only be forced to rely on China if the West gives it no other option.

Global Review: How does the ASEAN perceive the new Biden administration? And the new US foreign policy in the Sino-American conflict? Is there hope that there could be a new TPP? Biden spoke also of a Transatlantic New Silkroad for Eurasia to counter China´s BRI. However, it is not sure who will be next US president 2024, some even fear that Trump might return. Do the ASEAN and most Asians think that the USA is still a reliable power?

Bilahari Kausikan: The US has never been a reliable power – every four years you have to educate a new administration even if the same party remains in power. But the US has always been an indispensable power. There can be no strategic balance in our region, or for that matter in Europe, without the US, and so we have pragmatically worked with the US over many different kinds of administration: We worked with Obama, we worked with Trump and we will work with Biden and who ever comes after. We don’t angst too much – as Europe did with Trump – about convergence of values; we work on the basis of convergence of interests.

I don’t see the Biden administration as fundamentally changing the Trump administration’s policies towards China or fundamentally shifting the trajectory of US-China relations. What I already do see under the Biden administration is policy being decided,. Implemented and communicated in a more orderly and predictable manner and that’s all to the good. I don’t think American domestic politics is conducive to the Biden administration returning to the TPP – its a pity, but that’s just the reality. It does not make the US any less indispensable. But I hope the US under Biden will be less hostile to plurilateral trade agreements.

By the way, its a very good thing that the Biden administration is engaging more and wants to work more with allies and partners. But the corollary to that is that allies and partners will be expected to do more to help the US. Its a less crude form of transactionalism than Trump’s but the expectation is there. America’s Asian allies and partners have always understood this better than Europe who has never pulled its weight commensurate to Europe’s wealth. Unless you do so, sooner or later you will frustrate the Biden administration as you have frustrated many American administrations and not just Trump.

The in-depth analyses of Global Review can be accessed here:

Can the Tatmadaw keep up its murderous discipline?

After seventy years of practically constant fighting, the Myanmar army is supposed to be in absolute control of the soldiers’ and officers’ unwavering discipline. Realistic commentators think they will shoot without hesitation whenever they are ordered to. One report end of February said that some soldiers were seen with the three fingers up sign of the anti-coup demonstrators.
With Aung San Suu Kyi in prison and facing legal prosecution, her National League of Democracy may not recover in a sort of guided democracy army style. But the big question is whether there might be cracks in the military and the police force. A first resignation could be a sign that this is not impossible.

Myanmar Now, March 1, 2021:

Police major becomes first high-ranking officer to join anti-coup resistance
A police major from the Yangon region police force announced on Sunday that he has resigned his position in a show of solidarity with anti-coup protesters.

Tin Min Tun, an acting major in the force’s Special Branch, revealed the move in a live-stream video on Facebook.

“I don’t want to continue serving under the current military regime. That’s why I have joined the CDM to show that I stand with other government employees,” he said in the video, referring to the civil disobedience movement against the February 1 coup.

He said he had been with the Special Branch—the intelligence wing of the police, which serves mainly to monitor activists and politicians—since 1989 but submitted his letter of resignation on Friday in protest over the return to military rule, which he said would destroy the country’s future.

“If this military regime holds onto power, we won’t achieve what we want in the next 20 or 25 years. We will just lose again,” he said.

As the highest-ranking officer to take part in the anti-coup movement so far, he noted that police who break ranks to join protesters face up to three years in prison under the Myanmar Police Force Maintenance of Discipline Law.

“I also want to tell my fellow officers to do what you believe is right,” he added.

Earlier in the month, police in various parts of the country joined protesters calling for the restoration of the elected civilian government, raising hopes of mass defections by the “people’s police”.

More recently, however, police have been implicated in an increasingly brutal crackdown on protesters that has killed dozens of unarmed civilians, including at least 18 on Sunday.

In the video, Tin Min Tun addressed the deteriorating image of the police force in the face of its role in helping the junta hold onto power against the will of the people.

Speaking to his fellow officers, he said they should consider how they will face future generations, adding that many members of the force are already experiencing “discrimination” from the public for doing the regime’s bidding.

Regarding his own future, he said he would leave that to fate.

“If they decide to send me to jail, so be it. This is my sacrifice for my family and my country,” he said.

“I also want to tell my children and other family members to stay calm. I didn’t discuss this with them. I did it because I couldn’t control my feelings any longer,” he added.

CDM was started by doctors and other healthcare workers in the week after the coup in an effort to hobble the regime’s ability to take control over government functions.

It has since been joined by civil servants from a number of ministries, as well as bank employees.

An official from the Yangon Region Police Department contacted by Myanmar Now has confirmed that a senior Special Branch officer had joined the CDM.

“He is a hero. We have great respect for his decision,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous.

He added that he would like to follow suit, but is reluctant to do so because it would not only result in a prison sentence for him, but would also have negative consequences for his immediate family.

The Myanmar Election

Partyforumseasia:  Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the November 8th election with a margin which confirmed its dominant role. The party won 258 seats in the House of Representatives (Lower House), and 138 in the House of Nationalities (Upper House), whereas the military backed opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was reduced to only 26 and 7 seats respectively. Together with the seats in the regional parliaments, the USP secured 71 seats, down from 117 five years ago. But calling the NLD victory a landslide would be beside the point since it just cemented its majority without much movement in the results.
The NLD majority is being reduced by the 25 per cent or 166 unelected seats reserved for the army. The two graphs below by The Irrawaddy newspaper and the Union Election Commission show the military block and its unreal size, symbolizing at the same time the constraints for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in implementing its own policies against the military and its veto power in crucial areas. Not surprisingly, the USDP is challenging the election results with more than 750 complaints about irregularities, a practice which seems to be contagious around the world these days.
Despite the Covid problems and the ongoing fighting in several parts of the country, the voter turnout was very high with 27 out of 38 million eligible voters or 71 per cent. But 1.5 million voters were excluded either because of the Covid pandemic or ongoing local fighting, especially in the Rakhine and Shan States. Altogether 87 political parties had fielded a total of 5,639 candidates, a pluralistic feast of democracy in a very difficult political, social, and security environment.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been heavily criticized by the international media for not offering any viable solution for the Rohingya crisis. Some were even suggesting to withdraw her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, assuming that, with the NLD in power after fifty years of mismanagement under the military, Myanmar would morph into a textbook democracy without much delay. This approach betrays a lack of understanding for the complexity of the political problems. The Shan State for example, which constitutes about a quarter of the country, was part of Thailand until 1893 when the British colonizers annexed it for Burma. When this area was invaded after 1949 by parts of the National Chinese Guomindang army, beaten and expelled from Yunnan by Mao’s Communists, the international community did not care that the local populations were forced to produce opium and heroin to feed and arm the invaders. Under the Truman doctrine and the domino theory, they were seen as allies against China, and even got covert support in armament and logistics from the United States. The heavy handed treatment by the Burmese army added to the resistance of most ethnic minorities in the region against the central government in Rangoon. This is only one example why ruling the ethnic and political quilt of a country, still far from being unified, is more than difficult. It is therefore a positive move that the NLD, in a letter dated 12th November to 48 ethnic parties, called for an end to the civil war and to join them in building a federal democratic union. Self-government and regional autonomy had been promised during the independence process in 1948, but systematically prevented by the military regimes with the typical argument that the integrity of the county was paramount. A NLD spokesman said that the new government should be a “unity government”. Given the historical and political background, integrating the ethnic parties who have lost many seats to the NLD is certainly a herculean task but a dream for the country.

The election results show that an overwhelming majority of Myanmar’s citizens support Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD while rejecting the persisting power of the military with the help of a constitution they have written themselves. It is noteworthy that the voters, aware of the shortcomings of the NLD government during the last five years, are obviously more patient than the international media, so prepared to drop Aung San Suu Kyi as un unsuccessful politician who did not manage to speed up the expected democratic revolution in Myanmar.

More detailed election results here:



Expectations, Skepticism, and Hope among Thailand’s Political Parties

Partyforumseasia: Thailand’s political history has not been “smooth as silk”, as the tourism promoting slogan tried to characterize the country. Since the end of the absolute monarchy, in1932, there were seven failed and eleven successful military coups, the last one in May 2014. Since then, under Prime Minister and former general Prayut Chan-o-cha, a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has banned activities of the political parties, but promised the eventual return to democracy. The volatile and splintered party landscape had produced massive unrest and turmoil since, in 1998, Thaksin Shinawatra founded the Thai Rak Thai Party which swept him to power in 2001. The ingredients of his meteoric rise were lots of money and a hitherto neglected voter base in the poor North and Northeast. The political establishment, aka Bangkok elite, did everything to fight Thaksin. His party was banned by the constitutional court, but survived in re-incarnations. The second one is still around as Puea Thai or Pheu Thai, and the third one surfaced only a few days ago, on 7 November, under the name of Thai Raksa Chart Party.

The much anticipated return to civil rule has been delayed until now, promised elections were postponed, but a new constitution and many institutional changes have been implemented in the meantime. To be fair, though, the NCPO-junta-regime has at least managed a smooth royal transition from the revered King Bhumibol to his less popular son Vajiralongkorn, for which internal and external pundits had predicted turmoil and uprising.

Sensing the popular expectations, PM Prayut has now hinted that the polls might be held on 24th February 2019. Deputy Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon, has informed the impatient parties that the partially relaxed ban on political activities will be lifted, once a new election law for the national parliament will be enacted on 12th December, followed by a royal decree to confirm the election date.
Here are some glimpses into the preparations of the main competitors:

The Democrat Party, founded in 1946, is the oldest political party, and has played an important role since. The liberal-conservative party opposed military rule already in the 1990s, led government coalitions several times, but had no chance against Thaksin Shinawatra’s power and money politics. Its leader since 2005, Abhisit Vejjajiva, re-elected last week, was Prime Minister from 2008 to 2011. The Democrats are strong with a well established party organization and with a solid power base in the South and in Bangkok. The party machinery is well prepared for the campaign.

The Puea Thai Party has just elected a new chairman, Viroj Pao-in, a retired police Puea Thai leadergeneral. The problem of the party is the looming uncertainty whether the junta or the courts might dissolve it before the election, because they suspect the exiled former leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, to pull the strings from his exile in Dubai. Puea Thai and connected groups, supported by the so-called United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or Red Shirts, have won the last five elections and were only stopped by the courts and the military,

Another ally in the “pro democracy camp” is the Future Forward Party, led by young tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

But there is also a new kid on the block, the recently founded Thai Raksa Chart Party. Observers in Thailand suspect that this third re-incarnation of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai is the plan B or safety net in case the Puea Thai should be dissolved. Marketing themselves as “political young blood” politicians, the core members and leaders come predominantly from political families related to Thaksin, including party leader Preechapol Pongpanich. Whether this new group is fighting fit for a nationwide campaign remains to be seen.

This year alone, more than 30 new parties have applied for registration with the Election Commission, in addition to the about 16 established ones. As mentioned, Thailand’s  party landscape is volatile and splintered, and at the same time dynamic and flexible. The main fault line, however, is the social and political divide between urban royalists, known as the “yellow shirts”, and Thaksin’s supporters and his rural support base, the “red shirts”.

High hopes on a return to civil rule and liberal democracy may be premature. The determination of Prime Minister Prayut and his military backing to keep in control  should not be underestimated. The “precautions” of the military in neighboring Myanmar to control Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government should be a warning.


This post, like all the others in the blog, is free for reproduction. We only request a copy. 

Aung San Suu Kyi and her “Proxy President”?

proxy president

The democracy icon as puppet master

Partyforumseasia: Rumors had it that the long wait for the nomination of Myanmar’s next president was due to attempts on a last minute arrangement with the military to eventually accept Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Her own hopes were obviously being shared by many voters, but now it looks most likely that she has to stick to her first plan of choosing a sufficiently loyal “proxy president“. It will be an awkward solution, but justifiable under the assumption that the constitution has been drafted only to prevent “The Lady” and does not reflect the new democratic reality of Myanmar any more.

“Far from a remedy to the NLD’s presidential quandary, the proxy arrangement is riddled with its own practical pitfalls and political vulnerabilities. Analysts fear that dividing the centre of power into two camps – the proxy president and the puppet master – could cripple the NLD’s administration from its outset.” writes the Myanmar Times ( Link ) on 2 March with the cartoon above.

The main danger may lie in Aung San Suu Kyi’s political style which is being described as “imperious”. Assuming that the titulary president cannot be seen as a mere lap dog by the public either, the selection may be as difficult as the future working relationship.

Power is certainly helping older politicians to stay healthy and sharp – see the recent activities of 90-year-old Dr. Mahathir in Malaysia – but Aung San Suu Kyi, going to be 71 in June, is only starting with the full governing burden and responsibility in April. The transformation of the multi-ethnic country with countless minority problems among many others has a long way to go to catch up with the more successful ASEAN partners. A failure of the democratic awakening would endanger Myanmar’s economic recovery even more than the military takeover does in neighboring Thailand.


The Law As Political Weapon In Southeast Asia

Cambodia Compromise

From handshake to kicking out…

Partyforumseasia: World wide, there is a certain connectivity between law and justice, but the law, in most cases a result of politics anyway, is rather often a sharp political instrument as well. Some argue that the laws are just petrified political power to preserve the established structures of elite domination.
The newest twist of a long rivalry between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy is unfolding these days with the announcement of Hun Sen that he will introduce legislation to ban dual citizenship. Sam Rainsy’s French passport, which is helpful for his newest self-exile in Paris to avoid imprisonment at home (for a rather obviously politically motivated conviction) would neutralize him as challenger to Hun Sen’s hold on power. Under the headline “PM’s pledge: ‘No pardon’ for Rainsy” the Phnom Penh Post (Link here) on 29 December is quite blunt about the move:

“Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to create a new law barring political party leaders from holding dual nationalities, an apparent move to further incapacitate beleaguered CNRP president Sam Rainsy.In his latest tirade against his long-time political rival, the premier also vowed to never again request a royal pardon for Rainsy, who in November entered his third stint of self-imposed exile to avoid prison on charges widely perceived as politically motivated.”

Other countries in the region might have inspired the Cambodian Prime Minister:

In Malaysia the only dangerous opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is in prison once again after a dubious conviction for sodomy. Without him the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Alliance has fallen apart, and Prime Minister Najib Razak survives a string of scandals.

In Myanmar election winner Aung San Suu Kyi cannot run for president because her sons have British passports.

In the Philippines a citizenship drama is still unfolding. The Election Commission tries to disqualify the presidential bid of Senator Grace Poe because she is a foundling without sufficient proof of being a real born Phillipina, plus her former US citizenship. The Supreme Court has challenged the decision, so she may eventually run in the upcoming presidential election in 2016.

In Thailand former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing a law suit for negligence with the rice purchasing program of her government. The move is widely seen as a last and decisive attempt to exclude her brother Thaksin from any chance of coming back to the political scene.

Who says that politics is fair? At the moment all these legal battles show the ugly face of Southeast Asian hardball politics.
See also the chapter “Hardball: Power and Party Politics in Southeast Asia” in:

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Myanmar’s NLD: Much Needed Grace Period After Landslide Victory

Partyforumseasia: The victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD was widely anticipated, sometimes cautiously though, in view of the deficits in the not completely free and fair voting system. But the peaceful voting process won international approval and the final triumph is probably beyond the expectations of the party itself, if not even its charismatic leader. ASSKThe Lady’s more than two decades long role as martyr, democracy icon and symbol of hope has triggered this exceptional landslide victory, securing 57.95 % of the seats in the House of Representatives and 60.27 % in the House of Nationalities, the upper house. See the detailed charts below.
This gives the NLD an absolute majority even with the junta’s safeguard of 25% of the seats reserved for the army. The long rule of the generals which lasted half a century may come to an end if Aung San Suu Kyi resists any temptation of “landslide-hubris” and finds a modus vivendi with the still powerful army. But the leading generals conceding defeat and promising a smooth transfer are very positive signals.

With the huge expectations of her voters and the broader public, the emerging leadership of The Lady (“above the new President” as she declared already before the election) will be confronted with enormous political challenges. These range from the minority problems aggravated by the dismal election results for their ethnic parties to the huge deficits in infrastructure, legal framework for foreign investment, smuggling and drug trafficking black markets to possible obstruction by the civil service so far controlled by the army.

But there is another immediate and enormous challenge: The victorious NLD as a political party is hardly prepared to take over all the responsibilities of ruling the complex country in a more than complex period of her history. Switching from decades of opposition to government roles is not easy, especially for those who have suffered imprisonment and feel entitled to rule. It will be a most urgent task to select and prepare future government officials for their role, including the next president who will be coming from the NLD. Many commentators seem to deplore the long transition period and the Thein Sein administration staying on until the presidential election next spring. Partyforumseasia sees it more as a blessing and a grace period for Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD to get better prepared for their government role.

The final election results as of November 15th, 2015 (Wikipedia)

Myanmar election results


House of Nationalities

Myanmar’s Hour of Truth or the Lady’s Last Gamble

Partyforumseasia: Well, the hour of truth and the final results of Sunday’s election will take some time to be announced. Logistically this election is a formidable challenge given the size of the country, the diversity of ethnic groups and ongoing violence, and the deficits in transport and communication infrastructure. What the New York Times called “the country’s first relatively free elections in 25 years” (Link here), will certainly be a milestone in the development of the political and economic latecomer among the ten ASEAN countries. Since last year, though, the military dominance is no longer such an exception. Neighboring Thailand, which used to look down on Myanmar and her military rule, is under a military junta herself. The example of the chaos in Bangkok may be on voters’ minds on Sunday, even if many are tired of the generals and dream of a more open democratic era under Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi
The democracy icon has been pulling huge crowds during her campaign with charisma and her personal history as victim of the generals. The military, sure, has not honored her victory in 1990, but the house arrest in her villa in Rangoon was not as cruel as incarceration could have been, and audiences with her followers over the garden gate were tolerated for many years.
What might psychologically happen to Aung San Suu Kyi is not easy to guess, but there are some telling facts:

1. Aung San Suu Kyi is getting old(er). With 70 most politicians are closer to the end of their service for the country than to the beginning. Exceptions are possible: Konrad Adenauer was 73 when he was elected as first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, and he ruled until 1963. At the ripe age of 87 then, he unsuccessfully tried to become president…

2. Aung San Suu Kyi dominates her National League for Democracy in a way that some see as more authoritarian than liberal democratic. Tactical campaign moves like snubbing the Muslim minority and courting the radical Buddhists of Ma Ba Tha, betray her urge to make it this time even at the price of ignoring the democratic values she embodies for many Myanmar citizens and maybe even more for international observers.

3. The actual gamble of Aung San Suu Kyi to get the votes out for her party and herself is being reported by Reuters and AFP after an interview yesterday, 5th November:
“If we win, and the NLD forms a government, I will be above the president. It’s a very simple message. I will run the government and we will have a president who will work in accordance with the policies of the NLD.”
That would be difficult in a presidential system and is against the constitution which can’t be changed against the will of the generals. So the message for her followers and supporters is: Make sure that we win, then I will take care of the formal questions when I’m in power. But it could produce a backlash from the supporters of the military and their USDP as well because of the potential chaos which may follow an open power struggle. Myanmar voters want stability and economic recovery, the ethnic conflicts going on for much too long already.

4. Coming back to the political psychology: Many victims of oppression and violence against opposition, many in prison for long years, have developed a sense of entitlement to high office. Shih Ming-Teh of Taiwan (25 years in prison) could not even convince his own party that he should be the president. Only Nelson Mandela (27 years in prison) made it to the presidency of South Africa. Partyforumseasia hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi will  approach the election results as sober and level-headed as possible!

Myanmar’s Democracy Icon: Still up to Expectations?

Partyforumseasia: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is campaigning hard for the upcoming elections. But strategic shortcomings of the NLD campaign threaten to damage her aura as democracy icon. Like many politicians who have suffered under authoritarian governments for so long she feels entitled to lead the nation. But she might miss the right timing and see the political development bypass her. Without diminishing her merit and service to the nation by keeping up democratic hope against the military regime, a sad end to her political career is not excluded.
San Suu KyiSee the analysis by Nicholas Farrely in the Myanmar Times (Link)

Myanmar: What to Expect After the 8 November Election?

Partyforumseasia: Officially launching the NLD election campaign yesterday, 8 September, democracy icon and party leader Aung San Suu Kyi did not sound as confident of a clear victory as most observers predict it to be. Aung peacock
Asking the international community to monitor the election intensely and carefully shows her fears that military and USDP under president Thein Sein will try to manipulate the vote again after NLD’s accusations that the 2010 election was widely rigged. But the NLD had boycotted it anyway. As in other elections in the region before, parachuted international observers will have a limited understanding of the technicalities and equally limited access to remote areas. But an immediate effect of her appeal for international support is the anger of the military which in any outcome will have 25% of the seats in parliament and far reaching veto powers.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s widely criticized silence in the Rohingya issue was followed by a top level decision of her party not to allow Muslim candidates, even in predominantly Muslim areas. This, on the other hand, underlines her fear of antagonizing the Buddhist nationalists and their spearhead organization Ma Ba Tha, or Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.
For a decisive victory the NLD will need support from the parties of the ethnic minorities who may not be too keen to sacrifice their regional interests to the democratic battle cry of the NLD, though they all hate the military. Forging a pro-democracy and anti-military election coalition among the ninety (90) odd parties contesting this election is more than a herculean task for Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many voters are confused anyway, the NLD’s peacockpeacock symbol being used by at least half a dozen other parties as well.

Even with a sweeping victory for the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi will have no chance to sideline the military. Ex-general and president Thein Sein has signaled his interest to run for another term in 2016 and his ouster of USDP party chairman Shwe Mann for being too cozy with Aung San Suu Kyi does not augur well for a viable arrangement between the two big players after the election.
With neighboring Thailand in a potentially explosive limbo between militarily supervised calm and democratic renewal as well as Malaysia with an increasingly shaky UMNO government, a more stable Myanmar would be preferable for the region and the investors.

Radical Buddhism Meddling in Myanmar’s Politics

Partyforumseasia: The international headlines focus predominantly on radical Islam, sometimes on radical Hinduism in India, from time to time on Christian fundamentalism in the US. Buddhism, all in all, has managed to keep an image of peacefulness, except in Myanmar, where Buddhist monks took part in violent attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority. Since mid 2013 they are organized in the “Association for the Protection of Race and Religion”, also known under the acronym Ma Ba Tha or “မဘသ” in Burmese.
Ma Ba Tha pic.The organization is being described as nationalistic, fiercely anti-Islam, and well connected to the military. Though article Article 364 of the Constitution prohibits the “abuse of religion for political purposes”, Ma Ba Tha leaders are openly supporting the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). During its second anniversary conference in June, Bhaddamta Vimala, a senior monk and secretary of Ma Ba Tha, criticized the opposition as too inexperienced to rule the country and urged the monks to drum up support for the USDP in the upcoming elections on 8 November. Monks cannot vote but their influence among the population is considerable.
After independence the U Nu government tried to introduce Buddhism as the state religion, but the law was never passed after resistance in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Nevertheless, Ma Ba Tha has celebrated “state religion day” on 30 August to commemorate the 1961 move toward Buddhism as official religion. The day’s religious importance derives from Buddha teaching the Metta Sutta, or discourse on loving kindness which seems to be rather irreconcilable with the militant and violent sides of Ma Ba Tha.
The organization was also more than supportive in legislation concerning religious conversions and interfaith marriages as well as compulsory monogamy and population-control – it actually drafted them. The last of the four laws was signed by president Thein Sein on 31 August, the whole package being criticized by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi as discriminatory for the minorities. But this may backfire in the elections, because Ma Ba Tha has grown into a very powerful nationalistic force which will certainly use its considerable influence to support the USDP and reduce the chances of the NLD.
Nota bene: Christian groups in the West should not cry foul too easily. The Christian Democratic parties in Europe have enjoyed the churches’ support for many years, and American Evangelicals still wield considerable influence until today.

Myanmar Election: How Free and How Fair?

Partyforumseasia:  Myanmar’s democratic opening has received regional and world-wide attention and praise, and subsequently attracted the interest of all shades of businesses, from the well-known fast-buck-entrepreneurs to long-term investment interests. Especially the latter are vital for the country if it wants to catch up with the neighbors in Southeast Asia. ASSK and Thein
The recent purge within the military dominated Union Solidarity and Development Party and the sacking of rather popular speaker of parliament Shwe Mann are widely interpreted as a step back from the reform drive promised by President Thein Sein.
Now speculations for the upcoming election on 8 November start to get more heated. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is sure that her party will win “if polls can be free and fair” (Agence France Press). And the country’s army chief, senior general Min Aung Hlaing recently declared:
“We wouldn’t mind even if the National League for Democracy won in the next general election, as long as it is free and fair. The Tatmadaw’s (Army) desire is to see the upcoming elections be held free and fair.” (Straits Times, 26/08/2015)

On the background of heavy-handed interference since the 1990 elections when the military had underestimated the NLD and simply ignored the results, such a statement sounds a bit too good to be true. At least the generals have learned to speak to the international media and the investors who want to see stability. The 2010 ballot was widely seen as rigged and a quarter of the parliamentary seats is reserved for unelected army officers anyway.
But to be fair with struggling Myanmar, organizing free and fair elections with a level playing field is certainly not as easy as in Denmark or Sweden. Ongoing problems with 135 (!!!!) distinct ethnic groups officially recognized by the government, festering and nearly intractable pockets of civil war with some of the minorities, the Rohingya question unsolved, rural underdevelopment and lack of infrastructure wide-spread, all that makes national elections more than a challenge. The definition of free and fair certainly has to be adapted to the local circumstances.
If the NLD wins a decisive majority, we have to take into account that its uncontested leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still full of fighting spirit but already 70 years old. The constitution does not allow her to be president and the president is head of the government. Details of the constitutional set-up are sobering:   “The Commander-in-Chief appoints the Ministers of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs, selecting candidates from within the Defence Services (Tatmadaw), while the President appoints the remainder. The President also appoints the Deputy Ministers of the respective ministries, following the same qualifications as those of Union Ministers, with the exception of age (35 years, instead of 40).” Source:Wikipedia, Cabinet of Myanmar.
On this background it may be easy for the military to look good with free-and-fair statements and that they don’t mind if the NLD wins…

Multiparty Systems and the Upcoming Election in Myanmar

Partyforumseasia: The much anticipated parliamentary election in Myanmar in November will probably be contested by around 70 political parties. 73 are already registered as eligible, 14 applications are still pending with the Union Election Commission (UEC). Out of the 73 registered so far, 53 will run nationwide and 20 only regionally. And among the 73 there are 43 ethnic based parties which reflects the complicated multi-ethnic structure of the country. MYThe many decades long civil wars in too many areas will make the voting process difficult if not impossible in some. But generally, the progress in regulating the election law and its supervision is being seen as positive by parties and external observers. Diversity and insufficient infrastructure will make the election a rather difficult task for everybody, and some flaws remain in details like enormous discrepancies in the size of constituencies and precincts (between hundreds of thousands and as few as 1400) which opens the doors to manipulations by the parties which can afford it.

The number of parties, a bit frightening at first glance, may be one of the easier parts of the exercise. First of all, it is much lower than the 235 registered parties in the 1990 election which was won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD but not accepted by the military. Secondly, the ethnic fragmentation of the country is certainly not easy to be overcome by any single party, though many pundits predict that the NLD may win a two-thirds-majority. And finally, Myanmar is in maybe not good but numerous company with its “Multitude-Party-System“:

The parliamentary election tomorrow in Britain, the mother of the two-party-system which worked for nearly a hundred years with the first-past-the-post election system, is being contested by only seven main parties (but seven already), and additionally a multitude of smaller ones as well. The UK has 428 registered parties and Northern Ireland another 36. There are about 800 candidates from minor parties and independents. In other European countries the party systems are similarly expanding or disintegrating, Germany had 34 parties in the 2013 election, etc.

Indonesia, to have a regional comparison, had an inflation of parties after the fall of Suharto. But the country managed to reduce the number of parties admitted to run in 2014 from 46 registered to finally 12 parties qualifying.

There are many reasons to establish a political party. From obvious material interests like state subsidies in many European countries or the license of publishing a profitable newspaper in Egypt to the personal ambition of born or self-declared leaders any combination is possible. Political participation is desirable in terms of democratic principles, but the competition must be regulated in order to make the system governable. Myanmar has progressed in that direction, many say that the November election will be the best in 50 years, so the international community and the Asian neighbors can only wish the country the deserved success.
More information:
The International Crisis Group offers an excellent and downloadable background paper “Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape“, Asia Report No 266, 28 April 2015  (Link here)
For the evolution of Myanmar’s political system see: Moe Thuzar and Zaw Oo in Sachsenröder, Wolfgang (ed), Party Politics in Southeast Asia, Organization – Money – Influence, 2014, ISNB 1493587145 or ISBN-13: 9781493587148, available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble and other online distributors.B&N book

No Freedom To Lead: Aung San Suu Kyi Not Running for President

Partyforumseasia: Allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president in the elections later this year would have changed the whole set up of parliament and government in Myanmar and ended the military control. From their standpoint it is only logical not to change the constitution which bars her from a candidacy. As far fetched as this clause may look, it is preventing a more than likely sweeping victory of the opposition.

Aung San Suu KyiMyanmar’s opposition leader and democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged she will be unable to become her country’s next president after elections later this year, a decision that will disappoint millions of her supporters.
The 69 year-old Nobel laureate will instead seek to chair Myanmar’s parliament where one-third of seats are allocated to the military, according to Aung Shin, a spokesman for her National League for Democracy (NLD).
Ms Suu Kyi has conceded that despite intense lobbying Myanmar’s quasi civilian government will refuse to abolish a constitutional clause barring her from the presidency before the elections that are seen as a crucial test of the country’s move towards a freer and open society after almost 50 years of often-brutal military rule.
The clause specifically directed at Ms Suu Kyi bars anyone from becoming president who has a spouse or child who is a citizen of a foreign country.
Ms Suu Kyi’s late husband was British and their two children hold British passports. Taking the chair in parliament would boost Ms Suu Kyi’s power and likely increase unity among opposition parties.”
See the whole article in The Sidney Morning Herald, LINK here

Myanmar: President Aung San Suu Kyi?

Aung 3Partyforumseasia: The long way from prison and house arrest to the presidential palace seems to open up for democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, “The Lady”. At the same time, her leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD) comes under criticism by former supporters. “Foreign Policy” in its May/June edition (pp 32-34) publishes an article by Min Zin with the telling title “You Can’t Go Home Again”. The author, a former student activist in Burma, is now a journalist based in California. His feelings are nostalgic and disappointed at the same time when he comes back to a changed country: “And the more I spoke with Burma’s intellectuals, with the dissidents who had struggled alongside me so many years ago, what I heard was not simply joy about a country finally opening up to the world (…) but also the striking disappointment, in particular with our beloved Aung San Suu Kyi. (…) Today (…) even among those who love and respect Aung San Suu Kyi, her sainthood appears tarnished by an increasing aloofness and distance from the rest of the political opposition. Her leadership style makes her unapproachable. In the party congress of her National League for Democracy, held in March – the first in more than 20 years – she alone handpicked her central executive committee. But even worse than this worrying authoritarian streak, she seems willing, even eager, to please the former generals at the expense of moral and political principles. One of the most striking examples is her silence on the racist discrimination and violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority…”.
Exile, that shows history everywhere, makes it hard to leave the difficult past behind and see the new reality with open eyes. Many exiles remain bitter and may (often secretly) expect a compensation for their sufferings, one that Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be getting now.
But Min Zin’s question remains valid: What type of party will the NLD be in the next few years and how will The Lady and her handpicked executive committee lead it? The transition from decades as suppressed opposition to ruling a difficult country will not be easy.