September 18 marks the 25th anniversary of the last military takeover in Myanmar in 1988. That was the third major military intervention in the country’s political history since its independence. At that time, the country was still officially called Burma. The government changed it to Myanmar the following year.
The military’s first intervention was in 1958 when civilian prime minister U Nu invited the military to form a caretaker government, stabilize the country and hold general elections. The then army commander-in-chief General Ne Win acted as interim prime minister.
The military’s second major intervention was in 1962. Unlike the first intervention, it was a coup that ousted the democratically elected government. Prime Minister U Nu was arrested along with his cabinet members and the national parliament was dissolved, with Ne Win again assuming power.
The 1988 military takeover marked the end of Ne Win’s authoritarian regime and the emergence of a new generation of military leaders in Myanmar politics. How this political transition took place is key to understanding the present dominant role of military in politics.
There is a clear pattern of how the military transformed itself from one form to another. First, the military ruled the country under the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), then as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) with its official political party, the National Unity Party (NUP).
The SLORC government then transformed into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) with its political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The SPDC was formally dissolved on March 30, 2011, after the inauguration of a new government led by President Thein Sein of the USDP on March 29, 2010.
Despite the military’s successive transformations, there has not been a real power shift. The present government was established in accordance with the 2008 constitution, drafted by delegates selected by the military government.
Myanmar politics is shaped by the outcome of the 2010 general elections and the 2012 by-elections. In the 2010 elections, the USDP won in a landslide victory. In the 2012 by-elections, except for the disqualified candidate in northwestern Sagaing Region, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 out of 44 seats it contested.
Despite the NLD’s overwhelming electoral victory in the by-elections, the combined strength of all opposition groups in parliament remains an insignificant force when it comes to challenging or threatening the USDP-led government.
All three branches of government—executive, legislative and judiciary—are dominated by former military generals and the military-backed USDP members. Some of the significant privileges of the military are the reservation of 25% of seats in parliament without election, the power to dismiss government in case of national emergency, and the requirement of more than 75% of votes in parliament for any constitutional amendment.
Moreover, all security-related ministerial portfolios such as defense, home affairs and border affairs are held by members of the USDP. The National Defense and Security Council is the most powerful executive branch of government, as enshrined in the 2008 constitution.
The 2008 charter also ensures immunity for military generals for their past actions and human rights violations.
In July this year, the parliament formed a 109-member committee to review some of the major concerns about the country’s constitution in view of the upcoming general elections in 2015.
The committee includes lawmakers from the NLD, USDP and representatives from the 25% of seats allotted to the military. The committee, among others, attempts to address two pressing electoral concerns—removing or modifying the clause that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the country’s president, and allowing states to choose their own chief ministers.
The committee will submit a report on its findings to the parliament before December 31.
Despite the ongoing tangible democratic reforms, it is still too early to suggest that the process is irreversible. The government has reached ceasefire agreements with the majority of armed groups, but there is no guarantee of an amicable political settlement with ethnic minorities on the question of autonomy.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that the present quasi-civilian government will amend the 2008 constitution to remove the inherent role of military in politics. There is uncertainty whether the 2015 elections will be held in a free and fair manner. There is also no guarantee that the constitutional reservation of 25% of parliament seats for the military will be amended.
There is every reason to be optimistic about the democratic reforms. But given the nature of Myanmar’s historical problems and the inherent role of military in politics, there are also reasons to be concerned about long-term solutions.
Though it is still premature to predict the possible outcomes of the constitution review committee and how the military-backed USDP will approach the 2015 general elections, one thing however is certain – the military intends to remain an inherent element and play a vital role in Myanmar politics, at least for the foreseeable future.
A version of this article first appeared in The National newspaper, based in Abu Dhabi.