ENAC Briefing No. 15,
5 April 2016
–In the November 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a sweeping victory in Burma. As of last week, the transition from the Thein Sein government to the NLD-led government was finalized when longtime Suu Kyi confidante, Htin Kyaw took the presidential oath of office. But this was only the beginning of NLD’s attempt to consolidate power in a political system that highly favors the military, which seized power in 1962.
Suu Kyi stated soon after the elections that she would still operate as the true leader of Burma, despite being barred from the presidency by the nondemocratic military constitution of 2008. Gradually, Suu Kyi’s official capacity in the new government has become clearer in recent weeks. In late March, the NLD chairwoman was first nominated and confirmed as the cabinet minister for four different portfolios: foreign affairs, the President’s office, education, and electric power and energy. As of April 4th, Suu Kyi renounced the ministerial positions for education and for energy.
As the sole Minister of the President’s Office, a newly consolidated position replacing six ministers, Suu Kyi serves as the official gatekeeper to Htin Kyaw and the presidency, thereby legitimizing her intimate involvement in presidential matters. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, she serves on the powerful National Defence and Security Council, enabling her to influence decisions concerning security and defense issues and engage with Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Finally, Suu Kyi’s predominance is cemented with the novel position of “state counselor.” A special bill specifically appointing her to this position was the first legislative initiative of the new government.
The unprecedented role of the state counselor, according to the bill currently being considered, will be “to help multi-party democracy flourish, to generate a vibrant market economy, to establish a federal Union and to spur peace and development in the Union.” Upon her confirmation as state counselor, Suu Kyi will be officially and legitimately empowered to act decisively on all of the most important issues facing Burma today. Her role as de facto president has been secured by approaching the deeply flawed 2008 Constitution with creativity – subverting its undemocratic principles without directly defying its text. If it works, this approach will establish an effective government without overtly confronting the military.
The questions that remain: What will Suu Kyi and the NLD do in the first 100 days with their mandate and newly consolidated power? How will it address ongoing military offensives against ethnic armed organizations, especially in northern Shan State? Khu Oo Reh, Delegation for Political Negotiation Leader and General Secretary of the UNFC, stated, “Right after assuming office, the government is facing five fronts of grave challenges: national reconciliation and peace; amendment of the 2008 constitution; cooperation with the military; reshuffling ministries’ services, including ambassadors; and fulfilling the expectations and needs of the people as they promised during the general election campaign.”
A new, largely civilian government is now in place in Burma, and it has slowly and successfully consolidated power. Now, we must wait to see how effectively it can work with non-Burman ethnic nationalities and the military to achieve President Htin Kyaw’s inaugural promise to work towards the NLD election manifesto of “national reconciliation, internal peace, pursuing a constitution toward a federal union, and improving the living standards of the majority of the people.”