Myanmar’s new National League for Democracy (NLD) government has got off on the wrong foot in playing to the popularity of its charismatic leader rather than pursuing the fundamentals needed for democracy and the rule of law.
The public mandate dramatically earned in November’s election does not extend to creating a “special” position that enables Aung San Suu Kyi to run the country.
At this historic turning point, after five decades of military dictatorship, the NLD is intent on Suu Kyi holding the reins of civilian power. It is abandoning the usual collective approach of governments in formulating and implementing policy. The Nobel laureate and erstwhile figurehead of Myanmar’s democracy movement has assumed four portfolios – she will serve simultaneously as minister of foreign affairs, education, energy and the president’s office.
Scepticism greeted the announcement that Suu Kyi will attempt to juggle four posts, but nevertheless the NLD last week added to her burden by proposing a bill creating a new one for her, “state counsellor”, equivalent to the rank of prime minister. As a member of the executive branch, Suu Kyi must relinquish her seat in parliament. As state counsellor, though, she could maintain her links with the legislature.
Most disturbingly, the proposed bill actually names Suu Kyi specifically, thus presenting the legal absurdity of a law being enacted to serve a particular person. Among other time bombs, it poses the possibility of a crisis if she were for any reason rendered unable to take up the position.
The bill is necessary, the NLD explains, because the constitution put in place by the military prohibits anyone from becoming president who is a foreigner or has foreign relatives, as is the case with Suu Kyi’s sons. She is legally barred from assuming the presidency, the party says, and thus extraordinary measures were needed to give her the most wide-ranging powers possible.
It is granted that the generals specifically booby-trapped the constitution to block Suu Kyi’s rise to eminence. The NLD acted in line with the law in attempting to remove that restriction but failed due to the military’s lingering grip on the legislature. Appointees in uniform hold an effective veto in parliament, making any constitutional change a long and difficult process.
As a result, Suu Kyi’s close aide Htin Kyaw was nominated as and then elected head of state, leaving her to find other means to honour an election pledge to run the country “from above”. Now, her four portfolios do in fact let her function as president from within the cabinet. As foreign minister she will attend meetings alongside President Htin Kyaw of the National Defence and Security Council. As minister attached to the President’s Office, she becomes Htin Kyaw’s chief of staff, his eyes and ears, his fixer should problems arise in the administration. Her power will be formidable.
Admirers of Suu Kyi and others who hope her elevation will cure Myanmar’s dysfunction should pause to consider what this unusual power arrangement fundamentally represents. It is an ominous direction for governance, a risky precedent, and a muddled line of command, one that leaves the actual president prone to becoming a puppet in the hands of others.
Furthermore, the new bill has ignited conflict with the military. MPs in uniform, who control a quarter of the seats in parliament, have slammed the bill as unconstitutional. The NLD’s majority should allow the bill to pass nevertheless, but a rift has already and unnecessarily been created at such an early point. Myanmar’s future depends to an enormous extent on the cooperation of the generals who ruled in the past, and to disenfranchise them at this fragile stage is hazardous in the extreme.
The NLD surely realises that, in forming Myanmar’s first civilian administration in half a century, it is unprepared to challenge the military, notwithstanding all of Suu Kyi’s political experience. Her bravery and determination are not in question, but they don’t make her Superwoman. Rather than risking confrontation – and the ruination of democratic hopes and ambitions – she and the NLD should be strengthening the foundation for democracy through conventional means, not manipulating the law to adjust power-sharing around a single person.