Public spat before election in Myanmar underscores continuing military-civilian tussle

  • Myanmar
  • Sunday, 08 Nov 2020

The latest poll in Myanmar will ultimately still be about determining the balance of power between the military and civilian politicians. - AFP

BANGKOK, Nov 8 (The Straits Times/ANN): Myanmar goes to the polls on Sunday (Nov 8) for the third time since the military loosened its iron grip on power.

While some among the over 5,000 candidates have tried to talk policy, the unprecedented public spat over the past week between the military and civilian government - which swept into office after the election five years ago - has only reinforced the sentiment that the latest poll will ultimately still be about determining the balance of power between the military and civilian politicians.

Buttressed by the 25 per cent of parliamentary seats reserved for the military under the Constitution, its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party is the only real challenger to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, to form a government.

Both parties are now fighting on similar turf as the NLD aligns itself with nationalist sentiments to strengthen its appeal in the Bamar heartland even at the expense of alienating ethnic minorities in the process.

The NLD won 255 seats out of the 330 at stake in the Lower House five years ago, as well as 135 of the 168 available seats in the Upper House. It is expected to bag the most seats again, though may have a harder time trying to reach the supermajority it sealed the last time.

Occupying more than half of all seats is still not enough to amend the junta-crafted Constitution. Yet the NLD government tried anyway just before this election - forcing the military-appointed lawmakers to exercise their veto power in public view.

Former President and USDP chairman Thein Sein, canvassing for the the party, proffered an olive branch of sorts recently when he voiced support for amending charter to meet people's aspirations for a federal democracy. But Myanmar first needs a "unity government" formed through "national reconciliation", he was quoted as saying in local media.

Any notion of such civilian-military rapprochement was demolished over the past week by commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing's last-minute tirade against the election commission and government, which sparked an equally robust comeback from the presidential office.

Through public statements and a media interview, the military chief slammed the election body's alleged "weakness and deficiencies" and called the government to take "complete responsibility for all the intentional and unintentional mistakes of the commission". He did not commit to accepting the election results.

The Presidential Office called the senior general's comments inappropriate and unconstitutional - prompting the military to issue a veiled warning about presidential impeachment.

Trying to lower tensions, Suu Kyi asked supporters to stay calm.

Democracy is not perfect, she said in a video uploaded online, but it was better compared to other systems. Likening the election to a laden mango tree with just three or four bad fruits, she said: "The support of the people is important. We have to try to plant a big tree in a safe, secure and right place."

Yet the outburst was remarkable, pushing into the limelight a key aspect of governance in Myanmar largely played out behind the scenes.

"Even though the Tatmadaw and NLD did not have a good relationship, there has never been such a public display of displeasure between the two," said Dr Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security. The Tatmadaw is the local term for the military.

Despite its much publicised shortcomings, the election agency was quick to act against the military's mouthpiece, +Myawady Daily, when it published in August the senior general's views on how voters should select candidates.

He had suggested voting for people who could protect race and religion - which violated election rules against the two issues to mobilise support.

Five years after the NLD's first victory, the military's shadow continues to loom large on voters' minds.

"The main concern of the voters is not to give the military more power. They don't want military supremacy in politics," says Ms Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, deputy director of research at Yangon-based Institute for Strategy and Policy. "The culture of policy debate is still at a very nascent stage. Rather than policy issues, the idea of 'us' and 'them' appears to have more influence on the voters."

A second-term NLD government will "continue to walk the fine line in terms of its relationship with the military; it will hesitate to challenge the military's enduring grip on politics and the economy," says Mr Dereck Aw , Singapore-based senior analyst at Control Risks consultancy.

Yet the slow-burning tussle between the two sides will also continue, say analysts.

Like South Korea, Singapore and the United States, Myanmar is holding an election in the middle of the raging Covid-19 pandemic. Turnout was high during early voting arranged for older citizens.

Dr Min Zaw Oo suggests the Tatmadaw's public rebuke was a warning to the election commission against siding with the NLD in disputes which may arise after the election.

On Friday, the election sub-commission's office in Bago region north of Yangon was hit by an explosion. Though no one was injured, the attack - and the Tatmadaw's warning - have introduced an air of uncertainty to a relatively subdued election.

It helped to underscore how fragile Myanmar's democratic transition remains. - The Straits Times/Asian News Network
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Myanmar , Polls , Many Issues , Military , Public , Spat


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