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Understanding recent political changes in Myanmar.

On 30 March 2011, Myanmar's ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), handed power to a new government led by President Thein Sein that had come into being in the wake of elections held in November 2010. Because all administrative and legislative bodies--both at the central and local levels--were controlled by members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), political activists and Myanmar watchers did not expect more than superficial changes under the new government. Although President Thein Sein mentioned his plan to introduce administrative and economic reforms and to launch an anti-corruption campaign in his inaugural speech doubts remained that the president would actually be able to deliver on his promises. However, on 19 August 2011, to the surprise of many people, President Thein Sein met Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), at his official residence. Two days earlier, the President had invited exiled activists to return to the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi publicly stated that she was very encouraged by her meeting with Thein Sein and that she had trust in his determination to bring about positive political change to the country. (1) The United States and some members of the European Union (EU) welcomed the meeting. On the other hand, several exiled activists had reservations about the sincerity of the President, with some going so far as to say that what Thein Sein had done was little more than a publicity stunt and that there was little difference between the new government and its predecessor.

This article, drawing on interviews with serving and retired government officials, and political activists including leading NLD members, argues that since the new government has taken office a new era of political openness has begun in Myanmar. It goes on to illustrate that in order to understand recent political changes, one should pay attention to shifts in the internal power structure of the government. However, it is not a given that Myanmar will become a full-fledged democracy any time soon. Indeed this article suggests that the country is at a critical juncture, and that the expansion of political openness in the country will depend on whether liberals within the government and those from the pro-democracy movement can work together to further political changes without prompting the country's armed forces, the tatmadaw, to stage a coup.

The Power Structure and Political Change in the SLORC/SPDC Government

The military government that ruled Myanmar between late 1988 and early 2011 was formed in response to the nation-wide pro-democracy movement against the military-dominated socialist government led by General Ne Win. Although the junta, which was initially known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and later renamed the SPDC, held multi-party elections in 1990, it refused to transfer power to the NLD even after the latter had won a landslide victory. Instead, the junta convened a decade long National Convention (NC) to adopt guidelines for a new constitution. Although opposition groups and the international community called for the transfer of power to the NLD, the SLORC ignored these calls. In fact, after the 1990 elections Myanmar's military leaders decided to defer political change for as long as possible. Political activists, on the other hand, continued to campaign for swift political change. As Huntington and many others have pointed out, democratization under an authoritarian regime might take place under the following conditions: when the regime is toppled by a social movement or seriously weakened by a crisis; when reformers from within the regime and liberals from the movement find a way to work together; or when the regime feels that it cannot survive without initiating political reform. (2)

Some activists had hoped for a split in the government and tried to identify liberal officials they could work with. Although factional struggles did take place within SLORC/SPDC, they were never intense enough to split the regime. In addition, no senior members of the military government were prepared to turn their back on the tatmadaw and side with Suu Kyi or any other pro-democracy leaders or groups. In fact, from its inception, the SLORC was dominated by hardliners and officers who were unwilling to work with groups that had toppled its predecessor. The SLORC came into being not because the generals disliked the previous government, but because they were unhappy with the chaos and instability brought about by the pro-democracy movement. Subsequently the SLORC tried to legitimize itself by delegitimizing the pro-democracy movement. In response, opposition groups, especially the NLD, tried to legitimize themselves by delegitimizing the military government. When Suu Kyi and the NLD emerged as the leader of the pro-democracy movement, the generals viewed her and her followers as enemies of the state. The junta then tried to undermine opposition groups by detaining many of its members, including Suu Kyi who was placed under house arrest for more than a decade.

The regime sought to marginalize the opposition. Military officers who had close relatives in the opposition camp were often forced to retire or were denied promotion if they did not openly distance themselves from their activist relatives. Three retired senior government officials noted that no senior military officer would have friendly relations with a member of the opposition. (3) The hostility that NLD members held against the military also made cooperation between the two sides next to impossible. As one senior government official noted:
   We simply did not trust the leaders of the pro-democracy groups.
   They were very hostile to us. We all considered the NLD a
   common enemy. If Suu Kyi became the leader of the country,
   we at that time thought that she could, perhaps unintentionally,
   leak state secrets to her British husband. Some senior officials
   also believed that the NLD-led government could take vengeance
   on us. A leading member of the NLD, Kyi Maung, talked about
   indicting some military leaders at a Nuremberg-style tribunal.
   After the elections in May 1990, General Saw Maung [chairman
   of the SLORC] considered handing power to the NLD but senior
   officers were opposed. When some officials openly said that we
   should not transfer power to the people we did not trust, many
   agreed with them. Some officials said we should at least wait
   for a few more years before we transferred power to the NLD.
   General Saw Maung himself did not appear to be enthusiastic
   about handing power to the NLD. He just wanted to keep his
   promise. When many of his colleagues, including Khin Nyunt,
   were against handing over power to the NLD immediately, he
   went along with them. (4)

Not surprisingly, after the elections, the junta and the opposition groups became increasingly hostile to each other.

In 1992, the Chairman of the SLORC, Senior General Saw Manng, was forced to retire after suffering a nervous breakdown and his Vice-Chairman, Senior General Than Shwe, took over as leader of the government. Than Shwe was a hardliner with the ambition to become Myanmar's paramount leader. He moved to consolidate his position by placing his loyalists in important positions in the government and by practising a policy of divide and rule in dealing with junior colleagues. In 1997 Than Shwe, in collaboration with Deputy Commander-in-Chief Maung Aye and Intelligence Chief and Secretary One of the military council General Khin Nyunt, dismissed several corrupt senior ministers and officials who were senior to him thus allowing Than Shwe to cement his position at the apex of power. Than Shwe was able to maintain his position at the top by playing off Khin Nyunt and Maung Aye against each other. He continued, however, to allow Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt to do their work freely. Maung Aye was responsible for military and economic matters while Khin Nyunt oversaw political affairs and foreign relations.

While undertaking his foreign policy duties, Khin Nyunt had a chance to interact with many foreign government officials and employees of international organizations and non-government organizations (NGOs). This experience persuaded Khin Nyunt that the military had to improve its international image if the government was to remain in power. Khin Nyunt and his associates also tried to convince political activists that if they wished to achieve political liberalization, they should work with the government. The regime then utilized political activists to reach out to Western governments. In so doing, they portrayed themselves as liberal officers who supported democratic reform. In a letter sent to a prominent political activist, a senior intelligence officer asked the addressee to try and convince the US State Department and other Western foreign ministries to work with liberals in the government. (5) Maung Aye introduced reforms within the military in an attempt to increase understanding among the officer corps concerning the problems facing Myanmar. For instance, military officers had to graduate from the National Defence College (NDC) before being promoted to the rank of colonel and above. The trainees at the NDC had to learn how to analyze the problems facing the country from different perspectives.

Despite these changes, however, neither intelligence officers nor graduates of the NDC emerged as Young Turks who were willing to fight for political reform. Although a few intelligence officers appeared to have genuinely liberal views, most only feigned liberal values when meeting with foreigners. Within the military, interviews with ten NDC graduates reveal that officials avoided being identified as liberals, for fear of being branded as supporters of the pro-democracy movement. (6) According to one senior government official: "if we acted like liberals when Senior General Than Shwe was the head of the state, we could have ended up in jail. We simply dare not do anything that would upset the Senior General." (7) Senior government officials responded to the situation by following the three "m rules": ma-lote (not doing anything that upsets Than Shwe), ma-shote (avoiding problems by strictly following the orders of Than Shwe) and ma-pyoke (so that one would avoid losing one's job).

Than Shwe was the final arbiter of whether the government would work with Suu Kyi and the NLD or not. The fact of the matter is that Than Shwe personally disliked Suu Kyi and had absolutely no intention of complying with any of her demands. He would dismiss from the government anyone who openly supported Suu Kyi. In 1995, the government released Suu Kyi from house arrest because they felt they could rule the country without keeping her in detention. In early 2002, Than Shwe met with Suu Kyi not because he wanted to transfer power to the NLD but because he wanted to see if she would support the government. When Suu Kyi refused, Than Shwe thereafter refused to even utter her name, preferring instead to call her ka-la-ma-yar (a derogatory term for the wife of a foreigner, especially Westerner or Indian) or ka-la-ma (female Indian). (8)

Than Shwe also made sure that his subordinates understood that none of them were irreplaceable by taking punitive actions against those who did not follow his orders. The 2004 arrest and imprisonment of Khin Nyunt and many of his associates was the prime example. After Than Shwe fired Khin Nyunt and disbanded the military intelligence apparatus, most officials paid more attention to satisfying Than Shwe than serving the people.

Pro-democracy groups did not sit idly by waiting for cracks to appear in the regime. Ever since 1988, several of them had engaged in armed struggle and organized protests in order to bring down the government. Immediately after the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in late 1988, more than ten thousand young people fled to the border areas and joined the student army, the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), to fight the military regime. Members of the ABSDF fought against the SLORC/SPDC in collaboration with ethnic insurgent groups that had been engaged in armed struggle with the central government since independence. However, student soldiers were no match for the well-armed Tatmadaw. Moreover factional struggles and shortage of funds seriously weakened the ABSDF in the late 1990s and by the beginning of the 2000s it had been reduced to a small, exiled pro-democracy group. (9) Pro-democracy groups also called on Western governments to impose and subsequently tighten sanctions on Myanmar. In addition, activists also tried to shame military officers by publicizing corruption within the tatmadaw and exposing its human rights violations. Several Western countries demonstrated their solidarity with the pro-democracy movement by imposing sanctions on Myanmar after 1988.

Initially, the imposition of sanctions by Western countries significantly reduced the government's income. Subsequently, however, the government was able to circumvent these sanctions, and keep itself financially solvent, through the sale of the country's rich natural resources to China, India and neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia. In addition, attempts by pro-democracy groups to organize social movements proved futile. This was partly because the military government had successfully intimidated the general public by punishing those who participated in anti-government protests. Of the 500 participants of a survey conducted in 2010, only 8 per cent said they would join protests; 80 per cent said they would join the protests only if the government did not suppress them, and 12 per cent said they would not join a protest so long as the military government was in power. (10) Only one major anti-government protest took place under the military government between 1989 and 2010. Even then, the protest, which was initiated by Buddhist monks in 2007 and commonly known as the Saffron Revolution, was subdued by the government within a few weeks. When the Arab Spring protests were gaining momentum in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, some political activists suggested that similar protests might take place in Myanmar. However, of the 350 participants of a survey conducted in early 2011, 330 did not think that similar protests would take place in Myanmar. A large majority of the survey participants attributed the inability to stage Arab Spring-like protests in Myanmar to the absence of a vanguard class. (11)

While the activities of pro-democracy groups did little to undermine the regime's power, they did succeed in tarnishing the government's international image. Pro-democracy groups successfully convinced Western countries and human rights organizations to view the military regime as one of the most repressive governments in the world. (12) However, regardless of the regime's negative image, the generals had enough friends, both internally and externally, to maintain their grip on power. Through the use of their veto power, China and Russia periodically shielded the regime at the United Nations Security Council from Western opprobrium, while fellow ASEAN members and India continued to trade with and invest in Myanmar. Accordingly, the generals managed to minimize the negative effects of Western sanctions.

In the long-term, however, the combined effect of Western sanctions, criticism from the international community, the activities of pro-democracy groups and especially the Saffron Revolution, convinced the generals that they could not rule the country indefinitely without undertaking some political reforms. When the administration of President George W. Bush tightened sanctions against Myanmar following the Depanyin Incident, in which Suu Kyi and her supporters were attacked by pro-government militias in 2003, the junta felt compelled to introduce a "roadmap to disciplined democracy" which, in essence, was a blueprint for political reforms. The SPDC's roadmap plan included drafting a new constitution, gaining public approval for it through a referendum, holding new elections and transferring power to a civilian government. As one senior government official noted:
   Sanctions and protests had made us look like a rogue state.
   Sanctions did not paralyze us. We could continue to rule the
   country for a long time even if Western countries did not lift
   sanctions. We are strong enough to crack down on any domestic
   protests. However, the sanctions hurt people. Even though many
   thought that we did not care about the people, we wanted to do what
   we could for the development of the country. The Senior General
   [Than Shwe] could have remained in power for many more years but he
   knew that for the sake of the country he should go. Our government
   was a de facto government. We knew we would have to introduce
   political changes if we really wanted to develop the country. Of
   course, the activities of the pro-democracy groups affected the way
   the government made decisions. Without the additional sanctions
   that resulted from the Depanyin incident, the roadmap would not
   have been implemented this quickly. At the same time, without the
   additional sanctions that resulted from the monk-led protests, the
   NC would not have been completed this quickly. (13)

Some observers, including some serving government officials, did not consider that Than Shwe was willing to introduce political changes simply for the sake of the country. They assumed that the introduction of reforms was designed to deflect international pressure to allow the government to continue in power. Regardless of the domestic and international pressures to which they were subjected, and no matter what prompted Than Shwe to introduce political changes, the junta remained powerful enough to effect its roadmap to disciplined democracy exactly the way it wanted. The regime succeeded in getting the desired result in the referendum for the new constitution, one that guaranteed the military's continued role in politics. The junta also adopted new laws that made it difficult for opposition groups to contest the elections.

The New Government and the Prospects for Political Liberalization in Myanmar

Than Shwe is reported to have singlehandedly made the decisions on when the elections should be held and who should be in the new government. (14) Even before the November 2010 elections, it was widely assumed that the government would emerge as the winner. In a survey conducted in July 2010, all 500 respondents answered that the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would emerge victorious using any and all methods at its disposal. Therefore, the news that the USDP won 76 per cent of the non-military seats in both the national and state/regional parliaments was unsurprising. In forming the new government, Than Shwe made sure that power was not concentrated in one person or one agency. There are four power centres in the new government. The first power centre is the presidency. Even though the new President is the chief executive, he is known to be simple, honest, quiet and mild-mannered. (15) Although one of the Vice-Presidents, Tin Aung Myint Oo, is known to be aggressive and authoritarian, he is no longer as powerful as when he was Secretary-1 in the SPDC. The second power centre is the parliament. Although some suspected that the parliament would be subordinate to the government, under Shwe Mann's leadership as Speaker, it has evolved into an important check and balance on the executive branch. Shwe Mann was the third highest ranking official in the SPDC government and remained influential even after he became the lower house speaker. A source close to Shwe Mann revealed that the lower house speaker was determined to do everything he could to turn the parliament into an important institution in the country. (16) A well-placed member of the parliament also noted:
   General Shwe Mann was determined to make sure that the parliament
   functioned the way it should. The parliament is supposed to check
   and balance the executive branch. So he and the parliamentary
   oversight committees he created have closely monitored the
   government's activities including the allocation of budget. The
   fact that he was an influential figure in the previous government
   enabled him to run the parliament the way he wanted. (17)

The third power centre is the USDP. When General Than Shwe delivered his farewell speech in March 2011, he reportedly said that power would be transferred to the party. (18) Although President Thein Sein was the chairman of the party at the time of its formation, he had to step down on becoming President, as required by the Constitution. Soon after parliament convened in February 2011, Than Shwe appointed Shwe Mann as vice-chairman of the party. Many former ministers have also been appointed to important positions in the party. Many senior members who were unhappy with not being offered ministerial positions have apparently been trying to promote the role of the party. (19)

The fourth important power centre is the armed forces. The new Constitution guarantees the military representation in both the national and regional parliaments, as well as in the government. (20) While the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is a member of the National Security Council, he has full control over military and border affairs. (21) In times of national emergency, the commander-in-chief can also exercise executive power.

After the formation of the new government with Thein Sein as President, few observers were optimistic that genuine reforms would occur. Indeed in its first 100 days most political activists expressed disappointment with the government's performance. However, the developments that have taken place since July 2011 have taken many by surprise. In mid-July 2011, the President met with community and business leaders and requested that they work with the government. The discussions between the President and community leaders during those meetings were very candid. Thein Sein listened to the participants carefully and implemented some of their suggestions. For instance, on 18 August 2011, government newspapers dropped all propaganda statements that had been carried on the back pages for more than a decade after civil society activists had advised the President to do so during a meeting with members of civil society groups. More importantly, on the following day, the President met with Suu Kyi at the presidential palace and discussed areas in which they could cooperate with each other. A few months after he was appointed President, Thein Sein reportedly renovated an old house where Suu Kyi used to live with her parents. At the meeting the President reportedly gave a photograph album of the house to Suu Kyi. (22) He later passed a message to her through an intermediary that if she wanted her two sons to live in Myanmar, he was willing to grant them long-term visas. A day after the meeting with Thein Sein, Sun Kyi attended a conference on macroeconomic reforms in Naypyidaw. Although she initially planned to leave the conference early, she was invited to a tea reception during the break and was seated at a table that was reserved for senior officials, a hitherto unthinkable event that was widely interpreted within Myanmar as indicative of a new relationship between the government and Suu Kyi. Subsequently, senior government officials openly indicated that they would welcome Suu Kyi and the NLD into parliament. (23)

Further evidence suggests that the new government is different from its predecessor. Although Myanmar is still at the early stages of democratization, civil society groups now function more freely. President Thein Sein publicly noted that the government would work with civil society organizations to undertake poverty alleviation programmes, even though most of them are not properly registered with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Furthermore, local private news journals and magazines are now allowed to publish political articles that denounce authoritarian rule. For instance, the editor of Pyithukhit, a news journal, wrote in an editorial published in September 2011, "We want authoritarian rule no more." (24) The censorship board has also allowed local journals to publish articles written by Suu Kyi. Further evidence of change was provided by the suspension of the Myitsone dam project, which the SPDC implemented in collaboration with the China Power Investment Corporation in 2009. Although the project came under heavy criticism from the outset because of its negative environmental impact, the new government seemed to be determined to proceed with the project. However, when controls over the media were loosened in late 2011, many environmental activists called on the government to cancel the project. On 30 September 2011, the President informed parliament that in response to public concerns, the government had decided to suspend the project. (25) Thanks to this suspension, many citizens have come to view President Thein Sein as a leader who is willing to pay attention to popular concerns. In a survey conducted in April 2012, 89 per cent said they considered President Thein Sein to be an accountable leader after the suspension of the Myitsone dam project. (26)

Additional evidence of concrete political change in the country is that the second parliamentary session which was held on 22 August 2011, was quite different from the previous session in February 2011. The February parliamentary session was held by the SPDC under the supervision of Than Shwe, while the August sessions were held under the new government. In the latter sessions members of parliament were allowed to raise questions more freely and ministers responded with well prepared answers. To the surprise of many, the parliament voted in favour of granting a general amnesty to prisoners, a motion supported by delegates from the tatmadaw. (27)

On 5 January 2012, the government amended the political party registration law and the election law in order to make it possible for Suu Kyi to contest future elections. Two weeks later, NLD leaders decided to register the party with the election commission. In April, the NLD contested and won a landslide victory in the by-elections. Aung San Suu Kyi and some of her colleagues are no longer mere anti-government activists: they are now parliamentarians. By the middle of January 2012, the government had released all prominent political prisoners. Furthermore, the new administration has promised national reconciliation and to that end resumed peace talks with all ethnic armed groups. Since it came to power the government has managed to sign ceasefire agreements with most major ethnic groups and has been holding political dialogues with all ceasefire groups to resolve ethnic political problems. Several ethnic leaders have expressed their optimism about achieving sustainable peace in the country. (28)

Although Myanmar has yet to become a fully-fledged democracy, many citizens, political activists and even Western governments have now accepted that the new administration has provided more political space to the country's citizens and opposition groups, and that further political liberalization is possible. President Barack Obama not only sent Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to Myanmar to improve bilateral relations with the country but also urged other authoritarian countries to follow the Myanmar model. Senior officials from several other Western governments including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada and Scandinavian countries, have visited Naypyidaw since late 2011 to witness at first hand the political transition. The EU has rewarded Myanmar by suspending most of the sanctions it had imposed on the country. The United States, on the other hand, maintained most of the sanctions but President Obama has decided to restore normal diplomatic relations with Myanmar by appointing an ambassador to Myanmar for the first time in nearly two decades. The Obama administration also lifted restrictions on humanitarian assistance to Myanmar in April 2012 and a ban on investment in Myanmar in May 2012. The pace and scope of political change in Myanmar has taken many by surprise, even members of the new administration. Some senior officials have argued that Senior General Than Shwe would not have approved many of the changes that have taken place. A senior government official even noted:
   Most members of the government would not have expected that
   political development in the country would turn out to be the way
   it has. We were all part of the government mainly because the
   Senior General chose us. The president [Thein Sein] did not think
   that he would be the president until the last minute. The president
   is a nationalist who wishes to do what he can for the country but
   he did not have any concrete blue print as to how he would run the
   country. At the outset, he must have mainly thought about what the
   old man [Than Shwe] wanted him to do. (29)

The political reforms which have taken place since Thein Sein became President indicate that the government is beholden to no one, including Than Shwe, who has not tried to influence events from behind the scenes. Meetings between ministers and Than Shwe have been infrequent since the new government took office, apparently at the latter's request. (30) It remains unclear why Than Shwe has decided to depart the political scene altogether, though some sources have suggested that he might have drawn lessons from the demise of authoritarian leaders during the Arab Spring. (31) Irrespective of what his reasons are, his absence has changed the political landscape of the country. For instance, a group of senior government officials who call themselves liberals have emerged. They have openly stated that the country's political and economic problems cannot be resolved without undertaking further political and economic liberalization. (32) They have also stated that the government must find ways to work with NLD leader Suu Kyi. Although the number of openly liberal officials is small, a well-placed source noted that about 30 per cent of the cabinet wants the government to undertake further political and economic reforms quickly while about an equal number want the pace of reform to be gradual. (33)

Liberal government officials were guarded in their comments in the first few months following the transfer of power. Some of them noted privately that they had always held liberal views but had remained silent during the Than Shwe era. After the transfer of power, they had expected many changes in the way the government operated but were apparently frustrated with some senior government officials who wanted to maintain the status quo. They were particularly unhappy with the fact that Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo intervened in the activities of all ministries, even though the President had promised that all ministers would be able to carry out their responsibilities freely. (34) Some liberal officials informed the President that they would resign if the government's performance did not improve. The President reportedly asked them not to resign but to stay on and advise him on how the government should be run. Both liberal and hardline officials apparently tried to influence the President. The liberals advised Thein Sein to regularly meet civil society activists and community leaders and to be proactive in dealing with the country's problems. The liberals also tried to convince the President that dealing with Suu Kyi would not harm his presidency. (35) The hardliners, on the other hand, wanted the government to function like its predecessor and keep the NLD at arms length.

President Thein Sein himself has never claimed to be a liberal but has always had a reputation for being honest. The President has publicly admitted the daunting political and economic problems facing the country and has acknowledged the important role of Suu Kyi. His recent policy decisions suggest that he has sided with the liberal camp in most cases. Due to encouragement from liberal officials, the President met with community leaders and Suu Kyi. The foreign exchange rate crisis and other economic problems that have taken place since he took office have reminded the President that maintaining the status quo was not an option. Positive comments made by EU and US diplomats and politicians, and by Suu Kyi and civil society activists, on his efforts to work with the opposition and civil society organizations also appear to have reinforced the President's determination to enact further political changes and work more closely with liberal officials. In his first state of the union speech to the country, Thein Sein proudly noted the endorsement the international community has given to his reform programmes and promised that the reforms would not be reversed. (36)

The positions of liberal officials were consolidated when the speaker of the lower house, Shwe Mann, began to promote democracy in the parliament in late 2011. A member of the lower house noted:
   We (members of the USDP) also want democracy as well. However,
   those of us who worked under highhanded generals did not have
   the courage to talk about democracy freely, let alone call for the
   government to be more accountable and transparent. When our
   speaker began to promote democracy in the parliament, we also
   came to have the courage to promote democracy ourselves. We can
   now talk about liberalization without having to worry too much
   about the reactions of hardliners in the government. (37)

Shwe Mann was always known to be more liberal than most other senior officials in government. However, like other senior government officials, he was cautious about what he said or did in the first three months after the transfer of power. Starting in August 2011, Shwe Mann began to act like a liberal more openly. When leading members of the USDP called for the arrest of a prominent community leader who tried to work both with the government and the NLD in early 2012, Shwe Mann denounced the action by saying that citizens can interact with any legal political groups freely under the new political system and that if any USDP members could not adjust themselves to the new political environment they should retire from politics. (38) As a person who used to supervise all activities in the tatmadaw during the last five years of the SPDC's rule, he still commands strong support within the armed forces, including from the commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. The commander-in-chief, who is also a member of the National Security and Defense Council, (39) has reportedly told colleagues that he will not stage a coup or undermine the democratization process by invoking emergency powers. (40) Since June 2011, Shwe Mann has actively participated in meetings of the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) which is made up of eleven high-level officials including the President, Vice-Presidents and service chiefs. The NDSC meets three times a week to discuss all major issues facing the country. Since then he has repeatedly said in parliamentary speeches and to the press that he is fully committed to democratic reforms in the country. Shwe Mann's presence in parliament as lower house speaker and as the vice-chairman of the USDP has also prevented hardliners in parliament and the party from undermining the liberalization process.

Notwithstanding the positive trends, the democratization process in Myanmar still has a long way to go. In particular, there remain significant political problems between the government and NLD. First, neither side has a clear understanding of how they should cooperate with each other. Although liberals in the government acknowledge the importance of Suu Kyi in national politics, they are not yet strong enough to sideline the hardliners who are reluctant to work with her. In addition, the liberals in the government mainly want to work with Suu Kyi, and do not trust other NLD leaders. Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders seem to think that some liberal officials might switch to their side if the opportunity presents itself. The fact of the matter is that although most liberal officials accept Suu Kyi as a respectable public political figure and are willing to work with her, most of them are not willing to work under her. Some senior government officials were quite unhappy with Suu Kyi and the NLD when the latter pressured EU governments to provide development assistance through their party. What the President and ministers wanted was for Suu Kyi to cooperate with the government in running developmental programmes, not to take charge of them. A senior official noted:
   Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues should mainly try
   to make the government more accountable and transparent. The
   NLD should not act like an alternative government. If she talks
   down the government by taking the moral high ground, it will
   be difficult for the President to meet her regularly and convince
   many hardliners to work with the NLD." (41)

For their part, Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders seem to have adopted the position that since they have helped the government to win legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, the government should allow their party to function freely. They therefore were very upset with the government, when local governments did not allow them to use a sports stadia to hold public meetings. On the whole, although the government and Suu Kyi have expressed their respect for and the desire to work with each other, they have not found a modus operandi to achieve this.

It also appears that some local governments still do not want to work with Suu Kyi and the NLD. Many senior local government officials did not want Suu Kyi to campaign for the by-elections in their regions. As a result, the NLD has had difficulty finding venues for public meetings. In addition, some hardline members in parliament, as well as some senior local government officials, did not want the NLD to win in their respective regions. As member of the lower house (who is also a well-connected businessman) noted:
   Some members of parliament still cannot accept the NLD winning
   most of the seats in the by-elections. Even if the NLD won all the
   seats, it would not still be able to form a government. Their ego
   might make them do improper things in the up-coming elections.
   This would be bad for the image of the government. (42)

Although the President noted that he would reach out to groups that did not support the 2008 Constitution, he was not clear about how he would react to their demands. NLD leaders, on the other hand, have continued to make statements suggesting that foreign investors should exercise caution. The ultimate goal of the NLD is to achieve the right to form a government led by its leaders. Therefore, there is still a significant gap between what it hopes to achieve and what the new administration is prepared to accept. For instance, not every minister welcomed Suu Kyi's participation in the conference on macroeconomic reforms in August 2011. A hardline minister was reportedly upset with his colleagues for graciously escorting Suu Kyi to the dining hall. Instead of joining his colleagues in the dining room, the minister went back to his office. (43) Similarly, many ministers who were in the dining room sat at a different table. Exhibiting much discomfort, they stayed away from Suu Kyi throughout the reception. Collectively they could become a formidable political force that could derail the ongoing political reformation.

There are also some hardliners in the pro-democracy movement who are impatient with what they perceive as the slow pace of reform. They have persistently called for the renewal of sanctions against the country and the formation of a Commission of Inquiry into the government's human rights record. Their hardline activities could cause instability in the country, which could in turn give the tatmadaw a pretext to launch a coup. Although relations between the government and ethnic armed groups have improved quite significantly since late 2011, the latter have complained that political liberalization undertaken by the new administration has not yet affected areas under their control. (44) In addition, if Suu Kyi were forced to take sides, she would be more likely to take the side of the ethnic minority groups. Such a situation would enable hardliners to pressure the President to take a tougher position against the NLD.

Another problem is that although Than Shwe has not interfered in the political process since he handed power to the new government, future interventions cannot be ruled out. There has been speculation that some former ministers who are uncomfortable with recent political changes requested that Than Shwe return to politics and lead the USDP. Than Shwe apparently did not react to their request. (45) However, no one can be sure that he will always decline such an invitation in the future. There is also a rumour that some leading members of the USDP tried to slow down the pace of the reform by stating that Than Shwe had expressed opposition to some of the reforms undertaken by Thein Sein's government. Apparently hardliners in both the USDP and the government have invoked his name in an effort to derail the reform process. A recently retired senior government official warned that those who wish to see political reforms in Myanmar should not do anything that would cause the return of the Senior General to power. (46) Accordingly, therefore, the President has also been cautious in dealing with some political issues that could upset hardliners and provoke Than Shwe. On the whole, Myanmar still has a long way to go before it can achieve genuine democracy.

Finally, although both the President and lower house speakers have been trying to promote democracy in the country, there may be a power struggle underway between the two men. The lower house speaker and his colleagues appear to enhance the legitimacy of their institution by trying to act as a check and balance on the executive branch. They have created several oversight committees to check the accountability of the cabinet and the bureaucracy. Because they are very used to working freely under the military government, the presidential office does not seem to appreciate the actions taken by the legislative branch. The President requested that the constitutional court make a decision on the powers of the oversight committees established by the lower house. These developments have strained relations between the President's office and the lower house speaker. Generally speaking, a dispute between the executive and legislative branches would be good for democratization. However, at this critical juncture in Myanmar, the disputes between pro-democracy groups could enable hardliners to consolidate their positions in the government.


Since the new government took power in 2011, the citizens of Myanmar have enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than at any time since the military seized power in 1962. However, obviously Myanmar is by no means a full-fledged democracy. The absence of a rigid paramount leader who opposes reconciliation with Suu Kyi, the challenges posed by serious economic problems and positive responses from Western countries and pro-democracy leaders in Myanmar, especially Suu Kyi, have allowed liberals in the government to work together for the further liberalization of the country's political system. However, the situation remains quite uncertain and fragile. There still are hardliners in both camps who are unsatisfied with the pace of reforms. Hardliners from the government think that the pace of reforms is too fast while the hardliners from the pro-democracy movement feel that they are too slow. Both groups could still generate instability in the country, prompting a military coup. Myanmar is truly at a crossroads. A liberal official recently wrote, "It is cooperation between all sections of the society--not confrontation--that will allow this country to have the political changes which everyone in the country wishes to see." (47)

DOI: 10.1355/cs34-2c


(1) "Burma's pro-democracy leader encouraged by meeting with the president", Voice of America, 19 August 2011, < asia/Burmas-Democracy-Leader-Encouraged-by-Meeting-With-President_128118188. html>.

(2) Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), p. 114.

(3) Interviews with seven retired military officers, June 2008-October 2011, Yangon, Myanmar.

(4) Interview with a retired a senior government official, 10 July 2009.

(5) A former exile activist who was working with some intelligence officers at that time showed the author a copy of the letter in late 2005.

(6) Interviews with ten NDC graduates, 2008-11.

(7) Interview with a senior government official, 15 July 2011.

(8) Interview with a retired military officer, Yangon, Myanmar, 3 March 2008.

(9) David Halon, "Whatever happened to the ABSDF?", <>.

(10) This survey was conducted by a group of young Myanmar research assistants under the supervision of the author.

(11) This survey was conducted by the author in March 2012.

(12) US State Department, "2010 Human Rights Report: Burma", <http://www.state. gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/eap/154380.htm>.

(13) Interview with a senior government official, 13 July 2011.

(14) Interview with a senior government official, Naypyidaw, Myanmar, 15 December 2012.

(15) "The British PM to Visit Burma", Agence France Presse, 10 April 2012.

(16) Interview with a well-connected community leader, Yangon, Myanmar, 1 May 2012.

(17) Personal communication, 30 May 2012.

(18) Personal communication, 29 April 2011.

(19) Interview with a retired senior government official, 11 October 2011.

(20) The Constitution of the Union of Myanmar (Yangon, Government Press, 2008), p. 148.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Personal communication, 12 October 2011.

(23) "No objection to parliament bid", Radio Free Asia, 20 September 2011, <http://,,,MMR,,4e8589dac,O.html>.

(24) Maung Wuntha, "ar-na-shin-sa-nit-ko-a-lo-ma-shi-ba" [We want authoritarian rule no more], Bamahkit Weekly News Journal, 11 October 2011, p. 3.

(25) For a full account of the Myitsone dam issue see Ian Storey, "Burma and China: The Beginning of the End of Business as Usual?", China Brief XI, issue 22, 30 November 2011, < ttnews% 5Btt_news% 5D=38718&tx_ttnews% 5BbackPid% 5D=25&cHash=4eb55cda 9bfa924d162c24686c90f2b9>.

(26) This survey was conducted by the author.

(27) Burma's Parliament called for release of political prisoners, The Telegraph, 27 August 2011.

(28) BBC, "Burma Government Signs ceasefire with Karen Rebels", 12 January 2012, <>.

(29) Personal communication, 29 January 2012.

(30) Personal communication, 21 August 2011.

(31) Ibid.

(32) Personal communication with five senior government officials, 18 June-5 October 2011.

(33) Interview with a member of the Phythu Hluttaw (lower house of the parliament), 22 March 2011.

(34) Interview with a senior government official, 10 October 2011.

(35) Ibid.

(36) "President Thein Sein's State of the Union Address to the Parliament", The New Light of Myanmar, 2 March 2012, p. 1.

(37) Interview with a member of the lower house of parliament, Yangon, Myanmar, 27 June 2012.

(38) Personal communication with an adviser to the lower house speaker, 11 January 2012.

(39) The National Security and Defense Council is the most powerful government agency that meets three times a week to make decisions for all security-related issues. The council is made up of eleven members including the President, the two Vice-Presidents, speakers of the two houses of the parliament, ministers of defence, home affairs, border affairs, and foreign affairs, commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief.

(40) Interview with a well-placed businessman, 23 August 2011.

(41) Personal communication, 16 January 2012.

(42) Personal communication, 24 February 2012.

(43) As a participant of the conference, the author personally witnessed the event.

(44) Interviews with five ethnic community leaders, Yangon, Myanmar, October 2011March 2012.

(45) Interview with a well-placed community leader, Yangon, Myanmar, 10 April 2012.

(46) Personal communication, 12 August 2011.

(47) "Understanding Political Development in Burma", Bangkok Post, 27 September 2011.

KYAW YIN HLAING is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.
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Author:Hlaing, Kyaw Yin
Publication:Contemporary Southeast Asia
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9MYAN
Date:Aug 1, 2012
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