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Home / News / World /  Suu Kyi’s election victory masks lingering power of Myanmar army

Bangkok: It’s been a long time coming. Aung San Suu Kyi has been waiting for this for more than a quarter of a century, the jubilant crowds in Yangon and across Myanmar have sensed it over the past weeks of campaigning, and now the electoral commission has confirmed it: Myanmar is returning to democracy.

Yet behind the people chanting Suu Kyi’s name in the streets, the specter of the military remains. Having controlled the Southeast Asian nation for more than five decades, and with its careful opening up to the west in recent years, it’s been preparing for this moment, too.

The armed forces and its political wing, the Union Solidarity and Development party, saw the writing on the wall and took steps to ensure they retain a strong presence throughout the country — from Parliament to the legal system to the economy and even the constitution.

That’s a result of the last time they allowed a full election, in 1990, when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy also triumphed. Then, the army wasn’t ready to cede power. They annulled the result and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the next 20 years. Suppression, sanctions and economic slump were the result.

This time, they were prepared.

“The incumbent USDP party embarked on a transition process knowing that the opposition would likely be able to repeat its 1990 victory," said Herve Lemahieu, a research associate at IISS in London who studies transitional politics and the role of the military in Asia. “Unlike in 1990, when the then military-regime failed to hand over power, this time round key constitutional architects have had several decades to plan."

At midday in Yangon, the election commission’s latest count made it clear: The NLD had won a significant majority, securing 348 seats so far across the two houses of Parliament, enough to choose the next president without needing the backing of another party.

The news will be cheered by Suu Kyi’s supporters, but the task of winnowing away the military’s influence may take decades. How she handles that is important to the foreign investors who have piled into the country and for neighbors like China, Myanmar’s biggest trading partner with a keen interest in the country’s natural resources.

The key to the junta’s foothold is in the constitution it rewrote in 2008. This includes provisions for military influence in Parliament — a guaranteed 25% of seats; a role in choosing the president; a clause that bans Suu Kyi from gaining that position; and the right to seize power again under certain conditions. The constitution can’t be changed without 75% of Parliament’s approval, effectively giving the military a veto.

“These constitutional guarantees are what gives the military the confidence to allow for the return of the NLD into the fold of ‘disciplined democracy,’" said Lemahieu.

Security control

The generals also retain management of the defense, interior and border affairs portfolios, giving them control of the nation’s security apparatus.

“Myanmar’s military machine in 2015 is almost completely insulated from elected civilian control," said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. “Military leaders are still comfortable. The enshrined powers of the military in today’s Myanmar make the 2015 NLD electoral victory still rather superficial in terms of challenging military might."

The civilian government will have little oversight of defense expenses, which amounted to 13% of government spending in 2014 and 4.3% of gross domestic product, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. While Parliament gets to approve the official budget for the Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known, it has no control of off-budget military spending from the sale of natural resources, allowed under a special law.

“The resources of the country remain in the hands of the military and their cronies," said Robert Lieberman, a senior lecturer at Cornell University and the director of the 2012 film “They call it Myanmar," shot clandestinely over a four-year period. “Myanmar is a country rich in natural resources: oil and gas, minerals including jade, rubies and diamonds, plus rich agricultural lands and timber. The big question now is who is going to benefit from the sale of those resources."

Defense corp.

The Tatmadaw, which was founded by Suu Kyi’s father, controls two of the country’s biggest conglomerates, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and the Myanmar Economic Corp., which invest in everything from mining to banking. Both companies are on US blacklists.

“The Tatmadaw has been involved in virtually every part of Myanmar’s economy," Chambers said. With the prospect of the removal of more sanctions and increased investment, “economic growth in Myanmar will make the Tatmadaw much wealthier."

The incoming government will need to “make everybody, including the military, feel that they have a stake in the new future of Myanmar," said Razali Ismail, former United Nations special envoy to Myanmar. “It’s not going to be easy."

Changing economy

Working in their favor is a desire to reform the economy that is shared by supporters on both sides.

After an election in 2010 that the NLD boycotted, the military-backed government led by President Thein Sein opened industries such as energy exploration, banking and telecommunications to foreign participation in a bid to end Myanmar’s economic isolation. It also relaxed controls on media and demonstrations and freed political prisoners.

Foreign direct investment, led by spending on infrastructure and low-cost manufacturing, surged to $8.1 billion in the fiscal year ended in March, more than 20 times the 2010 level. Economic growth has averaged more than 7%.

But just as Suu Kyi’s popularity carried to her party to a landslide win, the likelihood of a push-back by the military may also be down to one individual, former junta chief Than Shwe, who ran the country for almost two decades and is thought to wield power behind the scenes.

“I think it will depend on ‘the king’ whether the current peaceful situation will remain peaceful," said Than Soe Naing, a political analyst. “This is the first step of the long democratic journey." Bloomberg

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