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How Myanmar's presidency will be won (part 2)

How Myanmar's presidency will be won (part 2)
Published 19 Dec 2014 

In my previous post, I discussed using the Presidential Electoral College (PEC; comprised of three groups of MPs: one from each house and one composed of military members) as a way of monitoring lobbying efforts of presidential candidates in the lead-up to the 2015 elections. In this post, I examine the issues facing four likely candidates in winning the support of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces), which remains one of the most powerful institutions in Myanmar. Since one-third of the PEC positions are assigned to military MPs, this makes it an important group to win over. 

Aung San Suu Kyi remains ineligible for the presidency and this appears unlikely to change before the 2015 elections. However, it is still useful to examine the issues she faces in gaining support, as these may apply to other civilian candidates.

Aung San Suu Kyi saw the value of earning the Tatmadaw's support after formally entering politics, making favourable comments as part of her courting ritual. She also likes reminding people of her father's role as the 'founder of the Tatmadaw', another way of creating an affinity.

It is unclear how the Tatmadaw views Aung San Suu Kyi, but some reports suggest that feelings towards her remain mixed. It is also likely that the Tatmadaw does not take a favourable view of her party, the NLD, and particularly its lobbying to change the constitution. Nonetheless, the Tatmadaw would probably prefer a candidate that it was familiar with and who didn't threaten its authority. It is hard to see the Tatmadaw warming to any civilian candidates (without a military background) without some assurances that the Tatmadaw's position would not be jeopardised.  [fold]

Moreover, despite claims otherwise, there appears to be no clear succession planning within the NLD, nor are there any likely leadership candidates beyond Aung San Suu Kyi. This might also concern the Tatmadaw. Specifically, it is unclear what would happen if Aung San Suu Kyi was elected president and became incapacitated during the term and therefore unable to control the NLD. Without Aung San Suu Kyi's autocratic leadership and direction, the NLD may struggle to agree on a substitute for her. Moreover, the Tatmadaw may have concerns about the NLD being the majority in parliament and not having Aung San Suu Kyi to ensure cohesion. 

By contrast, former military officials are familiar and generally trusted. For example, Shwe Mann rose to the position of Joint Chief of Staff of the Tatmadaw before assuming the position of the Speaker of Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house of parliament). He was also awarded the honorific title of 'Thura' for bravery during his military service, namely in combat against the Karen National Liberation Army. This history ensures some affinity with Tatmadaw officers, especially those who served with him. 

While in parliament, he has not openly challenged the Tatmadaw or its authority, while carefully balancing public demands for constitutional changes. He even stated he wanted to prohibit criticism of the Tatmadaw in parliament.

But Shwe Mann faces a challenge from Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and President U Thein Sein. Min Aung Hlaing is due to retire soon and has raised his public profile  by conducting numerous international visits, public relations campaigns in local media and holding press conferences. 

Min Aung Hlaing's current role as the current Commander-in-Chief appears to have garnered him support for the presidency, suggesting that the Tatmadaw may want him as a leader more than Shwe Mann. But while Min Aung Hlaing appears to be the front-runner for the Tatmadaw's support, this does not necessarily mean it will vote him in as president. Having him as a vice president still gives the Tatmadaw some assurances and influence.

Despite his apparent reluctance to serve again, Thein Sein still poses a threat to other contenders for the Tatmadaw's support. He is a known quantity in terms of his military background, having served previously as prime minister and currently as president. Thein Sein has not presented a threat to the Tatmadaw during his term, even in some cases appearing unable or unwilling to control it. In public speeches he has continued to reinforce the role and importance of the Tatmadaw in politics and the political transition. 

Thein Sein is also a presentable international face for Myanmar and its reforms, and the Tatmadaw likely sees the value of again having a reformist president at the helm, even if just initially. Moreover, appointing a recently retired military figure such as Min Aung Hlaing may not be the image the Tatmadaw wants to create straight after the elections. 

To sell stability and continuity, Thein Sein is a strong candidate for the Tatmadaw's support, even if he did not want to serve a full term. This would also enable the Tatmadaw to ensure Min Aung Hlaing could assume the vice presidency and, if Thein Sein stepped aside, possibly the presidency.

The Tatmadaw's influence cannot be understated. If the Tatmadaw wants to ensure continuity for its reforms, it can and may take measures to ensure parliament's composition is balanced in its favour beyond the 25% military contingent. This would then affect the composition of the civilian contingent of parliament and the PEC.

In the PEC, the Tatmadaw is likely to vote for the candidate it sees as best serving its interests, while also seeing the value in a non-military face as the next president.

Photo by Flickr user Ilmarl hyvonen.

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