February 23, 2021 by Covenant Consult

Failed Communication in Burmese Politics and the Need of Mediation

On February 10, the Myanmar Times spoke about the formation on a “negotiation team” to prepare for talks between the military and the National League of Democracy (NLD) after the declaration of a state of emergency by Tatmadaw leadership on February 1. On that day, the new parliament was to take their positions, as they were elected on November 8, 2020 in the third general elections under the provisions of the Tatmadaw-designed constitution of 2008. Regardless of the success of the initiative, the news confirmed the assessment by many analysts that the military’s action – called by most observers a coup d’etat – was preceded by a severe failure in communication between Aung San Suu Kyi, heading the NLD and the civil wing of the government as State Councillor and Sr.-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Supreme-Commander of the armed forces who – according to his announcement – took over as government head for a period of one year when the next elections would be held.

The communication issues were caused in relation to the claims of the Tatmadaw leadership and two parties close to it that there were irregularities during the election process that had to be investigated, since the new parliament was convened to begin, with the election of a new presidential team. The elections had been won convincingly by the NLD by an even -greater margin than five years previously. Numerically however, the changes were insignificant – the NLD just won three more eats both in the House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw) and the House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw) each, with the USDP losing four seats in both chambers. The USDP had won the majority in 2010 in the absence of the NLD, which boycotted the polls because of the “undemocratic” substance of the 2008 constitution drafted by the military.

The military did not claim that the alleged fraud might have led to a fundamental change in the distribution of seats. Rather, that its investigation had shown many flaws in the voters lists prepared by the Union Election Commission appointed by the civilian wing of the government. The November elections thus had not changed the power balance between the civilian party and the Tatmadaw, which still commanded the greatest opposition bloc in all parliament, with 25% of members appointed by Min Aung Hlaing with great sway given to the military in the constitution.

Given these facts, a failed compromise on how to deal with the Tatmadaw’s allegation might have caused the military to take over all government functions as a reaction to a lack of respect paid to its perceived role of the “father of the nation” by Aung San Suu Kyi whose elections victories since 2012 – preceded by the result of the 1990 polls – prove that she is seen as the “mother of the nation” by the great majority of the people of Myanmar. In view of the personality-centered character of Myanmar politics, the recent coup might be regarded as a failure of the two parents of the country to reach a compromise in dealing with the father’s allegation about an election process supervised by the mother. If that would be the case some kind of mediation might be helpful.

II. Personal Antagonism and its Consequences

It can hardly be proven that such a personal communication failure played a core role in motivating the military leader to act in the way he did. We cannot fully read the minds of the actors. Even if we could make a reasonable guess based on their previous behaviour, other factors might have played a role, as well. What is evident, however, is a long history rivalry between the country’s political leaders that could not be negotiated, leading to disastrous results for the political development of the country. Interestingly, a number of them happened in connection with elections. A short overview might be helpful to better understand the present crisis.

The Expulsion of Thakin Than Tun’s Communist Party. On October 20,1946 – only some weeks after he had been appointed de-facto Prime Minister of Burma – Aung San explained in a lengthy speech why he had expelled the Communist Party of Burma headed by his brother-in-law Than Tun from the AFPFL. He used political arguments, but in the end, he labelled the communist leaders personally as “dirty people”. Than Tun and Aung San had closely cooperated with each other since the end of the 1930s. In 1939 they had co-founded a communist cell, during the war they had not just married sisters but served as ministers in the Burmese government headed by Ba Maw. They were co-founders of the AFPFL, but were apparently unable to settle their different political views. The end result was the first outbreak of civil war.

The disagreement at the London Conference of January 1947. Aung San headed the six-member delegation representing different Burmese political groups and appointed members of the Governor’s Council that had travelled to London to negotiate the terms of Burmese independence with the British government. The conference lasted from January 13 to 27, 1947. The Burmese delegation stayed at the same hotel and had plenty of time to discuss about the details of the agreement to be adopted. On the final day, the British members of the negotiation team were surprised to learn, that the two members of the Burmese delegation that were not related to the AFPFL, Ba Sein and Galon U Saw, did not sign the agreement. The surprise was because the two men had not voiced opposition to the Burmese delegation’s demands brought forward by Aung San. Aung San was quoted saying: “Let them resign [from the Council] and say … that they don’t take any responsibility for it.”

As a consequence, the two leaders and some other groups boycotted the elections for the Constituent Assembly taking place in April 1947. On July 19 of the same year, Aung San and members of the Burmese cabinet were killed by gunmen employed by Saw.

The precedents of the AFPFL split. The general elections of 1956 resulted in another clear victory of the AFPFL in terms of seats won in parliament but in a loss of voters and the emergence of a rival political bloc. Prime Minister Nu reacted with a one year stepping-down from his government post in order to “purge” the AFPFL from “bad elements”. After his early return in early 1957, a serious disagreement occurred between him and Kyaw Nyein, his long time confidant and ally whom he knew well since their university days. In a letter made public one year later, Kyaw Nyein called Nu a “dictator” (anashin) of the League, a term that carries different connotations in Burmese than in Western languages. Nu responded and pointed to mistakes of Kyaw Nyein in a rice deal with China that had caused Nu to lose face in his talks with the leaders of the great neighbour.

These differences widened and resulted in the AFPFL split of 1958 that again resulted in Nu’s “invitation” of Ne Win of heading a caretaker government to organise the next elections. The events of 1958 were called then as a “constitutional” coup. The Tatmadaw organised free and fair elections, resulting in a landslide victory of Nu’s faction and in the defeat of his rivals. A main factor was the alleged closeness of Kyaw Nyein and his co-leader Ba Swe to the military.

The coup of 1962. It took place during a National Convention that was to discuss the amendment of the constitution to meet the demands of the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities for a more federal structure of the Union of Burma. The speeches given on the first days of the meeting showed that there was a complete dissent between the Bamar delegates including the leftists and the AFPFL fraction of the League and all speakers of the ethnic groups. Absolutely no compromise was in sight and the army started the experiment of “the Burmese way to socialism”.

III. The lack of a spirit of compromise

The list of fractions and splits in which the lack of personal communication between political leaders plays a role could easily be prolonged. Obviously, since independence, no common ground exists on which political differences could be dealt with in in peaceful manner. The constitutions did not provide such a platform. The first two were ended by military coups, both preceded by different types of civil unrest. The “mini-coup” of February 2021 can be seen as an attempt of the military to maintain the basic law that had been drafted by the armed forces and which institutionalised a parliamentary opposition of appointed military men as a substitute of the missing emergence of such a force in all previous elections. One may speculate that in one year’s  time the party landscape in Myanmar might change considerably and the next elections  would result in an outcome of military proxy parties.

It therefore seems that Myanmar’s recent history is caught in a series of vicious circles. Mediators could help to make an end to that cycle. It is doubtful that Ko Ko Gyi, member of the 1988 student group and long time political prisoner under the SLORC/SPDC regime, who was named in the above mentioned article as the head of the negotiation team is the right person for such an ambitious attempt of mediation. A team would be needed composed of Myanmar and international members. ASEAN could take the initiative and I would suggest that some religious leaders should be included in the Myanmar team.

by Hans-Bernd Zöllner