Democracy Lab

The Lady Rallies the Masses Once Again

Aung San Suu Kyi wants to change the Burmese constitution. But will the military really go along?

The big question in Burmese politics these days is whether the military will allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the presidency. The current constitution, which was drafted and passed by the old military regime, bars her from the job. Article 59F of the constitution states that any Burmese who has a foreign spouse or children who are foreign nationals can't become president or vice president. Aung San Suu Kyi's two sons (from her marriage with the deceased Oxford professor Michael Aris) have British citizenship, so she needs to change that rule before she can qualify for Burma's highest office. Burma's military rulers included that rather peculiar condition precisely in order to prevent her from taking power.

During the third week of May, Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters gathered for two mass rallies in Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma's two biggest cities. (The demonstration in Mandalay, the most important commercial city in upper Burma, drew an estimated 25,000 supporters.) Both rallies called for amending Article 436 of the 2008 constitution, which essentially gives the military a veto over any amendments. The article stipulates that any amendments require the support of more than 75 percent of members of the parliament, where unelected military representatives control a quarter of the seats. Aung San Suu Kyi's camp have to get rid of this provision before they can amend the article that prevents her from holding the presidency.

There's no doubt that Burma's constitution is deeply flawed. The excessive power that it grants the military and the obstacles it places in the way of amendment are only two of the most obvious problems. Ideally, of course, these provisions can be changed or abolished. In reality, matters are a bit more complicated. The 2008 constitution was the result of an effort to reduce the military's direct control of the state as part of the country's transition away from the previous military dictatorship. For all its flaws, the constitution has enabled the political opening that continues in Burma today.

At the rallies, Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters called for replacing the 75 percent requirement with a simple majority parliamentary vote. After spending the past two years lobbying for a constitutional amendment, the Lady (as the Burmese often refer to their revered opposition leader) has finally lost her patience with the military, which failed to respond to her request for a formal meeting with key political players, including President Thein Sein, House Speaker Shwe Mann, and Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Speaking to thousands of supporters at the rallies, she ultimately resorted to some highly charged, shame-and-name rhetoric: "I challenge the military..." "Soldiers must be brave enough to face reality... "The military was founded as the Burma Liberation Army, not as the Army for Repressing Burma."

The crowds were suitably fired up. They also applauded her decision to team up with the 88 Generation Group, the most influential activist group in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi's own party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to organize these mass rallies and launch a nationwide campaign to petition for constitutional reform.

The question is whether this show of political influence will achieve its professed goal. The short answer is "no." In all likelihood, the campaign will end up serving merely as part of the broader political effort to garner support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, ahead of the 2015 elections. There are at least three reasons to assume this outcome.

First, what is the Lady's broader game plan? What will she do if the military rejects her call for constitutional reform? Will she launch a campaign of street protests? Judging by her statements to date, she has no plans to go that far. She insists that she's planning to reform the constitution in compliance with parliamentary procedure. Will she boycott the 2015 elections? Also unlikely. Such a move would leave her and her supporters in the political wilderness once again.

So what's left? The 2008 constitution does not provide any path for translating public opinion into policy apart from regular parliamentary elections and the right of voters to recall elected officials. (A controversial bill that would translate the latter principle into law remains on hold.) So long as Aung San Suu Kyi is committed to pursuing constitutional change according to the military's rules, it's hard to see how her strength on the streets can translate into actual reform in the parliament.

Meanwhile, the military and its associated political party are becoming savvier in dealing with the challenges posed by the opposition. Consistent with their strategy of co-optation, the ruling elites do not reject anything outright. They typically respond to opposition demands by making partial concessions and preventing full-blown confrontation. On May 21st, the parliamentary Joint Committee for Reviewing the Constitution (JCRC) announced that its members had agreed to amend Article 436, saying that they will submit a proposal to parliament for a final decision. Though the incumbent-dominated JCRC did not reveal details of the proposal, it almost certainly won't do anything to help the opposition get what it wants. Moreover, the military chief recently made it clear that any constitutional changes have to be passed according to the existing amendment procedures. In short, even if the military agrees to make concessions, the opposition will find it virtually impossible to pass a corresponding amendment.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to resort to full-on street protests or election boycotts, the main effect of her current campaign for constitutional reform will be to motivate her base to vote for her party in the 2015 elections. Even so, the effort does come with a substantial risk. The campaign could spark conflict with pro-government activists such as the Buddhist nationalists who have already declared their support for the incumbent president and Article 59F. More importantly, military leaders might view Aung San Suu Kyi's call for soldiers to sign the charter reform petition as a ploy to divide the military. It's precisely such fears that fuel continuing suspicion of the democratic forces among the officer corps. The Election Commission, for its part, issued a warning to Aung San Suu Kyi, chiding her for using language "challenging the army."

Whether or not the Lady has the stomach to pick another intractable fight with a new generation of military generals is a question that has to do with a second concern: the credibility of the constitutional reform campaign.

Given the country's complex ethnic makeup and its continuing civil war, minority groups are among the most important actors in Burmese political conflicts. So far, however, their representatives have been conspicuously absent from the stage at Aung San Suu Kyi's public rallies (even though the Lady has paid lip service to the federalist cause in her speeches). This seems odd, considering there's no way to build enough support to reform the constitution that bypasses the ethnic groups (whether inside or outside parliament). So the exclusion of the ethnic groups from the current campaign merely reinforces the conclusion that the NLD constitutional reform campaign is really just a way of preparing for the 2015 elections. Instead of the ethnic groups, the Lady has brought in her informal sidekick, the 88 Generation group. Observers agree that most of the group's leaders do not entertain electoral ambitions, so they have no plans to field candidates against Aung San Suu Kyi -- at least in the 2015 elections. 

Finally, even if Aung San Suu Kyi throws all of her energy and resources into the campaign, the current political context does not seem to favor her. The current government's liberalization process might appear inclusive, but the reality is quite different. While the new regime has accepted Aung San Suu Kyi as a valid spokesperson in certain areas, it still refuses to give her any real power over policy. And there is little she can do to change that now, having given the government her blanket endorsement early on. The lady's public announcement of trust in President Thein Sein and his "genuine wishes for democratic reform" in 2012 granted the new regime much-needed domestic and international legitimacy; she may well regret that decision now, but what's done is done. Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim nationalist movement is preparing to push back if the Lady dares to launch a full-scale confrontation over the issue of constitutional reform.

The promise of the Arab Spring has ebbed. Turkey's once-promising democracy is torn between chaos and rising authoritarianism. And now Thailand has once again succumbed to military rule. Under such conditions, it's hard to imagine that the international community will wholeheartedly throw its weight behind the unpredictable Lady. The countries of the West, who have generally taken Aung San Suu Kyi's side, insist on categorizing Burma as a success story not only because of the presumed success of its "democratization," but also due to geostrategic interests. Here, for example, is what President Obama, said about Burma in his recent speech to graduates of the U.S. military academy:

...[W]e have seen political reforms opening a once closed society; a movement by Burmese leadership away from partnership with North Korea in favor of engagement with America and our allies.... If Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.

Given its ambiguous endgame, its weak credibility, and the changing domestic and international context, the opposition's amendment campaign is likely to fall short of its declared goal before the 2015 elections. The leader of the campaign, however, may have a very different perception of what counts as success.

Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images


One Insurgent at a Time

How Alcoholics Anonymous can fix Obama's counterterrorism strategy.

President Obama's commencement speech at West Point last Wednesday touched a lot of nerves. From America's already uneasy allies in East Asia to concerned Afghans to a litany of critics who feel he is abrogating the United States' role in the international order, the vision he sketched for U.S. engagement has been a popular target for opprobrium. But in the speech, he also set forth one oft-repeated goal that has generated little discussion: renewing the effort to build partner nations' capacities to combat al-Qaeda and related groups on their own soil.

This is, of course, a laudable goal, at least in theory. It's also one that could hypothetically absolve the U.S. of some of its current and future commitments abroad, which is why this approach has underpinned the long-term U.S. strategies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives creating indigenous military capabilities to take over the fight against extremists when allied forces leave. But the tactic of building other nations' abilities to address terrorist threats relies on one major assumption: that these nations have the same goals and objectives with regard to these groups as the United States does. Unfortunately, in many cases this has proven far from assured -- and it's time for the architects of U.S. policy to recognize that.

Pakistan presents the most glaring example of this paradigm. Billions of dollars in military and other aid has failed to change that government's fundamental position towards the Taliban and its allies, which remains ambiguous at best. While the Pakistani military has become more effective in certain ways, it has rarely used those capabilities to the ends desired by Washington and its allies. Though there is no evidence that U.S.-trained Pakistani forces have directly aided the Afghan Taliban, the fact that elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus apparently do provide such support -- against U.S. and NATO forces no less -- brings the divergence of interests quite close to home.

This misalignment of objectives between two ostensible allies highlights a dangerous habit within the U.S. policy apparatus of assuming that they would naturally align. The United States devotes more resources to building up countries' capacities than to convincing them that reducing extremism within their borders might actually benefit them -- not just America -- in the long term. Unfortunately, money, weapons, and training can't change a country's fundamental orientation; only the country itself can do that.

With regard to Afghanistan and U.S. assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces, this problem has come up repeatedly as the Afghans have failed to use their capabilities to pursue objectives aligned with the NATO agenda. The first American reporter to embed with the Afghan Army without the accompaniment of U.S. or NATO military personnel, Luke Mogelson, portrayed a very different state of affairs from what most journalists had seen when working with combined NATO-Afghan teams. The article he published in January 2013 recounted heavy drug use, negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgents, and a general lack of enthusiasm for going after the enemy.

Obama said at West Point that, "sustaining this progress [in Afghanistan] depends on the ability of Afghans to do the job." Mogelson's account, however, implies it depends on a bit more than that -- it demands political will. Hopefully the next Afghan government can repair this problem at the national level, but even if they manage to do that, there remains the problem of individual soldiers and smaller units often having little incentive to go after members of their families and tribes who have joined forces with the Taliban.

Having watched this dynamic repeat itself in countries around the world, I've found there is one philosophy that quite aptly conveys this state of affairs: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Admittedly, the comparison might sound hokey at first, but while observing friends and family members work through the 12 steps of AA and its partner program, Narcotics Anonymous, one thing has repeatedly struck me: Trying to convince an addict to get and stay sober looks a whole lot like trying to help another country fight an extremist movement or insurgency. Until the addict, or country, as the case may be, decides on their own to take on their problem, no amount of resources can get them to change their mind.

There are of course examples in which countries have decided for their own reasons to "get sober" or take on whatever threat the U.S. had been training it to combat. In Colombia, for example, U.S. Special Operations Forces trained with the Colombian military and provided them with equipment for years without any real success against the FARC and the National Liberation Army, leftist guerillas that have operated in the country for over 50 years. It was not until President Alvaro Uribe was elected in 2002 and decided that taking on these groups was in the interest of his country did that assistance really start to turn things around, with the Colombians themselves in the lead. As with an alcoholic or addict, it is only when they "hit bottom" or decide that enough is enough that countries can really make this kind of change. As David Rothkopf recently noted, the examples President Obama provided at West Point -- Libya and Yemen, for instance -- do not appear to be at this stage.

This is not to say that the international community cannot take steps to convince a country that taking on their internal foes is something that would benefit them in the long term. While nations' hesitance can have all kinds of roots, from corruption to incompetence to philosophical allegiance, in many cases a government will resist deploying its military against these targets because they are hesitant to "poke the hornets' nest" -- especially if they're not confident that they can win, or even really put up a fight. This is hardly an irrational fear. Who wants to take on a bully when you're likely to lose?

To return to the AA analogy, only one method has proven effective in convincing drug and alcohol addicts to join "the program," namely exposing them to success stories and promising them the support of other members of the community if and when the going gets tough. Providing this kind of support to newcomers and giving back to the community is actually the 12th step of AA. Reassurance like this can also help convince governments to use their capabilities against internal enemies, whose retaliation they may fear more than the status quo damage they inflict. Put in the simplest terms, if they, whether an addict or nation, feel they have real, reliable back up, they're more likely to take the plunge.

This is where Obama's speech missed the broader strategic objective behind the tactic of building partners' counterterrorism capacities. Providing training and equipment aren't enough, and alone, can even be counterproductive. To be effective, the United States and its allies must assure countries with extremist groups operating within their borders that the international community, and the United States in particular, has their back if things really start to go South. Giving token aid like walkie-talkies is, in the words of one Syrian rebel, "like coming up to a man who is dying and offering him sunglasses." Without taking these steps to secure countries' trust and political will, building partner nation capacity is all but meaningless.