IPCS Forecast: Myanmar in 2015

21 Jan, 2015    ·   4817

Aparupa Bhattacherjee takes stock of the multiple ongoing transitions in Myanmar and makes projections for 2015

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer
2014 was a year of ups and downs for Myanmar. Naypyidaw successfully completed its ASEAN chairmanship that enhanced the country’s legitimacy both within the region and internationally. However, in the domestic arena, Myanmar did not fare well. Repeating history, the government failed to both sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement with all the armed ethnic groups or initiating a peace dialogue with these groups. The Rohingya crisis continues to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the country’s journey towards an all-round development. Additionally, the government’s inability to to keep the increasing religious radicalism within the society in check will be detrimental and will have negative implications for the domestic politics in 2015.

It is in this backdrop that Myanmar is preparing for the much-awaited 2015 general elections. Therefore, needless to say, 2015 will be an eventful year for the country.

Political Transition
2014 witnessed a slack in the political transition process in Myanmar. However, the excitement and preparations for the 2015 election – scheduled to be held by the end of the year – has been made evident in the several political rallies and press conferences. After a 31-year hiatus, a national census was conducted in 2014 to facilitate the 2015 elections. According to the new census, Myanmar’s population stands at 51 million.  But the census exercise was riddled with many flaws as several Myanmarese living in internally displaced camps were not included in the final counting. Additionally, due to the complexity in Rakhine state, several Arakanese Muslims were excluded from the counting. Thus, unmistakably, the actual population is higher than 51 million and this will also impact the upcoming elections.

2015 General Election 
It is likely to be a tough power struggle between the two leading political parties, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League of Democracy (NLD). The USDP enjoys support from the military and the NLD is favoured by the masses. Nevertheless, neither of these parties can expect much gain from Myanmar’s seven ethnicity-based provinces of where ethnic political parties enjoy greater clout. Therefore, both the NLD and the USDP have the probability to win their seats only in the central and southern Myanmar.  
There are four prospective candidates for the presidential office: Incumbent President Thein Sein; incumbent Speaker of the Lower House of the parliament, Shwe Mann; the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, General Min Aung Hlaing; and a candidate representing NLD. The NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been constitutionally barred from candidature as she is married to a foreigner. Thus, the announcement of an NLD candidate for presidency is anxiously awaited.

In 2014, it was noted by both the national and international media that there are two clear groups formed between these four candidates. One group comprises Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann who are not the military’s preferred candidate for presidency. The other group comprises Thein Sein and General Min Aung Hlaing. This grouping indicates how the alliances will be formed, depending on the result of the 2015 elections.

Constitutional Amendments 
Thein Sein, in his March 2014 speech said, “We need to carefully study from all perspectives: the background history, the essence and objective for each of the provisions of the Constitution and it is also important that we amend the Constitution in accordance with the provisions as prescribed in Chapter 12 of the Constitution.” The aforementioned Chapter 12 of the Myanmarese constitution stipulates that for any amendment to be made to the constitution, there needs to be a prior approval of over 75 per cent of the members of parliament. This is problematic as there is lack of consensus on the agenda on which the amendments has to be made in the constitution. Previously, demands by representatives of ethnic groups and as well as the armed ethnic groups, for a federal political structure to be incorporated in the constitution, was vehemently rejected by the military, whose representatives constitute 25 per cent of the union parliament and are appointed by the commander in chief of the Tatmadaw. This also makes evident the tight grip the army has over the politics of the country. This is likely to continue in 2015 and the country is unlikely to witness any initiation of procedure towards amending the constitution this year.

Ethnic Conflicts and the Peace Process
The deadline for signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement and for the initiation of the peace talks has now been postponed to 2015. The government’s chief negotiator Aung Min has stated that he is hopeful to complete the deal this year. In August 2014, representatives of the armed ethnic groups, under the banner of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), announced the government’s agreeability to include a pledge to adopt a federal political system – one of their key demands – in the draft agreement. This will boost confidence between the two sides. Nevertheless, the ongoing clashes in the Kachin and Karen regions may delay the ceasefire agreement further.

Rohingya Crisis 
Last year the government-sponsored new draft plan called the ‘Rakhine State Action Plan’ has aided in the deterioration of the conditions of Rohingya Muslims. The Plan initiated the process of granting citizenship to those Rohingya Muslims who enrol themselves as Bengalis. This Plan has met with resentment not only by the Rohingya Muslims and international organisations such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch but was also criticised by Rakhine Buddhists. The Rakhine Buddhists criticised this plan on the grounds that awarding citizenship to more Muslims may have implications for the 2015 general elections and this might also ensure the victory of Rohingya ethnicity-based political parties at the state level.
The government has assured that it will revise the Plan this year. However, that does not guarantee betterment of the conditions of the Rohingyas in the 2015 too. Similarly, the growth of the violence perpetrated by the religious radicals may take a back seat with the ongoing preparation for elections; but this should not be seen as the end of the problem because so long as no strong action is taken against such behaviours, the problem will persist.

Economy in 2015
In the 2015-2014 financial year, Myanmar’s economy, augmented by the large investments, especially Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) worth $ 9 billion, recorded a growth of 7.8 per cent. The increase in commodity exports, natural gas production, and tourism present the government’s ambitious structural reform programme. Economic growth seems likely to continue till the end of 2015. However, the economy will witness some change, subject to the results of the general elections.

India-Myanmar Relationship
The New Delhi-Naypyidaw relationship got a boost in 2014, especially via the visits of India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the country. Although there has been enrichment of the relationship at the political level, no such improvement has been evidenced in the economic arena. In 2014, Myanmarese President Thein Sein’s Spokesperson Ye Htut publically expressed Myanmar’s disappointment towards the lack of Indian investors in the country. 2015 is unlikely to witness any remarkable growth in number of Indian investments in Myanmar. Hopeful both the government will come together in 2015 to solve the problem of border infiltration and trafficking in between India’s northeast and north-western Myanmar.

Myanmar-US Bilateral in 2015
The US’s foreign policy towards Myanmar appears to continue on the current trajectory in 2015. Both countries need this alliance to work. Myanmar is important for the US due its geo-strategic location and its significance in Washington’s pivot to Asia strategy. Therefore, the US, along with the rest of the world, will be monitoring Myanmar’s election 2015 elections closely.

Can Japan and South Korean FDI Counter Chinese Investment in 2015?
No. In 2014, both Japan and South Korea poured large sums of money into the Myanmarese markets in the form of investments. The Japanese Special and Economic Zone in Thilawa and investments in various sectors of the Myanmarese economy may seem big, but by sheer numbers, Tokyo’s investment insignificant in comparison to Beijing’s investment in Myanmar – which stands at nearly $ 6 billion. Similarly, South Korea too seems far from being able to give Chinese investors any credible competition in 2015. However, all investors will be cautious this year as everyone will base their strategies and decisions towards their economic trajectories in Myanmar depending on the results of the 2015 general election.

Thus, it appears that in 2015, everything in and related to Myanmar is likely to revolve around the the general election, scheduled to be held at the end of this year.