The Ruling Party in Myanmar Turns Populist

The ruling National League for Democracy’s bid to change the constitution has floundered. But the failure has highlighted the growing schism between the increasingly populist NLD and the corrupt and power-hungry military elite

Military officers serving as members of Myanmar’s parliament take their leave after a session at the Assembly of the Union in Naypyidaw on March 10, 2020. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu, AFP)

Nyi Nyi Kyaw

26 March 2020

A year-long attempt at constitutional reform on the part of Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party ended in failure on last Friday. But the episode has not been without significant consequences. It has seen the elected government successfully recast itself as the populist opposition to Myanmar’s elite military establishment, through an all-out war of words with the unelected military bloc in parliament.

Regardless of its status as the country’s ruling party and a part of the political elite, the NLD has in recent months taken an approach that is effectively populist, based on Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde’s well-known concept of populism. By constantly challenging the military bloc in parliament under the pretext of battling for constitutional reform, the NLD has been able to position itself as the representative of the volonté générale (general will) of the Myanmar people against corrupt, power-hungry military elites within and outside parliament.

The Myanmar parliament is a ‘three-quarter legislature’, in which only three quarters of the seats are occupied by elected or people’s representatives. The other quarter is reserved for the military. Since any constitutional amendments require the support of more than three quarters of the members of parliament, both elected and military, the unelected military bloc has effective veto power over attempts to change the charter.

Almost by default, the constitutional amendment process initiated by the NLD in January 2019, apparently without mutual agreement between the party and the military, was doomed to fail from the start. Earlier this year, parliamentary debates were held over seven days between 25 February and 5 March, and voting on each of 135 proposed amendments over nine days between 10 and 20 March. Only four minor amendments meant to bring clarity to the language of the constitution received more than three-quarters of votes in parliament and thus won passage.

However, the politics of constitutional reform is not always about achieving the goal of actual charter amendment. The ways in which members of parliament, politicians and parties pursue such reforms are no less significant — and perhaps even more significant — in a country undergoing a transition under a constitution whose amendment is a near impossibility.

What transpired in parliament was effectively a showdown. On one side stood the NLD; on the other, members of the military and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the former ruling party, now in opposition. From 25 February to 20 March both sides also locked horns outside the parliament. The media had a field day covering the showdown, conducting interviews with members of parliament, both civilian and military.

The military and the USDP accused the NLD of trying to reduce the power of the military, which was only ‘guarding’ the democratic transition in Myanmar. The NLD, often joined by some ethnic party representatives, responded that the legitimate owner and guardian of democracy was the people. It embraced, that is, a classic populist narrative. For example, in an interview with the Irrawaddy at the start of the voting at parliament, well-known Upper House NLD representative U Aung Thein warned, “If the 25 percent [the military bloc] turn (sic) a deaf ear even as we are making the people’s voices heard, they will be held responsible.” He added, “We would like the people to know we tried.”

Similarly, U Nay Lin Aung, a Lower House NLD representative, told the parliament that the constitution should be amended in accordance with the people’s desires. He added: ‘Even if we ask the people not to love us (after amending the constitution according to their desires), they will love us — even in an increasing manner.’ In response to military and USDP representatives who asked whether the people genuinely wanted constitutional reform, another well-known Upper House NLD representative U Aung Kyi Nyunt responded, in an interview with Myanmar Now at the end of the voting: “If they [the military and the USDP] are brave enough, let’s hold a referendum to know the desire of the people.”

Therefore, the war of words, offline and online, in recent weeks between two political opponents is tantamount to a game-changer in defining the oppositional populist politics of the NLD against the deep-seated military establishment.

Myanmar Facebook users, many apparently supporters of the NLD, quickly joined in this parliamentary confrontation by echoing and reproducing the party’s populist narrative and poking fun at the military and USDP representatives. Daily news of debates and votes literally received hundreds — thousands, in some cases — of comments embracing that narrative.

In the four years since the NLD came to power, many if not most of its supporters have been disappointed by the unsuccessful and seemingly one-sided efforts on the part of the party and its chair State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to achieve ‘national reconciliation’ with the military. They view the latter as at best an unwilling partner in such efforts and at worst the greatest obstacle to the further democratisation of Myanmar.

Therefore, the war of words, offline and online, in recent weeks between two political opponents is tantamount to a game-changer in defining the oppositional populist politics of the NLD against the deep-seated military establishment.

That said, how useful taking an oppositional position and adopting anti-elite populist language will be for the NLD remains to be seen. It is true that populism often does pay handsomely in elections. The people of Myanmar, or at least NLD supporters, are no doubt resentful of the military. But constitutional reform is not the only issue they are concerned about.

Nyi Nyi Kyaw is a Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Assistant Professor (adjunct) in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/35

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.