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Burma Army Moves to Tighten Grip on Power

By Burma Partnership  •  January 12, 2016

The IrrawaddyWhile people were still in a buoyant mood over the November 2015 elections results, wrapping up last year’s work and preparing for 2016, the Burma Army and the Government had a clearly different agenda, initiating several discreet moves in an attempt to maintain its grip on power during the term of the future National League for Democracy (NLD) Government. The Burma Army and its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) Government, launched a sinister attempt to further entrench military control in the country by pushing through two new bills – the National Defense and Security Council Bill and the Former President’s Security Bill – and appointing new village/ward administrators despite ongoing legislative amendments to the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law (2012).

The proposed “National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) Bill” was circulated among Upper House Parliamentarians on 21 December, 2015. Under Article 14 of the new bill, the President, despite holding the position of Chair of the NDSC, will effectively be stripped of voting rights except in situations where there is an impasse. Article 14 is a further source of controversy as it states that decisions are to be made through consensus or accept majority rule if a consensus is not reached.

In the eleven-member NDSC, the military, through the 2008 Constitution, is already granted majority control of the council as six members are active military personnel or affiliated with the military. The new bill drew intense criticism as the Commander in Chief has already promised a peaceful transfer of power to the NLD – which won in a landslide victory in the 2015 elections – at the meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on 2 December, 2015. This pincer move seems designed to ensure that the Burma Army is able to maintain its sway over critical national defense and security issues while substantially weakening the powers of the new President once the new Government has been installed. This attempt has since stalled and will be left to the incoming lawmakers who will convene the next parliamentary session in February 2016.

On the same day the NDSC bill was circulated, the USDP Government also proposed the “Former President’s Security Bill.” Worryingly, Article 10 of the Bill specifically states that former presidents are “to be immune from any prosecution for his actions during his term.” Ye Htut, the Information Minister and Presidential Office spokesperson, claimed that the Bill is modeled after the US Former Presidents Act (1958). This is clearly misleading, as other similar legislation that provides former Presidents with pension, benefits and security (such as the Former Presidents Act in the USA) serve various post-presidency circumstances such as maintaining the dignity of the Office of the President, as well as to perform duties as a result of his/her unofficial public status. At no time does the Act grant them immunity for past actions. This alarming development seems to complement Article 445 of the 2008 Constitution that already grants blanket immunities to members of the previous military junta. If this bill is passed, it will not only protect former presidents from accountability of wrongdoings, but may also encourage incoming presidents to commit unconstitutional and undemocratic actions with impunity.

The Union Parliament also recently proposed amendments to the Ward or Village Tract Administration Act (2012). The proposed legislative amendments aim to set the term of administrators to be in line with the term of the Presidency. However, while the new amendment has yet to be approved by the President, the selection of new ward and village tract administrators is already ongoing, allowing the current USDP Government to further cement its power and penetration throughout Burma by placing its members in local administrative positions before NLD takes the office in April. The Burma Army has already entrenched its power and extended its control over all walks of life in the country through oversight of the day-to-day administration by the General Administration Department, a Government organ under the Ministry of Home Affairs, one of the three ministries allocated to the military. According to a recent UN Development Programme report, there are 16,785 ward/village tract administrators who serve as on the ground administrators for communities throughout Burma. To make matters worse, new administrators are chosen based only on their loyalty to the Burma Army or the current USDP Government. This action of selecting new ward and village tract administrators is yet another attempt by the Burma Army to strengthen its control over the population by placing loyalists in positions of power before the new Government comes into power.

In order to have a genuine democratic country, civilian oversight over the military is a must. In Burma, however, the 2008 Constitution stipulates the opposite by granting the Burma Army special privileges and blanket immunity. It may seem to some that the Burma Army might have retreated from direct political control over Burma, but the reality is that the military is not only enjoying a constitutional upper hand in the politics of Burma, but is even further strengthening its grip over the day-to-day lives of the people. Both the Burma Army and the Government must drop these recent and ongoing moves to further entrench its power. Parliament, as well as both the incumbent and incoming Governments, should not allow or accept any of those attempts from the Burma Army or USDP Government to be used as pressure or bargaining chips for the peaceful transfer of power.

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