After a thumping win at the November 8 election so thorough it outstripped even her own party’s expectations, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi left a large question mark lingering over the office of the presidency. The same cannot be said of who will effectively rule the country.
Constitutionally barred from assuming the presidency herself, the National League for Democracy leader said in a televised interview one month before the election that should her party win the backing of the people, she will lead the country. Flush with a landslide victory just days after the polls closed, she asserted her position even more clearly, pledging that she would not only rule “above the president” but also make all decisions regardless of who corporeally occupied the office.
Yet perhaps due to hubris after the extent of her election victory became apparent – netting over 80 percent of the seats available – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s plan shifted in an attempt to secure more direct control. Senior party officials rumoured to be in line for the proxy post dashed the idea of an imposter occupying the office. “She must be president,” said NLD patron U Tin Oo.
Despite a strong campaign to amend or suspend the relevant constitutional clause and establish the 70-year-old democracy icon at the helm of the county, in recent weeks it has become clear that negotiations with the military hit an impasse.
With nationalists portending a coup if the NLD challenges to take constitutional reform to the parliamentary, senior NLD leaders admitted they are relenting to the least-bad option for now, and taking up the puppet strings.
Far from a remedy to the NLD’s presidential quandary, the proxy arrangement is riddled with its own practical pitfalls and political vulnerabilities. Analysts fear that dividing the centre of power into two camps – the proxy president and the puppet master – could cripple the NLD’s administration from its outset.
“A proxy president is not the best option,” said U Soe Myint Aung, a founder of Yangon’s Tagaung Institute of Political Studies.
Already known for an officious ruling style and reluctance to delegate authority, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s behind-the-scenes governance would be predicated on having a fully obedient frontman. Alternatively, the party leader would have to relinquish absolute authority, which seems unlikely given her imperious tendencies.
“[Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s] activities in recent months show that she is someone who likes to micro-manage things, ranging from garbage collection and inspection of the living quarters of her MPs to being the authoritative party spokesperson. So I suspect that she would not want to let go of any institutional decision-making,” U Soe Myint Aung said.
Unless the president acts purely as a figurehead, issues of even moderate import are likely to prove problematic for aides, diplomats and officials. The most fundamental: Who should they address, “The Lady” or her proxy? With the president under constant pressure to make choices, having to defer each decision through such top-down leadership could create an administrative backlog.
“Myanmar bureaucracy is very much centralised and so is the NLD,” said U Chit Win, a Myanmar commentator and PhD candidate at the Australian National University. “She needs to just set policy guidelines and let the president manage at his/her discretion. But I doubt that would happen in the early days.”
While the party has suggested the proxy arrangement should only be temporary, giving them more time to lobby the military about planned constitutional revisions, an immediate power-sharing problem arises. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will not be guaranteed a spot on the nebulous National Defence and Security Council, an opaque organ dominated by the military, but technically headed by the president.
“The NDSC remains a pretty unknown entity. The 2008 constitution created it, but does not provide extensive details on its responsibilities and authority,” said Mary Callahan, a Myanmar expert at the University of Washington, Seattle.
“On paper, it appears to be a body that brings the executive and legislative branches of government into consultation with the leadership of the military on issues that are either definitively security-related – responses to acts of aggression – or in the grey area of politics that might threaten one of the ‘three national causes’,” she said. “Most likely over the last five years, the latter category included deliberations on matters such as amnesties, natural and human-made disasters, and states of emergency.”
No one is even sure how often the shadowy council convened during the outgoing government’s term. According to the constitution, the NDSC retains the power to sever diplomatic ties, instigate military action, appoint the commander-in-chief and “exercise sovereign power”.
The council has 11 members, five of whom are serving military officers. A sixth is the vice president nominated by the military. The president, another vice president, Speakers of the upper and lower houses, and the foreign minister round out the body.
U Chit Win said the composition of the NDSC suggested that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “needs to be appointed as a foreign minister”.
But assuming the foreign minister role could “make everyone including herself awkward especially at the ASEAN Summit”, he added.
The foreign minister role would also regularly require her to travel abroad, thus removing her from overseeing parliamentary decisions in Naw Pyi Taw and increasing the likelihood of schisms growing within the NLD.
“The greatest obstacle in making things work will be Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s vanity and pride – it would be galling for her to see all the protocol privileges going to her proxy, lowly as that person may be,” said U Khin Zaw Win, a political commentator and director of the Tampadipa Institute.
“If she overdoes her string-pulling role, Myanmar will not only become a laughing stock but the entire office of the presidency will become riddled with inefficiency and security risks.”
While the NLD leader has side-stepped the legality of the proxy plan, the whole arrangement is constitutionally dubious. The charter clearly states that the president “takes precedence over all other persons”.
“All the things she is threatening to do are contradictory to what she has been mouthing about the ‘rule of law’,” said U Khin Zaw Win.
If the proxy is too obviously a puppet, the administration is vulnerable to impeachment, referral to the constitutional tribunal, or even a declaration of a state of emergency. While the NLD has the seats needed to shoot down impeachment, and will appoint tribunal members, those scenarios would still likely have a destabilising effect, inflaming tensions with the military.
The scenario is not unthinkable given the constitutional rigidity evidenced by some factions within the military, as well as the precedent across the border.
In Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra was largely seen as serving as a proxy ruler for her exiled brother starting in 2011. The arrangement lasted less than three years before the military-led assembly voted for an impeachment, and the Constitutional Court ordered her to step down for an alleged abuse of power. The military then suspended the constitution and installed a state of emergency.
NLD spokesperson U Win Htein has previously suggested the NLD leader could function more like Sonia Gandhi, who ran India through “reluctant politician” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
But the regime became one of the most divisive and reviled in the country’s history, slammed for its impotence as the economy slumped and corruption reigned. The proxy arrangement was blamed for instigating dysfunctional governance, and though the prime minister was considered wholly subservient to Ms Gandhi, not even able to pick his own cabinet, quickly emerged.
“The history of those years shows the difficulty, perhaps even danger, of operating with two centres of power,” said Teresita Schaffer, a fellow at the Brookings Institute’s India Project and former US ambassador to Sri Lanka. “Even with Manmohan Singh’s character and desires wanting to make things work, the two centres of power wound up being competitive. Others were constantly calculating which of the two leaders was more sympathetic to them, how to get to Sonia Gandhi and get around Manmohan Singh, and so on.”
While Myanmar has its own political personalities, loyalties and challenges to contend with, a ruling party succumbing to infighting, loss of popular support and rival factions is hardly unimaginable, especially given the recent trajectory of the Union Solidarity and Development Party. History abounds with examples of fledgling democracies where impossible expectations pinned on a unifying figurehead have led to untenable administrations, and analysts warn that the more unorthodox route of removing the leader one step further and splicing authority with a proxy could lead to paralysis. Even the NLD has acknowledged the arrangement is sub-ideal.
“The ‘power behind the throne’ model is full of surprises, and in a crisis leaves everyone unsure where the real authority lies,” Ms Shaffer said.