On 8th November 2015, after 53 years of military rule, a civilian party won a general election and started what many people hope will be the road back to civilian rule in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Although the new civilian administration comes into existence on 1st April 2016 the parliament still has a quarter of its members as military appointees. Until the whole parliament is elected through democratic elections and where the military plays no role in the governance process of the country we still consider Myanmar to be under military control.
The first known human settlements in the area can be traced back 13,000 years and from that date there has been a procession of kingdoms and dynasties occupying parts or the whole of the country. The first were the Pyu city-states and later came the Pagan Empire which covered most of central Burma from 1044 to 1287. In 1287 the first Mongol invasions saw a number of smaller kingdoms being formed and it wasn’t until 1510 that the Taungoo Empire came into existence and occupied most of modern day Burma, Thailand and Laos.
In 1752 the Taungoo were replaced by the Konbaung Dynasty which was most notable for a series of wars with Siam, China and, eventually, the British Empire. There were three Anglo-Burmese wars between 1824 and 1886 and they resulted in the total annexation of Burma by the British.
Britain made Burma part of India in 1886 and from then on the Burmese became second class citizens in their own country. At the start of the 20th century a nationalist movement had taken shape in the form of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA). The YMBA was superseded by the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA) and efforts were made to increase the participation of Burmese in the civil service and other areas of administration.
Like so many independence movements it was the students who really started things moving with a strike in 1920 and throughout that decade. In December 1930 the Galon rebellion developed into a two year national insurrection sparked by a local tax protest. Another university strike took place in 1936 after Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) and Ko Nu were expelled from Rangoon University.
The British separated Burma from India in 1936 but even that proved controversial because the Burmese felt they were being denied reforms being given to the Indians. In the same year the British established the Legislature of Burma (it was to remain in place until 1947) with a 36 seat Senate and 132 seat House of Representatives. Ba Maw became Burma’s first Chief Minister (Prime Minister).
Progress towards further democracy stopped with the Second World War and the country was divided between those supporting Britain against the fascists, those who felt communism (Chinese style) was the way forward and those who felt that supporting the Japanese would give them the independence they wanted. Aung San co-founded the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) but supported the Japanese until it became clear that they were not going to allow Burma independence. During the war there were several armed forces in Burma, some supporting the Japanese including the Burma National Army (BNA). The Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) was founded in 1944 (it was later called the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League – AFPFL) and they started talks with Lord Mountbatten on behalf of the Allied forces. Aung San was once of those who switched to talks with the British and he, along with others, officially joined the allies as part of the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF). On 27th March 1945 the Burma National Army also rose up against the Japanese but by then the Japanese were in retreat.
After the war a military administration was put in place by the British briefly before the government was restored, but there were splits between different factions as to the way forward for the country. The British Governor, Sir Hubert Rance, was able to bring some degree of order to the chaos and a Governor’s Executive Council concluded talks in London for independence. Aung San and the AFPFL won 173 of the 210 seats in the Constituent Assembly elections on 9th April 1947 but on 19th July 1947 Aung San was assassinated. Rance acted quickly and made U Nu prime minister and avoided further turmoil. On 4th January 1948 Rance handed over to Sao Shwe Thaik, the president of Burma.
All should have gone well but communist insurgencies plagued the early years and in 1958 the AFPFL split into two factions. The deepening political crisis led U Nu to ‘invite’ the military, under Army Chief of Staff General Ne Win, to take over the country. Ne Win’s administration prepared the way for new elections in 1960 which the ‘Clean’ AFPFL, led by U Nu, won with 158 of the 250 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The ‘Stable’ AFPFL came second with 41 seats. But the political crisis continued and on 2nd March 1962 General Ne Win and other military officers staged a coup d’état.
The government was replaced by the Union Revolutionary Council Chaired by General Ne Win. Protests continued and the military lost patience on 7th July 1962 when they killed more than 100 students during a peaceful protest. Ne Win established a socialist state with one party, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). A new constitution was brought in during January 1974 creating a bicameral legislature called the Union Parliament with the Chamber of Nationalities (Lumyozu Hluttaw) and the Chamber of Deputies (Pyithu Hluttaw). In the 1974 election the BSPP won all 451 seats and they won again in 1978, 1981 and 1990 – not that any opposition was tolerated.
The military reaction to strikes and protests hadn’t changed much and in March and June of 1988 there were further protests and much bloodshed. On 8th August 1988 there were a series of marches, protests and civil unrest which became known as the 8888 Uprising and which started by students but spread across the country. The uprising ended on 18th September when General Saw Maung led another coup d’état, abandoned the 1974 constitution and introduced martial law under a new body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Numbers vary on the number of deaths during the uprising but it may have been as high as 10,0000. It was during this uprising that Aung San Suu Kyi came to prominence.
In 1989 the military changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and formed a Constituent Assembly. This led to the May 1990 multi-party elections (the first since 1960) at the which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 of the 492 seats in the Burmese Constituent Committee (it was supposed to be elected to decide on a new constitution). The military refused to recognise the result and instead formed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
The SPDC was to remain in place until 2011 but it continued to have problems especially in 2007 when there were major anti-government protests. On 7th February 2008 the SPDC announced that there would be a constitutional referendum which included changes that gave the military one quarter of all parliamentary seats, kept the Ministry of Home Affairs under military control and prohibited anyone married to a foreigner from running for the office of president (thus excluding Aung San Suu Kyi whose husband was British).
In the 2010 general election the NLD boycotted the election and the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won 129 of the 224 seats but had a further 56 military appointees to add to their majority.
A former military commander, Thein Sein, was elected as president in March 2011 and a slight thaw in the hard-line military approach seemed to follow. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from a long period under house arrest and the NLD agreed to participate in by-elections held on 1st April 2012. The NLD won 41 of the 44 contested seats and Suu Kyi was elected to parliament.
On 8th November 2015 the NLD also participated in the most open multi-party elections to date and won a landslide across the board. In the House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw) they won 135 of 224 seats; In the House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw) they won 255 of 440 seats and in the State and Regional Assemblies or Hluttaws they took 476 of a possible 864 seats. The military automatically retained 25% of the seats in all these assemblies.
Aung San Suu Kyi is not permitted to stand for president because she was married to a foreigner so the NLD put up two candidates for the position of president and the military put up one candidate. NLD nominee Htin Kyaw was elected president and will take office on 26th March 2016 with the new NLD led government taking over on 1st April. Htin Kyaw, a close confidante of Aung San Suu Kyi, has already announced that the number of ministries will be reduced from 36 to 21. It remains to be seen if the military will now start to withdraw from political life.
The President is elected by the Presidential Electoral College which has three committees. Each of the three committees, made up of Amyotha Hluttaw, Pyithu Hluttaw members of parliament, or military-appointed lawmakers, nominates a candidate for presidency and the person with the most votes is elected president with the other two nominees becoming vice-presidents. The president and vice-presidents serve five year terms.
The Assembly of the Union (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) is a bicameral parliament which is made up of the 224 seat upper house or Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities) and the 440 seat lower house or Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives). Both houses serve five year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Myanmar at joint 136th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 28 (where 100 is least corrupt).