Hundreds of new politicians in Myanmar are moving their belongings into scruffy government dormitories in Naypyitaw, the capital. These are the winners in last fall’s historic elections that saw pro-democracy parties roundly oust the military-led government. Now, on Feb. 1, they will don silk longyis and Shan turbans and inaugurate arguably the most important and delicate phase yet in a long- delayed but hopeful transition out of authoritarian rule.
Last November, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won 77 percent of the available seats and routed the proxy party of the generals. It was the most open elections in 25 years, and that night, thousands of people poured into the streets of Rangoon, singing, dancing, and waving red balloons.
Now comes the hard work of governing.
“We have been trying [to gain a foothold] for more than three decades,” said U Win Htein, spokesman of the NLD and a former political prisoner, to the Monitor. “We are living the history now.”
Here are five questions that bear on the transition ahead:
1) People often think Myanmar, formerly Burma, is now a full democracy. But isn’t it still a military-civilian system undergoing transition? What is important to watch now?
Yes, under the 2008 constitution, the military retains much power, including a 25 percent block of seats. This gives it a virtual veto over constitutional changes, which require more than a 75 percent vote in parliament. The military also retains critical cabinet posts: the ministries of home affairs, border security, and defense.
Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD chairman who is widely seen as the country’s legitimate popular leader, is constitutionally barred from the presidency. In defiance, she has said she will stand above any president. According to Win Htein, the NLD will announce its nominee for the presidency and the vice-presidency within a week of the inaugural session of parliament.
The official handover of the executive branch, including the presidency and the cabinet, will not happen until late March, following an election in the parliament of the NLD’s nominee. One of the legislative body’s first tasks will be to vote on a speaker and deputy speaker for the upper and lower houses. On Monday, Aung San Suu Kyi and her aides met for nearly two hours with arguably the most powerful man in the country, the Army commander-in-chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. The discussion, according to Win Htein who was at the meeting, was a net positive. The “overall impression was that we can work together for the development of the future of our country,” he said.
But the subtext of the meeting was that whatever happens now will require a delicate ongoing dialogue between the NLD and the military.
2) Isn’t there an ongoing civil war in Myanmar?
Conflict has intensified between the Army and a number of armed ethnic-minority militias that want autonomy, mostly along the borders. The key question is whether the NLD can control the military in those conflict areas and initiate a real peace process.
The outgoing government of President Thein Sein signed a hasty cease-fire agreement on Oct. 15 with eight armed groups. But as analyst Bertil Lintner has pointed out, this was a “face-saving” gesture, since it included none of the most serious fighting forces. Those groups, including the the Kachin Independence Army and the Shan State Army, have been lately under attack from Burmese military units.
For years, the NLD in opposition had called for “national reconciliation” between the civilian population, the military, and ethnic minority nationalities. Now, with a sufficient majority in parliament to make senior government appointments, the NLD can finally set the conditions, not just for dialogue but for a ruling coalition.
Spokesman Win Htein confirmed that appointments by the NLD in coming days will include members of other parties. NLD executives recently confirmed that the party’s nominees for parliamentary speaker and deputies include a member of the outgoing military-backed party as well as figures from the ethnic Kachin and Rakhine communities.
3) Up to and during the election campaigning, there were many reports about rising Buddhist extremism and anti-Muslim bias, especially against the Muslim Rohingya.
The main force behind the anti-Muslim virulence, a Buddhist-monk led movement called Ma Ba Tha, has been surprisingly quiet since the elections. The group seemed chastened by the victory of the NLD, which the Ma Ba Tha had begun to target as an enemy of Myanmar’s Buddhist character and legacy. But watch for noise from them again.
Meanwhile, about 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims face deep hatred and ongoing exclusion from legal membership in the county’s multi-ethnic makeup. Aung San Suu Kyi has been much criticized abroad for a failure to speak out explicitly on the Rohingya’s behalf. But now they must live up to their long-stated ideals of human rights for all, starting with the Rohingyas’ forced segregation in camps in western Rakhine state.
4) Myanmar for years was an authoritarian regime led by a military junta. What has happened to the internal security and spy services?
This is a tricky one. With the “home affairs” portfolio in the hands of the military, it remains difficult to assess if special branch police and related military intelligence units have been dismantled, or if there has been a reform of the sinister monitoring system under the “General Services Administration” that was long used to centralize information and make enemies of the population. The Army itself remains a black box.
Inevitably, though, the security agencies will face scrutiny from an increasingly vibrant media. Myanmar had among the heaviest censorship laws in the world, but they have largely been lifted. There is also a newly flourishing civil society, though people still face intimidation and restrictions on the flow of information.
And public and private fear – the greatest tool of the junta’s control – has for now vanished. Feeling less fear, as Aung San Suu Kyi once famously suggested, is the first step to freedom.
5) Can the new ruling NLD party root out rampant corruption and cronyism, and to begin to address the country’s poverty?
The NLD has made rooting out corruption a priority, along with improving the “rule of law” and raising living standards in a country that remains among the poorest in the world. The World Bank ranks it 178 out of 213 countries in per capita income in 2014. The Berlin-based Transparency International recently landed Myanmar in 144th place out of 168 countries in its perceived corruption.
In recent years, efforts for reforms under President Thein Sein, and the lifting of sanctions, meant an influx of foreign investment and loosening up of banking. But implementation has been unclear. The operations of military-linked conglomerates has been opaque. They, together with a handful of business moguls, have held a monopoly over key natural resources including oil and jade. That means the NLD economic team will have to tread carefully, according to members of its economic team. To really address an entrenched system of bribery, or “tea money” in the local parlance, will take a generational change, said tycoon Serge Pun.