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Myanmar’s next steps depend on the generals

Aung San Suu Kyi, right, with Major General Zaw Win, deputy minister for border affairs, during a ceremony marking Burma's 68th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw Photograph: Nyein Chan Naing/AFP/Getty Images

February 16, 2015

Military choices will decide whether transition regains momentum

Five years after Myanmar’s generals set off on their road to the ghastly sounding “discipline-flourishing democracy”, the country is preparing for elections that could actually be worth the ballot paper they are written on. To be fair, the carefully orchestrated elections held in 2010 were far more significant than many believed then. Though conducted according to a constitution that guaranteed the military a quarter of seats in parliament and despite being boycotted by The National League for Democracy, the main opposition party, the poll marked the beginning of real change. Hundreds of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, were released. Censorship was eased and Thein Sein, a general turned president, embarked on genuine, if inevitably circumscribed, reform. Ceasefires were negotiated with armies representing ethnic minorities. By-elections were held in which Ms Suu Kyi and 40 other NLD candidates won parliamentary seats.

Cynics would say the generals still call the shots, religious tensions have escalated and crony capitalism is alive and well. But that is not the whole story. Myanmar is a different place than it was a few years ago. The legislature has become a force to be reckoned with. Cracks have been created in which the first shoots of a more genuine democracy are taking hold.

Still, several things must happen if Myanmar’s transition is to regain momentum. Crucially, the military needs to be confident enough to step back further from power. That would mean renouncing its bloc of seats in parliament and effectively giving up its veto on constitutional change. It would also mean removing a clause, written specifically with Ms Suu Kyi in mind, barring her from becoming president on the grounds that she has children who hold a foreign passport. The military may well decide that to give up its veto and to unshackle Myanmar’s most popular politician would be too risky. It should reconsider and cut a deal before the election, which will probably be in November. Any poll from which Ms Suu Kyi is excluded from the top office would lack legitimacy.

That is not to say Myanmar’s fate hangs entirely on Ms Suu Kyi. There are concerns about whether the Nobel laureate, 69, has the necessary qualities to run the country. Being an icon of democracy and leader of a nation with political and economic problems are two different things. She is surprisingly vague about what she would do if she became president. It is still conceivable that she may choose a behind-the-scenes role rather than go for the presidency herself.

Constitutional matters are just the tip of the iceberg. Whoever becomes president will confront a multitude of dangerous issues. Three are worth singling out. One is reaching a settlement with the ethnic minorities. Without genuine federalism the project of building what is essentially a new country after half a century of sporadic civil war will be doomed. Second, more effort must be made to spread the fruits of economic growth. The perception — and most likely the reality — is that the lion’s share of impressive growth is going to a few businessmen, many of whom got rich during the military era. Third, the authorities must get a firmer grip on rising religious tension, most of it directed against the Muslim minority. In Rakhine state, Muslims continue to be treated abominably. Instead of pandering to Buddhist chauvinism, the new government must set a more tolerant tone and ensure that Muslims are not treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Myanmar could yet be seen as a model transition. Much depends on what the generals do next.

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