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Challenges for Myanmar’s new government

By Ferooze Ali
January 2, 2015

Victory for Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party in 2015 holds the hope of a new beginning for a nation ruled for years under repressive junta reign.

But great challenges lie ahead for the country’s first civilian-led government. Aung San Suu Kyi is dealing with NLD election victory tactfully, not wanting to upset the USDP losers further which in turn could disrupt the status quo. 

What 2016 may hold for the future of Myanmar remains to be seen. However, there are a few factors worth reflecting on, as these may provide indication on how well Myanmar's democracy will progress:

1) Who will lead?

This has been the primary question as according to Myanmar's constitution Chapter 3, No. 59(f), the president must be someone who “he himself, one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power”.

To circumvent this, Suu Kyi has said she will rule “above the president”, a legally uncertain position that she has not deliberated the details.

She may effectively choose a president as she controls the NLD which will, in turn, dominate parliament. Lawmakers will elect the head of state from three candidates selected by the lower house, the upper house and the military.

Suu Kyi, who could take on a prominent role like the parliament speaker, has also indicated that she will direct policy.

In December 2015, Suu Kyi held her first talks with Burma’s military establishment since her party’s election landslide. Suu Kyi met Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief, and President Thein Sein, a former general, to discuss the handover of power to the country’s first elected government since 1960.

This latest development signal a positive move. However much work remains as Suu Kyi still need to solidify relationships and build the trust of the Burmese Military leadership towards her.

This is crucial in efforts to get their support to amend the specific provision in the constitution which is standing in her way to the presidential office.

2) Managing the military

One of the most important aspects of this transition is easing the nerves of a still enormously powerful military.

Perhaps in a show of defiance, the Myanmar military launched an attack on the marginalised Kachin ethnic and its rebels on 16 November, a few days after ASSK won the election.

La Nan, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) spokesman told VOA Burmese the offensive began Saturday and escalated as government troops used artillery and airstrikes outside the town of Mohnyin in Kachin state.

Meanwhile in December 2015, a political activist in Burma was jailed for six months for a social media parody on the Myanmar military junta. A 25-year-old activist, Chaw Sandi Tun who had reportedly campaigned for Suu Kyi’s NLD party was accused of posting a photo-montage satirising the Burmese military’s new uniforms

Without doubt, the above signals complicated work ahead for Suu Kyi and her new administration in tackling the military state mentality which still pervades the junta.

It is also worth noting that the military still has 25% of the seats in the parliament. How will distribution of such parliamentary seats impact Suu Kyi's position and the new government?

Though it is still early to speculate, this arrangement in the Myanmar parliament may be the thorn in the flesh for any future democratic administration.

3) Ethnic relations and minorities

The stickiest issue by far is the status of the Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim ethnic minority who have been brutally persecuted in Myanmar, with the active involvement of Buddhist monks and government security forces.

The Rohingya, subject to widespread mob violence, have been herded into camps, where many have attempted to flee to neighbouring countries, triggering a refugee crisis throughout Southeast Asia that mirrors the plight of Syrians trying to reach Europe.

Suu Kyi has been noticeably silent on the Rohingya’s plight – inexcusable for a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but all too understandable, if lamentable, for a politician vying for votes in a mostly Buddhist country where the Rohingya are reviled.

However, since she has won the election, the practical question now is – how will she change the current status quo that is facing the Rohingyas? 

Secondly, is there a political will – considering that she may to face the wrath of the still-powerful military and the emerging Buddhist rightist group?

4) The emergence of the Buddhist rightist

Emergence of dogmatic form of Buddhist political movement has coloured Myanmar's political landscape over the years. One of such involved is the firebrand Wirathu which has been constantly propagating the idea that Myanmar's main enemy is it very own Muslim population.

Wirathu, 46, might bear as much responsibility as any individual for the desperate exodus of Muslims from Myanmar aboard overcrowded fishing boats bound for Thailand and Malaysia.

In speeches and Facebook posts, he has warned of an impending “jihad” against the huge Buddhist majority, spread rumours of Muslims systematically raping Buddhist women and called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses. Good Buddhists, he argues, shouldn’t mix socially with Muslims, who he says are “snakes” and “mad dogs”.

This segment presents a potent problem for the new government, pertinently if Suu Kyi is serious in mobilising efforts towards national reconciliation between various ethnicities.

In a nutshell, all the above factors points to a single likelihood – the shaping of democracy in Myanmar will take many more punches.

Secondly, it is obvious that the military junta will still be the major impediment towards a smooth sailing reform post-2015 election.

However, on the flip side of the coin, proponents of incrementalists may argue that the recent NLD landslide victory is the first positive step.

This may be justified as the Myanmar military junta – despite their misgivings and crude approach towards reform – has as a matter of fact paved the inaugural way towards change.

The 2015 NLD election and landslide victory might not have materialised if the junta in the first place had not relinquished its totalitarian military rule over semi civilian government in 2011.

However, Myanmar needs further assistance from the international community, especially in highlighting specific areas of reform which it has performed rather badly.

As I highlighted before, this involves the need to continuously remind Suu Kyi of her responsibility towards mending ethnic relations and respect for minorities.

This effort may not be limited only to the Rohingyas but other equally prosecuted ethnic such as the Karen and Kachin. Election and political reform are one thing to be proud of – however the need to tackle human rights issues (which is also one of the pillar for democracy) in Myanmar is another factor that must be examined seriously towards achieving a fully reform nation.

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