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Myanmar's democratic transition

Building consensus the first challenge for the new Myanmar

As much as Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD will want to sweep away memories of the junta by altering the constitution and pushing reforms, it will have to do so democratically by working with minority groups and building alliances

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 1:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 1:08am

The transition for Myanmar from military rule to a democracy is all but complete now that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has taken control of parliament. Hopes for change are vested in the new lawmakers, who face an array of challenges from attracting investment to ending insurgencies. But meeting expectations will not be easy. Most of them have no political experience. As much as they will want to sweep away memories of the junta by altering the constitution and pushing reforms, they will have to do so democratically by working with minority groups and building alliances.

Democracy icon Suu Kyi is well aware of the need for consensus building. In the two months since her party won a landslide in national elections, she has held meetings with outgoing president Thein Sein, senior military leader Min Aung Hlaing and former general Than Shwe. The military-drafted constitution reserves 25 per cent of the seats in parliament for the army and guarantees it the cabinet posts of defence and internal and border affairs. A constitutional provision barring those with a foreign spouse or children from the presidency prevents Suu Kyi from holding the country’s top job; she and her legislators have no choice other than to work with the former regime and the lawmakers of its Union Solidarity and Development party.

Yet the shift that allowed the NLD to contest open elections would not have taken place had the military been unwilling to implement reforms. Thein Sein began that process in 2010 and in his outgoing speech hailed what he termed the successful transition of power. But success cannot truly be determined until a new government is in place and the next president chosen. Making those choices will be the first test of the parliament.

For the country’s sake, that process has to go smoothly. Bigger challenges lie ahead, among them fighting corruption, ending border insurgencies and calming ethnic and religious tensions. Although the opening up of the economy has led to growth rates of more than 8 per cent and billions of dollars of investment, many more years of such levels will be necessary to develop a country downtrodden by five decades of misrule. Policies have to include improving education and health care, building infrastructure and cutting bureaucratic red tape.

Suu Kyi’s electoral campaign focused on a single message: Change. Myanmar’s 51 million people expect that of their new parliament. But only by lawmakers setting aside differences and finding common ground will that come about.