13 Mar 2016

Insight: Myanmar - A Democracy Under Construction

From Insight, 7:50 am on 13 March 2016
Bandoola Park in Central Yangon

Bandoola Park in central Yangon - the country's commercial capital Photo: Graeme Acton/RNZ

The National League for Democracy(NLD)'s victory in Myanmar's national election last November was an overwhelming majority win, sweeping aside the military-aligned USDP in the polls, and bringing an end to the army's control of the country. However, formidable challenges lie ahead.

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When the NLD officially takes over the reins of government in the capital Naypyidaw on 31 March, they are likely to discover that winning the election was a very much smaller hurdle than forming a workable government and then holding onto political power until the next election, which is scheduled for 2020.

Dr Nicholas Farrelly runs the Myanmar Research Centre at Canberra's Australian National University

Dr Nicholas Farrelly Photo: Graeme Acton/RNZ

"You'll see the ball dropped," said Dr Nicholas Farrelly, from the Australian National University's Myanmar Research Centre in Canberra. "But they will learn from the mistakes and you'll find they do things slightly differently than they've been done in the past."

The NLD's Nobel Laureate leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been forced to face the fact she will not be the president.

Following extensive discussions with the military administration, it is obvious now she has not succeeded in changing its decision about Section 59(f) of the 2008 constitution, which stops her taking the presidency because her sons are not Myanmar citizens. Instead, she has declared she will be "above the president", and plans to hold executive power while a symbolic president takes the nominal office.

The NLD had hoped the military could be persuaded to endorse a constitutional amendment, but it seems relations may have soured somewhat between the two sides, prompting Aung San Suu Kyi to cut short negotiations and bring forward the process for selecting the proxy president.

The power of the new government will also be curtailed by the 25 percent of seats held by the military bloc that will stay in Parliament, and by the army retaining control of some of the most important national ministries: Home Affairs, Defence and Border Affairs.

Crucially, the Home Affairs Ministry continues to control the ubiquitous General Administration Department, which has an office in most towns and cities across the country. As such, it has been one of the principal agents keeping a quiet eye on people and events in some of the country's most restive states.

"For the army, this is all going to plan," Dr Farrelly said. "They planned the new constitution in 2008, they planned the return to democracy, the timing of the election - it's all going very nicely from their perspective."  

Modern Apartments in Yangon

Modern apartments in Yangon Photo: Graeme Acton/RNZ

While the focus has been the question of the presidency and how power will be wielded under the new government, many other vital issues loom for the incoming government.

Among these is the need to raise the standard of living, the quality of education and the health status of the people, especially in rural areas. The country also needs to improve environmental protection amid growing exploitation by resource companies, and there is an urgent need to reform the legal system and land law.

Myanmar Police on the Central Rail Line in the commercial capital Yangon

Myanmar police on the central rail line in Yangon Photo: Graeme Acton/RNZ

Chief among these, though, must be the issues presented by the demands of ethnic groups throughout the country.

"Our constitution does not protect individuals," said a Kachin peace activist, Khon Ja.

The Kachin people in the northern state have been at war on-and-off with the Tatmadaw for the past 50 years, and this activist's voice is one among many calling on the NLD to address the concerns of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

"We need reform of the land laws because at present the Tatmadaw can simply seize land.

"The NLD must try but with the way the Tatmadaw are involved with jade mining and other resources ... Can Aung San Suu Kyi really challenge them?"

For the Kachin, and other ethnic groups, the answer is the creation of a real federal union in Myanmar, with each state having a true degree of self-determination, and retaining an army of some kind that will engage with the Tatmadaw, or neighbouring states, as the need arises.

Even while the national ceasefire agreement was being put into place, the military began offensives in Shan, and Kachin states in the east and north-east of the country. The intensifying of armed conflict was seen by many as a ploy to push rebellious states that had refused to sign the ceasefire to concede, but the renewed violence only served to emphasise the dysfunctional relationship between Naypyidaw and many of the ethnic nations on Myanmar's borders.

"The NLD's problems would be a big ask for even an experienced and competent opposition coming into power," Dr Farrelly said. "But, for the NLD, they present massive challenges, which will take years to resolve".

The new MPs in Naypyidaw are currently setting up the committees that will trawl through huge amounts of the nation's legislation, reforming laws as they go.

Children at a Sittwe refugee camp in the Rakhine State

Children at a Sittwe refugee camp in Rakhine State Photo: Graeme Acton/RNZ

Elsewhere, much of the population lives on around $US1 a day, education is sporadic and literacy rates are low.  

The country also struggles with a huge number of internally displaced people, and a porous border that has resulted in major drug and human smuggling networks. The army top brass also involve themselves in businesses dealing in everything from poultry to opium poppies, jade mining and forestry.

Aung San Suu Kyi will have to navigate deftly and diplomatically between the military and the people who voted her party to power. She will also need to play her part with India and China, to ensure their support for stability at the borders and non-interference with her policies inside the country.

The NLD's victory at the elections came without a policy framework being presented, or any detail on how they would govern, and there have been few questions raised about the hint of authoritarianism in her assurance she will be "higher than the president".

Posters advertising political books in Yangon

Posters advertising political books in Yangon Photo: Graeme Acton/RNZ

The West is familiar with Daw Suu as a T-shirt rebel, an icon for freedom, a symbol of peace and agent for political change. But she is now much more than that: she is a politician who understands her role can require a degree of ruthlessness and pragmatism that has surprised many. Her pragmatism, however, needs to be tempered by an understanding that a new democracy in Myanmar will not be her task alone.

Balancing both regional and national interests will be a significant challenge to the incoming government, with significant problems now developing in a national ceasefire agreement signed recently with some of the states fighting the Tatmadaw over who controls resources and the desire to become semi-autonomous within the union.

In the national elections, the right-wing nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP) took a swag of seats in Rakhine, the troubled state in western Myanmar that has been rocked by violence between Muslims and Buddhists since 2012.

The ANP's popularity means that Aung San Suu Kyi's options for bringing peace and development to that part of Myanmar are rather limited and, in the meantime, the dispossessed and disenfranchised Muslim Rohingya minority continues to languish in camps in appalling conditions.

The issue of the Rohingya was one deftly avoided by the NLD on the campaign trail, but as government they now have to face a humanitarian disaster that threatens to again burst into violence.

While the NLD struggles with the massive legislative agenda it has taken on, it ignores the issue at its peril.          

Graeme Acton's trip to Myanmar was funded by a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.