The End of a Fairy Tale: A Realistic Look at Myanmar’s Political Future

Grant Welby, JHU:

In recent months, much well deserved praise has been given to the government and people of the nation of Myanmar. On November 8th of 2015 the people of Myanmar held their first free and open elections in nearly 25 years and chose in overwhelming fashion to elect the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by famed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to power. In doing so, the people of Myanmar fulfilled an inspiring fairy tale over six decades in the making.

This particular fairy tale began in the 1940s. Suu Kyi’s father was a nationalist named Aung San, who was the most prominent political figure in colonial Burma and a military officer who managed to come to agreements with fractious ethnic groups before his untimely assassination in 1947. At the time, Suu Kyi was two years old. Suu Kyi would leave Burma to be educated abroad, before returning at Burma’s darkest hour to care for her sick mother. It was then, in 1988, in the midst of military crackdowns that would claim thousands of lives and even rename the country from “Burma” to “Myanmar”, that she decided she would follow in her father’s footsteps. She formed the NLD and contested the 1990 elections. Her NLD won a staggering victory in 1990, but the change was too large for the military to accept, and they invalidated the results. Leading the NLD made Suu Kyi a target. She would spend the next 20 years in and out of prison and house arrest, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her continued advocacy for human rights and democracy. It was during this time that Aung San Suu Kyi became known as “The Lady,” the beacon for hope and freedom in the midst of darkness. Dawn came in 2010, when Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. The government, led by President Thein Shein was instituting reforms in an attempt to transition to civilian rule. It would take until 2015 for the first real elections to occur, and fittingly these elections swept Aung San Suu Kyi into power. The fairy tale was complete; the daughter turned politician turned activist had completed her journey.

The only problem with fairy tales is that they are not real.

It is true that the country now known as Myanmar has made immense progress in the last five years. That fact should never be discounted. However, interwoven with the gauzy fairy tale described above and depicted in the media is one of the longest running civil wars in history, decades of political repression, poverty, disaster, and what some might even describe as genocide. All of these challenges have threatened to tear Myanmar at the seams, and only a strong military government has managed to keep it together, and even then tenuously at times. The fairytale of Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise is over. The very real, much more complicated story of Myanmar’s future is just beginning. In many ways the “easy” part is over. It is time to take a realistic look at Myanmar, and assess the challenges the country is facing and will face in the future.

The first major challenge the NLD and Suu Kyi will face is forming an effective administration. At the start of the term, Suu Kyi made herself head of four ministerial positions, the ministries of president’s office, foreign affairs, electric power and energy, and education. Although Suu Kyi has decided to give up the ministries of electric power and energy, and education, she has also openly admitted that she is “above the president,” (Htin Kytaw) who is acting as a proxy for her. Suu Kyi would be president herself, if the constitution did not explicitly forbid those with foreign spouses or children (her sons have British citizenship) from holding office. Ruling by proxy is difficult and potentially inefficient. Although Suu Kyi has been an inspiring activist, the fortitude necessary to endure imprisonment does not necessarily translate into the wisdom and strength necessary to govern. Recent actions indicate questionable judgment on the NLD’s part politically. This is illustrated in the creation of the “state councilor” position, effectively giving Suu Kyi more authority than the President. The NLD ramrodded the legislation through the lower house of parliament amid protests from the military. Passing the legislation has gotten the first democratically elected government of Myanmar off to a rough start and expended valuable political capital for questionable gains. Myanmar must begin to focus less on Aung San Suu Kyi and more on reform and growth if it is to move forward.

The NLD and Suu Kyi must also contend with continued military influence in the government. The constitution mandates that 25% of parliamentary seats belong to the military, as well as three key ministerial positions, the ministers of defense, interior, and border affairs. The military is also legally allowed to assume control of the government in case of national emergency, and according to the constitution, is intended to take a leadership role in politics. It is worth noting that the constitution can only be amended by a 75% vote in parliament. Given that the military controls 25% of the seats, it makes it virtually impossible to amend the document without some military consent. Under current arrangements the military will also always be able to appoint one of the two Vice presidents. At this point in time it is incredibly dangerous to even attempt to amend the constitution. The NLD and Suu Kyi will have to wait years before they can muster the support to reduce military power. Until then they will have to tread lightly lest they upset the delicate equilibrium currently in place.

Furthermore, Myanmar is still experiencing intermittent civil war, the longest continuous civil war in history. Conflict has continued between armies drafted from over a dozen minority ethnic groups fighting for increased autonomy and rights. Although the military was able to sign a ceasefire with seven of the groups in 2011, there still remain a number of groups in open opposition to the government, including some of the largest groups, like the Arakan Army and the TNG. Several of these groups were not even invited to peace talks. In order to move the country forward, the NLD needs to end these conflicts and make accommodations to the patchwork of ethnic groups in the country. The NLD will also need to address the plight of the Rohingya minority, which has been under threat for decades. The NLD and the military consider this to be an immigration issue, arguing that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. For all of Aung San Suu Kyi’s human rights advocacy she has remained disappointingly silent on the issue. Many believe she will ignore the issue as to not cause trouble while her government is still new. Religious tensions also contribute to the issue, as most of Myanmar is Buddhist, while the Rohingya are Muslim. To this point, a rise of Buddhist nationalist sentiment has exacerbated tensions even inside the newly formed government, with the new minister of religion (thankfully not an NLD member) making inflammatory comments about the rights of Muslims in the country.

There are great reasons to have hope for Myanmar’s future. Foreign direct investment has made huge jumps in the last 7 years, to over $8 billion. The country is undergoing massive investment and modernization that has the capability to improve the lives of tens of millions of people. Sanctions, including US sanctions, will likely be wound down in the near future. But in order to realistically evaluate Myanmar’s position one must remember the grave challenges it faces. The fairy tale story of the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi must transform into delicate political maneuvering, economic reform and development.

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