At long last, Myanmar has a democratic government. On Monday, National League of Democracy (NLD) representatives took their seats as the majority party in Myanmar’s National Assembly, a result of elections held two months ago. The NLD’s victory in that ballot was widely expected, but its assumption of power by no means assured: The party won parliamentary elections held in 1990, but the military intervened and nullified the vote. This time, however, the will of the people prevailed and the NLD now leads the parliament and will select the government that will take office in a few months’ time.
The outgoing administration has pledged to cooperate with the new government. That may not be enough to guarantee a smooth transition, however, much less success. The NLD lacks experience in governance and faces formidable national challenges. The military maintains control of 25 percent of the seats in the assembly, enough to block reform of a national charter that entrenches the armed forces within the corridors of power. Perhaps most worrisome is the degree to which even the outgoing ruling party truly controls the military: It has enjoyed near total autonomy and there are factions that will resist any loss of privilege.
The NLD won an absolute majority in both houses of parliament in the national elections in November, beating badly the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of President Thein Sein. In most cases, that would mean that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the NLD, would become president but Myanmar’s constitution forbids anyone with foreign relatives from assuming the presidency. The clause was specifically written to keep Suu Kyi from office: Her late husband was British and her two sons hold United Kingdom passports.
To her credit, Suu Kyi has accepted the patently discriminatory clause, and acknowledged that she will not be president. Instead, she will be “above the president,” an arrangement that has apparently been blessed by the military. She has met with Thein Sein and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, head of the armed forces, and both have promised a peaceful transfer of power. For their part, Suu Kyi and the NLD have gone out of their way to say they will not antagonize the military and promise that change will be gradual.
It still is not clear who will be president, but Tin Myo Win, a former political prisoner and Suu Kyi’s personal physician, is reportedly high on the list of prospects. He has attended meetings between the NLD and the military and is a longtime confidant of Suu Kyi. Thein Sein’s term expires in April, so the NLD has two months to put a government together.
The new government will have several pressing tasks. Some, such as releasing political prisoners or rewriting blatantly unfair laws, should be relatively easy to accomplish. Others will take considerably more time. It should be easy to pass laws that end the persecution of minorities, such as the Rohingya, but even Suu Kyi has been slow to rise in defense of this ethnic group. Similarly, promising equality for long-suffering ethnic groups that have taken up arms against the government is an easy way for the new government to break with the past, but it has yet to indicate that its heart is in such initiatives. Peace is critical to economic development so some solution must be forthcoming.
An immediate challenge will be getting the financial support for economic development. The Asian Development Bank estimates that Myanmar’s economy grew 8.3 percent in 2015 and it should maintain that pace this year. Foreign investment reached $8 billion last year, more than 20 times the 2010 level. But demand for funds is high: Infrastructure is old and bottlenecks severe. There is a widespread belief that the NLD’s coming to power puts a new face on the country and will by itself facilitate investment. The retention by the military of significant powers as enshrined in the existing constitution will give many investors reason to pause, however. While Western governments have welcomed Myanmar’s return to the international community, sanctions persist as a way to prevent backsliding.
Two other factors will be especially problematic. The first is a lack of capacity within Myanmar. The country has been isolated for decades, a condition that has starved it of funds and expertise. Simply put, Myanmar does not yet have the human capital to fulfill government responsibilities and modernize the economy. The bureaucracy, like the NLD, is weak. This has two critical implications: The NLD could be setting itself up for failure if popular expectations are not met and it could further entrench those pockets of the economy that are beyond the reach of the government.
To call the power of the military within the economy “corruption” is too simple. The military and its agents have assumed control of lucrative sectors and they will be loath to give them up, an experience that the Thein Sein government — a military administration — encountered. That resistance will color Myanmar’s relations with the rest of the world. The NLD must rein those groups in. That has been difficult for governments that share their outlook and background. The NLD has its work cut out.