NEW YORK – Myanmar’s parliament this month elected a veteran National League for Democracy (NLD) official as the country’s new president. Together with two vice presidents, Htin Kyaw, a confidant of party chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, will lead the nation’s first democratic government in more than 50 years upon assumption of office on April 1.
The election of the new president came four months after last November’s general elections, in which the NLD scored a landslide victory to put an end to the country’s military rule since 1962. Htin Kyaw was nominated to the top post by the NLD after rounds of discussion between Suu Kyi and top military leaders failed to yield a desirable result on the proposed amendment of the country’s 2008 constitution, which bars individuals whose spouses or children are foreign nationals from qualifying for the post of president.
Suu Kyi cannot be president herself because her children carry British passports. As the leader of the ruling party, however, she has said she will be “above the president” and is expected to govern the country through the new president.
Under the 2008 constitution, the military is guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats and allowed to control the country’s three key ministries — internal affairs, defense and border security. One of the two vice presidents was also nominated by the military. Cognizant of the considerable influence that the military still wields in Myanmar’s society, Suu Kyi has called for a policy of national unity in which to engage the military despite her party’s lopsided triumph in the November elections.
Although no agreement was reached on the proposed constitutional amendment as expected, the NLD and the military should be credited for having managed the transitional process since the elections in a peaceful and orderly manner. Suu Kyi, former President Thein Sein, who had led a military-backed government since 2010, and Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, kept the promises they made in the wake of the elections that they would meet and ensure the smooth and peaceful transition process leading to the inauguration of a new civilian government.
During the past four months, Suu Kyi and the NLD demonstrated their commitment to forming a government of national reconciliation by not only engaging the military but also reaching out to the country’s various ethnic minority groups. Her party nominated an ethnic Chin leader for the other vice presidential post and appointed representatives of other ethnic groups, such as Karen, Arakan and Kachin, as speakers and deputy speakers of the two houses of parliament.
The participation of ethnic minority representatives in national politics is crucial for the future of nation-building and democratization process in Myanmar, a multiethnic country consisting of 135 ethnic groups.
Despite the peaceful transition period thus far, however, the challenges facing Myanmar are still daunting, to say the least. Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, suffering from decades of isolation and mismanagement under the military rule. Its economy must be developed and its national institutions need to be improved if Myanmar is to become a prosperous democracy where key democratic fundamentals, such as freedom of speech, freedom of political and religious affiliation, respect for human rights and rule of law, are ensured.
Since lasting peace is a prerequisite for successful nation-building, a comprehensive peace agreement with all ethnic groups, some of which are still fighting to demand a federal system, should be addressed urgently.
The new NLD-led government is required to start a fresh round of discussion to achieve a comprehensive ceasefire agreement that will commit all ethnic armed groups to a lasting peace in Myanmar. In parallel, the reform of the military into a law-abiding, professional body that is solely responsible for national defense should also be dealt with on an urgent basis.
Furthermore, the issue of discrimination against the minority Muslim community in Rakhine state and elsewhere, including the Rohingya people, also requires urgent attention by the new government.
For Myanmar to address these formidable issues and advance its genuine democratic transition, the commitment of all stakeholders, including the government, the military, ethnic groups and the general public will be indispensable.
On its part, the NLD should strengthen its capacity for policy formulation and implementation, given the fact that many of its 390 lawmakers elected to parliament last November, not to mention hundreds of more in state and regional assemblies, are novice politicians.
The military and ethnic groups should unite under Suu Kyi’s leadership and support the new civilian government. And more than anything, the people of Myanmar should understand that the task facing the new government is so daunting that it cannot be achieved in a day.
The formation of the first civilian government in more than 50 years on April 1 is only the beginning, and not the end, of Myanmar’s long process of transition to a genuine democracy. A strong resolve and commitment by the government and the people of Myanmar to advance the country’s democratic transition in unity is required now more than ever.
A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) published by The Japan Times and many other articles on U.N. and Asian issues.