Dawn of democracy in Myanmar

By Vikas Khanna

New Delhi, Feb.5 (ANI): Myanmar finally succeeded in realizing the dream for democracy after decades of struggle as the first popularly elected parliament in more than a half century held its first sitting early this week. It will go down as a landmark in history of Myanmar because of the smooth drawn-out transfer of power from the deeply entrenched junta to the first democratically elected government since 1962. And it could not have been made possible without the efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi, who did not waver in her struggle for democracy, despite being put under house arrest for more than 15 years.

Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy-dominated parliament will officially begin its term in April after the election of a new president. Amidst an air of new-found optimism, the next few months will be full of anxiety. Suu Kyi can’t become the president under the controversial 2008 constitution. According to the military-drafted constitution, those with children who have foreign nationality are barred from the office of the country’s top post. Suu Kyi has two sons from her late husband, who are British. Her comments that she will be “above the president” and in complete control of the government have not gone down well with the military which will be sharing power in the new government. Has she envisioned a role for herself like India’s Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, who wielded considerable power despite being out of government when she made Manmohan Singh the prime minister in May 2014? Suu Kyi has remained tight-lipped so far as to who will replace the outgoing President Thein Sein.

Election of a new president is a long drawn out exercise in Myanmar. Unlike the most prevalent democratic practices, the President will not be chosen directly by the party or the voters. The parliament’s two chambers will choose a presidential candidate each and the military, which controls a quarter of seats, will also name its nominee. The two houses will then vote for the three candidates. The candidate winning the most of the votes will become president where as the other two will be his deputies. Here again one of the vice-presidents of the country will be from the military which has ensured a role for itself in managing the legislature.

Suu Kyi knows it very well that pressing her stake for the country’s top post right now will only vitiate the atmosphere and the fragile bonhomie that exists between her and the military generals may soon be a thing of the past. There is a likely possibility that Suu Kyi may appoint a figure-head president but will pull the strings of the government indirectly. The military has dropped enough indications that it is averse to changing the statute to make Suu Kyi the President of the country. In fact, Suu Kyi held a series of meetings with the ruling junta leaders soon after her landslide victory in the November elections. But the generals were unmoved.

As things stand today, Suu Kyi will have to work in tandem with the military as she attempts to deepen the roots of democracy in the country. Her victory was celebrated across the world. The international community hoped that Suu Kyi would usher in the truest form of democracy in Myanmar after her resounding victory. In the months to come, the army, which has ruled the country with an iron fist for almost half a century, will feel the heat from the global community as Myanmar will have to open its doors to the outside world for investments. Myanmar will also be under pressure to unleash more political and economic reforms to create a favourable environment for foreign investors.

“The Lady”, as Suu Kyi is known in Myanmar, is a revered figure. The people of the country voted for her party only to see her becoming the president of the country. In fact, she received a shot in the arm recently when a former defence minister and commander in chief, Tin Oo, also threw his weight behind her and supported her bid for the presidentship. The old lady knows that sooner or later the army will have to change its attitude and will have to listen to the voice of the people. Patience and perseverance will finally reward her with the coveted post.

But most importantly, it remains to be seen how the NLD will be able to implement its agenda of governance. The top three security ministries, namely defence, border and home affairs, will remain in the hands of the military under the constitution which was carefully drafted by the junta to establish its influence on politics. The military even tried to bring immigration matters under its control, but the proposal was voted down by outgoing lawmakers last week.

Suu Kyi will thus have to tread very cautiously as she begins her new inning. She can’t afford to take on the military, which has in the past prevented her from becoming the president and putting her under house arrest despite winning the 1990 elections overwhelmingly. She does not have much choice but to engage with the military. With both the NLD and the military having very little in common as far as their positions on important issues are concerned, it will not be an easy journey ahead. The NLD will be forced into constant negotiations with the military.

Aware of the challenges, Suu Kyi has tried to buy peace with the military establishment by making it clear that she is in no hurry for an immediate overhaul of the constitution and her focus is on the future. In fact, she took a step towards national reconciliation by offering the posts of deputy parliamentary speakers to the defeated Union Solidarity and Development Party and an ethnic minority Arakan National Party despite stiff opposition from her party.

Expectations are high for the Nobel peace laureate to cure the ills of the country from transforming an economy hit by decades of isolation to bringing peace with several of the country’s major ethnic armed groups, particularly in Kachin and Shan states. Myanmar needs a new political and economic change that will uplift the impoverished nation of more than 51 million people. One of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries, Myanmar’s economy is in a shambles. The previous quasi-civilian government under ex-general Thein Sein undertook some reforms, both political and economic, which led to the lifting of sanctions. But challenges are too many for Suu Kyi. The new government has to outline vision on important policies which should not be seen a marked departure from the previous regime. She has a daunting task ahead in getting the country back on track.

Vikas Khanna is a senior journalist and the views expressed by him are personal (ANI)

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