A new chapter in Myanmar

March 17, 2016 12:11 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:01 pm IST

The election of U Htin Kyaw as Myanmar’s President is a watershed moment in its history. Mr. >Htin Kyaw’s government would be its most democratic administration since 1962 when the military seized power. During this period, the generals ran a repressive regime that denied the people even basic democratic rights and isolated the country internationally. For Myanmar’s pro-democracy camp, the election is a moment of joy, and sorrow. Finally a legitimate, democratic government is in place, but there is deep disappointment at the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi, their “rightful” leader, could not become the President. A provision in the military-era Constitution bars Ms. Suu Kyi from assuming the highest office as her children are foreign citizens. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) lacks the parliamentary power to rewrite the Constitution. Efforts by Ms. Suu Kyi to reach a settlement with the generals did not bear fruit either. It was against this background that she nominated Mr. Htin Kyaw, an economist and writer she has known from her early school days, as the party’s presidential candidate. Ms. Suu Kyi has made it clear that she will be in control of the government, irrespective of her constitutional status.

While the >formation of a democratic government is clearly a firm step forward, the new government faces an uphill task. Primarily, it has to address the deep economic problems. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia. In the years of isolation under the junta, economic growth stagnated, trapping millions in acute poverty. Getting the economy back on track is no easy task, and Myanmar will need regional and global assistance. Besides, though the generals have agreed to civilian takeover of political power, they still wield enormous influence over Myanmar’s institutions. One-quarter of seats in both Houses of Parliament are reserved for the military. This prevents any constitutional amendments without the military’s approval. The military also has direct control of three key Ministries: defence, home affairs and border affairs. Two recent actions of the military indicate it is still not ready to cede influence over institutions completely. The first is its refusal to let Ms. Suu Kyi become the President. It knew that if Ms. Suu Kyi, hugely popular at home and widely respected abroad, becomes President, that could expedite the country’s transition into a full democracy. Second, by successfully getting Myint Swe, a controversial retired general who served the previous junta, elected as one of the two vice-presidents, the military has sent a clear message to the government that it is not going to completely stay away from power. But the good news is that the balance of power has clearly shifted in favour of the pro-democracy camp after the November elections. Ms. Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw will have to tread cautiously but purposefully to build on the democratic gains, and expedite Myanmar’s transition into a full democracy.

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