Myanmar needs more than a new government

The people of Myanmar have collectively placed their faith in the NLD. The party will have to go on, even beyond Aung San Suu Kyi’s lifetime. A commentary.

A super-majority has been achieved by the opposition National League for Democracy. The final tally has not been announced, but the latest results show that it has won 389 out of 664 seats in the bicameral Union Parliament and can form a government on its own. The magnitude of the loss and debacle for the establishment in power is greater than it had been in that fateful year of 1990, when the unfortunate outcome set this country back another quarter of a century.

The correct gestures are now being made and a meeting of the leaders on both sides is scheduled for next month – after all the ballots come in. This is expected to lead to broadly represented discussions among the country’s political leadership about the transfer of power. The real negotiations will be between Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (with perhaps Than Shwe at his side). Publicly, Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a government of national reconciliation, but the realities will go deeper than that. For the first time since the 1950s, a civilian government will be re-established and can exert influence – if not control – over the military. This is a central thrust and trend that must continue.

The second transformative development is that the NLD won big in the ethnic states, too. For the very first time perhaps, the ethnic nationalities are voting for – and placing their faith in – a pan-national party, which is something that was thought to be impossible for another generation. This has great positive implications for long-delayed nation-building.

The role of the chief ministers

With the NLD’s commanding position, an end to the civil war is genuinely within reach now. This, and the revival of genuine democracy, go hand in hand. Top priority in the months immediately following the inauguration of the new government has to be given to the still-elusive nation-wide ceasefire. The NLD-led government will have to use its clout to bring all the sides together. It now appears that the NLD government will have to accomplish what Thein Sein’s government could not. Following that, it will have to preside over not only the deepening of democracy, but over the transition to federalism, too.

With majorities in the state/region legislatures as well, the NLD is in a position to bring into effect a federal system. The cabinets and chief ministers will also be from that party (except for the security affairs minister). Under the new circumstances, the new president will have to give his assent to such locally led appointments. So, in each state and region, there will be a chief minister and cabinet more in keeping with the people’s wishes.

The chief minister has to look more to the people than to his/her party. The degree of independence versus party control will depend on the chief minister and will be a work in progress. The cabinet members will be local officeholders accountable to the local public first, and NLD members second. It can be seen as a first structural step towards federalism. Overall the chances are promising. Everyone seems to be playing the game properly, knowing that disruptions are in no one’s interest. Let us hope things stay that way, since there is much waiting to be attended to.

The NLD needs new party members

Having said all this, I see the NLD as having reached the pinnacle and going ahead with its five-year term in office. Aung San Suu Kyi may yet become president, but I am not much concerned with that – I wish her luck. No other party has achieved this kind of victory in a (difficult) multiparty setting. A great deal of good can be done for the country, but for that to happen, time is needed.

An election victory of this scale means that the people of Myanmar have collectively placed their faith in this party. Hence, the NLD will have to go on, even beyond Aung San Suu Kyi’s lifetime. If the NLD falters or collapses, the people’s hopes go with it, too. Therefore, the NLD’s survival and strength is necessary for the sake of the people, not that of the party nor Aung San Suu Kyi.

The other side will watch and wait patiently. Aung San Suu Kyi’s age is known, as well as the present state of her party. The armed forces are recruiting thousands of officers and men (and women) every year, training them, setting objectives, and planning for the future. The NLD needs to do the same, and this is a good time to start. Forming and running a government is important and exciting, but Myanmar needs more than that. Remember that this election has intertwined the fates of the winning NLD and the people of Myanmar. The NLD must not fail the people this time.

This comment is part of our dossier on the elections in Myanmar.