What are the prospects for the next Myanmar government?

Win Myint, The Speaker of the Lower House, walking into parliament on 2nd February 2016 the 2nd day of lower house parliamentarian session in Naypyitaw. He is the first speaker from the National League for Democracy Party

Peace, federalism, development, and poverty - this is the interlinked "cluster", which has to be at the top of the NLD’s agenda. On Aung San Suu Kyi's political challenges in the coming years.

I.  Formation of the next government

Myanmar’s Second Parliament was inaugurated on 1 February 2016. With the resounding victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the national elections, held on 8 November of last year, the majority of the seats will be occupied by that party, which will be forming the next government. The Speakers and Deputy Speakers of the two Houses of Parliament have been named. Since the elections, things have been quiet and orderly – this was a deliberate decision taken by both the incumbent leadership and the winning opposition. It has been quiet to the extent that some journalists have been getting impatient with the dearth of information coming from the NLD.

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 the central thrust and trend, which must continue.

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

I am glad that the elections process went very well, and now we have to make sure that the people’s will is respected. However, it appears that future parliaments and governments are going to be dominated by one party. Looking at the bitter experience our country has had over the years since independence, one-party dominance only spells trouble. I had a lot of confidence in the 2011–2015 Union Parliament, but now the balance is gone, and I have misgivings about working with a legislature that has very little plurality.

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With the NLD’s majority, the next president will be its nominee and will be heavily influenced by the party. So what can be expected is that there will be a separation of powers, but the Parliament and the Executive branch will be controlled by one party. The judiciary in Myanmar cannot be relied upon. Therefore, there is an urgent need to institute balance. It is not enough to say that the armed forces will still be around – indeed, we do not want that institution to extend its lease on political life.

Because of the NLD’s overwhelming majorities at both the union and provincial levels, the party’s strengths and weaknesses are going to be passed on to the next government that it is going to lead.

How can the NLD government respond to the immense expectations of the people? I repeat what I have been saying – that the NLD cannot go it alone. It does not need to form a coalition, but it should deliberately do so and invite in other parties as well as ethnic leaders.

II. Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s agenda

Her most recent position is that she will not concentrate on the presidency but instead focus on her party and government. The movement to amend the Constitution to allow her to assume the presidency may be on hold for the moment. Whatever the case, she will still need the support of the military, which has 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament. And after the amendment is passed by Parliament, there has to be a public referendum.

The new Parliament will nominate the president and vice-presidents. The NLD’s expected course will be to install a "temporary" President before the Constitution can be amended. In the meantime Aung San Suu Kyi will probably take a cabinet position that gives her a place in the supreme National Defence and Security Council. Whichever position she holds, her influence is undeniable.

III. Will there be a new approach to old problems?

This is the interlinked "cluster", which has to be at the top of the NLD’s priority agenda – peace, federalism, development, and poverty.
There has been growth, but it has NOT been shared equally. That is perhaps the greatest economic challenge, and it can quickly become political if not realised. There HAS to be progress within the coming 12 months if the new NLD government is to be considered credible.

Let us face it – on almost all sides, the NLD leadership is going to require the kind of consummate political skills it simply does not possess. I had said (sarcastically) to a group of journalists days after the elections that one solution is for Aung San Suu Kyi to bring in dozens of foreign advisers. A Canadian asked, "Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?"

There is the need to strike a fine balance in many, many areas of political life, and neither Aung San Suu Kyi nor her party are particularly favoured with this skill. Following the resounding electoral victory, the juggernaut mentality and the temptation to employ the club is beginning to be seen – at least within the party.

IV. Capacities, possibilities, and interest to reform by the NLD

U Thein Sein’s reforms over the past five years have been a mixed bag and offered mixed results. The civil administration has been largely untouched – the key place where the reforms have foundered. An overwhelming mandate from the people also means huge expectations, which the NLD government will have to fulfil if it is to be credible. There will be pressures not only to continuing the reforms, but also to initiate new ones and implement all of them.

The NLD would most likely go for the "low-hanging fruit" and try to garner credit. Its campaign slogan "Time for Change" means that there will be a deluge of expectations. One of its central tasks that I see coming up will be to "manage" those expectations.

With the NLD-led Parliament and the coming NLD government the way they are, the only viable option may be to "outsource" the reforms. Getting wholesale advice and capacity from abroad may work for the reforms, but there will be a political price.

V. The priority of achieving peace

With the NLD’s commanding position, an end to the civil war is genuinely within reach now. This, and the revival of genuine democracy, goes together hand in hand. The 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 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.

The post-"NCA" (National Ceasefire Agreement) political dialogue is supposed to include federalisation. However, there is the feeling that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are lukewarm towards this, and there are mutterings that she may even side with the military. The centre’s objective appears to be peace, but without too much federalism. A good approach would be to institute federalism in stages and let peace unfold.

VI. A majority government in a diverse country

Now that federalism is out of the closet, ethnic identities and assertiveness are steadily coming to the fore. State control is being thrown out (deservedly), but at the same time things should not be allowed to get out of hand. The centre has been consistently blamed for practicing divide and rule, and to quite an extent it is true. But ethnic tensions pre-date independence and even the colonial period. Short-sighted governments have only exacerbated the volatile situations.

Myanmar is an anthropologist’s paradise and a statesman’s nightmare. In a more mature and stable democratic country, the issues would be development, budgets, and better social services. Now these and much else are being overlaid and intertwined with democratisation and federalisation.

With majorities in the state/region legislatures, too, the NLD is in a position to bring into effect a federal system. The cabinets and chief ministers (heads of regional governments) will be from that party, too (except for the security affairs minister). Under the new circumstances, the new president will have to 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.

VII. Political challenges in the coming years

I would say political challenges are everywhere. At the top of the list are:

  • charting a course to a federal state
  • issues related to land
  • Rakhine state government
  • Rohingya issue
  • demand for a Wa state
  • disarmament of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO), which is a key factor in the peace process
  • dissension within the NLD itself
  • handling and reforming the government machinery
  • ineffectual responses to natural disasters and humanitarian crises
  • problems posed by crony capitalists

VIII. Spoilers that could undermine change

The following are the likely setbacks that could still happen:

  • NLD-led government descends into chaos
  • parties that lost create trouble for the NLD
  • elements such as SwannAh Shin and MaBaTha (Buddhist nationalist movements) stir up disturbances
  • farmers, workers, students, squatters, etc., stage protests
  • military steps up offensives against EAOs (already doing so)
  • covert means are employed to destabilise economy, for example exchange rates, prices of staples

There is talk of the big losers in the November elections – the senior military figures who retired and the MaBaTha linking up. Besides that, the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party will lick its wounds and regroup. Other elements too will be watching for every misstep that the NLD makes. The ethnic nationalities and EAOs are not happy about their diminished role in the political scene.

IX. Conclusion

To be able to handle all this and more requires skills, minds, and machinery that the NLD cannot provide on its own. There will be other political parties in coalition but they are pretty much in the same boat. The composition of the multi-tasking vehicle that the times demand is therefore crucially important. The cabinet is a good place to start, but things are not limited to just that body.

Myanmar’s coming challenges would tax even a strong state and able leadership. With the decimation of the military’s political arm in the elections, the armed forces’ real position has been overturned. The election results are an emphatic statement that the Myanmar people do not support the establishment. The meeting between (former military dictator) Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi in December is to be welcomed, all the more so because these are exactly the two people who, between them, have held up Myanmar’s transition for two decades. Amid the general relief and perhaps euphoria, a gesture of contrition would be welcome, but I really do not see this happening. One of the foremost questions would be: Will this bring the war to an end?


For more information visit our dossier on the elections in Myanmar.