“Our new government will implement national reconciliation, peace in the country, emergence of a constitution that will pave the way to a democratic union, and enhance the living standard of the people.” (Htin Kyaw, President of Myanmar)
On March 30, Myanmar (previously Burma) elected Htin Kyaw, 69-year-old childhood friend and senior aide of the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as the country’s new president to become the first elected civilian leader in more than 50 years. He took over from Thein Sein who is credited with introducing wide-ranging reforms during his five years in power. The handover completes the transition that began after the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide win in elections in November — the first elections to take place in Myanmar for 25 years.
From April 2016, Myanmar is being ruled by a civilian government; country’s first in more than half a century. The trouble is that it still has a military government as well. The 2008 constitution, written by the military junta, includes four provisions that limit the NLD’s power. First, it assigns the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) 25 percent of all seats in both houses of the legislature. Second, it requires a majority of more than 75 percent to approve any constitutional amendment. Third, it prohibits anyone with a foreign spouse or child from becoming president, a provision likely written with the president of the NLD and long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in mind: Her children are British citizens. And finally, the 2008 constitution continued to give the Tatmadaw control of three key ministries: border affairs, defence and home affairs.
Whether, how and when these two governments can be reconciled and made into one are questions that will probably be slowly and incrementally answered over the next few years. It is not going to be an easy process.
Under the new president, Htin Kyaw, Suu Kyi, who has repeatedly stated in public that although she may not hold the office, she will be the country’s de facto president, has taken four ministries: foreign affairs, presidential affairs, energy and education — although reportedly she may renounce two or three of them. That is a formidable bundle and, in addition to the influence inherent in these positions, a bill to create a new post of high state adviser and bestow it on her is going through the legislature.
But the military, under a constitution that cannot be changed without their consent, still controls the key portfolios of defence, border affairs and home affairs. Perhaps the most important task for the NLD government will be to develop an effective working relationship with the military because unless the NLD can persuade at least some of the 25 percent of the legislators who are appointed by the armed forces, it will be unable to amend the constitution to allow “the Lady” — as Suu Kyi is fondly called — to become president or to relax the stipulation requiring a 75 percent approval for any change to the law
Apart from direct control of the armed forces, the stipulation gives them great influence over local government, over security and administration in border areas, and control of the police. In the national defence and security council, they hold the majority of posts. The commander-in-chief also has wide-ranging powers. In the legislature, soldiers have as of right 25% of seats.
They hold the same proportion in local assemblies. These positions used to be closely coupled to the formal government machine, because soldiers and ex-soldiers were also dominant there. They have now been uncoupled, because Suu Kyi and her party have displaced the military at that level. But will these still-military power centres obey her or will they instead respond to the commands of what would be in effect a shadow government? Or will it sometimes be one and sometimes the other, as individuals and groups calculate their interests and judge the overall balance of power?
Three important issues will all strain whatever degree of cooperation between the civilian government and the military exists. First, there is an urgent need for progress toward settlement of the ethnic insurgencies that the army in the past signally failed to achieve either by force or by negotiation. Their nationwide ceasefire agreement, in spite of the name, settled very little.
Second, fighting will only end if federal status is given to minority areas, but that will involve dislodging the military in those places and, ultimately, rewriting the constitution. The special case of Arakan, by contrast, needs a firm hand — and obedient security forces — because Arakanese prejudice against the Rohingya is so entrenched.
Third, Suu Kyi must take a decision on the future of the Myitsone dam, a big army project which is unpopular because of the disruption it would cause and the fact that most of the electricity would go to China. These and other choices would be difficult enough if Myanmar had a unified government. They will be tougher still if civilians and soldiers cannot work together.
Myanmar occupies a strategic location in Southeast Asia, and its need for political support, developmental aid—everything from infrastructure improvement to educational programs—and targeted investment is acute. There are few societies where democracy promotion efforts could find more fertile ground or where they would be more gratefully accepted. Ultimately, it will be the people of Myanmar who will determine the nation’s political future — but there is still room for the outside world to help.
Myanmar has seen significant political and economic reforms since 2011 after decades of isolation. Notably, the National League for Democracy, Myanmar’s long-time opposition party, returned to the formal political process with a landslide electoral victory in November 2015 that gave it the majority in both chambers of parliament. In response to the changes, world powers have lifted international sanctions and have sought to build diplomatic relations with the country.
A British colony for more than a century, Burma declared independence in 1948, a year after the assassination of nationalist leader General Aung San, father of opposition leader Daw Suu Kyi. The Union of Burma began as a parliamentary democracy, yet it was beset by ethnic strife from the start. Ethnic Burmans formed roughly two-thirds of its population; the remainder comprised more than one hundred groups, with the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, and Mon among the largest, as well as significant Indian and Chinese populations.
Representative democracy lasted until the military coup of 1962, led by General U Ne Win. Ne Win instituted a new constitution in 1974 based on an isolationist policy with a socialist economic programme that nationalized Burma’s major enterprises.
The country’s economic situation deteriorated rapidly as a result of Ne Win’s policies, and a black-market economy soon took hold. Ne Win resigned as chairman of his party. An even more repressive military junta took power in a coup in September 1988. By 1988, widespread corruption and food shortages led to mass protests, spearheaded by students. On August 8, 1988, the army cracked down on protestors, opening fire on dissidents, killing at least three thousand.
In 1989, the new military regime changed the country’s name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, and the capital Rangoon was renamed Yangon. In 2005, the military government moved the administrative capital to the newly built city Naypyidaw.
In September 2007, widespread protests, called Saffron Revolution, emerged in the country and posed a challenge for the junta.
The regime’s legitimacy suffered a further blow when its slow response and initial blockade of international aid efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people in 2008, led some Western leaders and rights groups to call for humanitarian intervention.
To transition toward democracy, the junta announced to hold a referendum on a new constitution in May 2008, followed by multiparty elections in 2010. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) declared a wide margin of victory in the 2010 general elections.
The junta in 2011 officially dissolved and established a civilian parliament, which appointed former army bureaucrat and then-prime minister Thein Sein as president.
The Thein Sein administration spearheaded a series of reforms, including the amnesty for most political prisoners, relaxation of censorship, establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, and efforts toward peace with ethnic rebel groups. In April 2012, Suu Kyi’s party agreed to compete in by-elections and won forty-four out of forty-six seats.
President Thein Sein announced a second wave of economic reforms in mid-2012, vowing to reduce the government’s role in sectors including energy, forestry, healthcare, finance and telecommunications. A few months later, parliament passed a new foreign investment law that opened up overseas ownership of business ventures and offered tax breaks in a bid to improve its long-beleaguered economy. Myanmar’s net inflow of FDI increased from $900 million in 2010 to more than $8 billion in 2015.
As a result of these reforms, global powers began reestablishing ties with Myanmar and multinational companies began showing interest in investment in the country. In April 2012, UK Prime Minister David Cameron became the first major Western leader to visit Myanmar in twenty years.
Location: Southeast Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, between Bangladesh and Thailand
Independence: 4 January 1948 (from the UK)
Languages: Burmese (official)
Parliament: Assembly of the Union or Pyidaungsu (Bicameral)
Upper House: The House of Nationalities or Amyotha Hluttaw, (224 seats)
Lower House: The House of Representatives or Pyithu Hluttaw, (440 seats)
Total Area: 676,578 sq km (world’s 40th largest)
Land boundaries: 6,522 km
Bordering Countries: 5 (Bangladesh 271 km, China 2,129 km, India 1,468 km, Laos 238 km, Thailand 2,416 km)
Coastline: 1,930 km
Highest Point: Gamlang Razi 5,870 m
Lowest Point: Andaman Sea (0 m)
Population: 56,320,206 (estimated)
Ethnic Groups: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, other 5%
National Symbol: Chinthe (mythical lion);
National Colors: yellow, green, red, white
National anthem: “Kaba Ma Kyei” (Till the End of the World, Myanmar)
Religions: Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, Animist 1%, other 2%
Constitutions: previous 1947, 1974 (suspended until 2008); latest approved by referendum 29 May 2008 (2015)
Chief of State: President Htin Kyaw; Vice Presidents Myint Swe and Henry Van Tio (all since 30 March 2016)
Note: The president is both chief of state and head of government.