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Challenges for the new Myanmar government

12/03/2016

In an opinion piece I wrote in the Otago Daily Times a few weeks ago, I outlined the challenges ahead for Myanmar (also known as Burma) to transition towards a stable democratic form of government.

My key point was that for  liberal democratic institutions to be established as a governmental norm, the process of voting is insufficient.  Here’s how I put it in the concluding paragraph of that piece.

Establishing a democratic norm is more complicated than simply allowing people to vote for their candidate of choice. For Burma to maintain democratic institutions, the state must dispense power in a legitimate fashion, elevate the rule of law and introduce a necessary framework to encourage economic growth. Yet it must do so in a fashion which builds on the existing institutional framework provided by the military without simply casting it aside.

A further complication in Myanmar’s case is that the national constitution, authored by the former military government, requires the votes of three quarters of the legislature in order for it to be changed. The military also retain 25 percent of seats in the national parliament which means they possess a near veto over such change. The immediate consequence of this has been that the popular leader of the National League for Democracy, the party who won a majority 77 percent of the vote in national elections last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from becoming president because of a constitutional provision which prohibited people with close family members who are foreigners becoming president. Ms Suu Kyi’s two sons are British citizens.

This week Ms Suu Kyi selected her preferred presidential candidate. He is Htin Kyaw, a former University teacher and advisor to Suu Kyi.  Suu Kyi had earlier hoped to convince the military to suspend the provision barring her from accepting the position of president but was unsuccessful. Aside from this matter, relationships between Suu Kyi’s government in waiting and the military continue to be strained.

The American Interest website notes a Reuters report that there has even been disagreement over parking spaces between the military and the Suu Kyi government. Furthermore the AI notes the importance of the military as an existing institution with statecraft capacity.

But there’s also the problem that she and her political allies have never run Myanmar before. Without expertise in statecraft and on-the-ground relationships, it’s difficult to manage a government. If the military—which has that know-how—isn’t willing to cooperate, things could fall apart very quickly.

These continue to be interesting and challenging times for a small nascent democracy in south east Asia.

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