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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 21 New Delhi May 14, 2016

Myanmar: One Gentle Step at a Time

Tuesday 17 May 2016, by Sandeep Shastri


The newly elected NLD Government has now been in power in Myanmar for just over a month. Its historic win in the November 2015 elections was a categorical vote in favour of democratisation and transition away from military rule. Under the leadership of its charismatic leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD was seen as a symbol of change and a harbinger of democratic transformation. There were immense hurdles along the way. The military continued to hold one-fourth of the seats in the different houses of the central and state legislatures. Critical Ministers in the new Presidential Cabinet (Defence, Home and Border Affairs) would be nominated by the military. Under the 2008 Constitution, Aun San Suu Kyi could not be a candidate for the Presidency as there was a specific provision that debarred those whose spouse or children were citizens of another country. Given the multiple challenges that the NLD and its leadership faced, the four- month period of transition (from the declaration of the election results in November 2015 to the formal installation of the new government in April 2016) was a political tightrope-walk. While the expectations from within the country and the international community were immense, the political possibilities at the ground level were limited. The NLD rode to power on the crest of a tidal wave of public support ....the political honeymoon has just begun.

Having spent two weeks in Myanmar at the end of April, and talking to a cross-section of people, one felt that the mood of excitement, expectation and anticipation one had witnessed soon after the declaration of the November results was still very intense. The manner in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had led her party in the months of political transition is an example in deft political leadership. Given the constitutional limitations that do not permit her to become the President, she nominated a prominent leader in her party to be elected as the Myanmar President. On April 1, after several decades, an individual having no formal connections with the military became the country’s President. This by itself was a historic occasion to celebrate. The Ministers in the President’s Cabinet were chosen with great care with Aung San Suu Kyi herself retaining two critical portfolios of Foreign Minister and Minister in the President’s Office. In a deft political move that can be termed as a political masterstroke, she got Parliament (where her NLD has a huge majority in spite of the military having 25 per cent of the seats and raising an objection) to create the post of State Counsellor which she has come to occupy. This new position allows her to “contact ministries, departments, organisations, asso-ciations and individuals” in an official capacity, and makes her accountable to Parliament. Many see this position as that of a de facto Prime Minister.

 There have been many reports appearing in the media expressing concern about the manner in which the democratisation process in Myanmar is taking shape. Questions have been raised whether the Presidency has become a symbolic position with the real power being wielded by the NLD Chairperson, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her initial move to take charge of four Ministries (besides the current Foreign Ministry and Minister in the President’s Office she was to also be in charge of the Education and Energy Ministries, a proposal that was dropped) raised many an eyebrow. It is important to note that by being the Foreign Minister she is able to sit with the President on the military-dominated Security Council as well as play a more formal role in guiding the foreign policy of the nation.

 Public sentiments in Myanmar on her assuming the position of State Counsellor, Foreign Minister and Minister in the President’s Office and, above all, being the one to lead the nation are at the moment extremely positive. There is no shadow of doubt that the NLD owes its resounding victory to her charismatic leadership. She was seen as a symbol of reform and transition to democracy. Given the limitations imposed by the Constitution, the popular mood is one of support for her astute political mano-euvres to gain control over the process. In this present transition to civilian rule and deepening of the democratisation process, her political moves are seen as steady and calculated steps towards ensuring greater political legitimacy.

 What is clearly evident is that the new leadership is moving forward with caution and weighing every action and assessing its long- term political ramifications. There are tremen-dous pressures on the new government to deliver on popular expectations. The national dialogue for peace and reconciliation needs to be taken forward. The NLD faces a critical challenge of finding individuals with experience in govern-ment and administration to take on critical responsibilities. The leadership is conscious of the fact that it would not want those associated with the previous regimes to be seen as close to the present dispensation. Yet the compulsions of taking all segments of society along cannot also be lost sight of. A clear message that it favours a corruption-free democratic adminis-tration was strongly made. The approach clearly is one of caution and one gentle step at a time. The new government is clearly in no hurry to rush forward with its reform agenda and realises in full the limitations it needs to work within.

 The coming few months would be critical for the new government. It would need to prioritise on the reform initiatives and strategise on taking them forward. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership-style and the goodwill she enjoys will be her greatest strength. The manner in which the new government carries all segments of society along would be critical to the success of the transition to greater democratisation in Myanmar.

A Professor of Political Science who is the Pro-Vice- Chancellor of the Jain University, Bangalore, Dr Shastri has been a Senior Adviser to the Forum of Federations for its Capacity Building for the Democratisation Project in Myanmar.

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