Power wheeling and dealing

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No small challenge: the Lady must govern with a parliament half of which is in the hands of the military, who used to be her jailers.

After her long odyssey under a military dictatorship, an icon of protest can finally govern to the joy of her people. In a world grown accustomed to 20 years of clashes between ‘Saint’ Aung San Suu Kyi and the wicked generals, a happy outcome in Myanmar has been inching closer and closer every day. Often referred to as “the Lady”, she was under house arrest for 15 years and is now the plenipotentiary of the first civil government since 1962. Expectations are soaring, starting with those of a population that seems, somewhat naively, to equate democracy with progress. But for the ‘New Burma’, the road ahead is still littered with obstacles, and questions that only time can answer.


In last November’s elections, the Burmese gave an unequivocal mandate to Suu Kyi’s party, the National League of Democracy (NLD), which won 78% of the available seats. This landslide enabled the Lady’s party to control Parliament, although a quarter of the deputies are still chosen by the military. Her victory was completed in April when the government, led by President Htin Kyaw, took office. Kyaw is an economist and childhood friend of Suu Kyi, a respected man, but lacking in charisma. He is actually just a faithful stand-in for Suu Kyi, who constitutionally cannot be appointed president because her children are British citizens. The Nobel Peace Prize winner forms the backbone of the executive: she is minister of foreign affairs, education and energy and is head of the cabinet. 

On paper, Suu Kyi can govern as she pleases. But what she will be allowed to do remains unclear. Even though the military stepped down in 2010 (instating the government of former general Thein Sein), it is still central to the system of power, a kind of “state within the state”. The military controls important conglomerates and has close links with the oligarchs. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, ex-dictator Than Shwe (age 83) continues to make his moves. Myanmar is a hierarchical and conservative society that has never known peace since its independence in 1948. And the military views itself as an indispensable pillar in a country where two-thirds of the population is Bamar, but which is also home to 134 minorities.

The generals maintain a decisive influence because the Constitution allocates three key ministries to them: defence, border affairs and home affairs. One of the two vice presidents, Myint Swe, is a former general, implicated in the crackdown on anti-junta protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. Alongside the government is the National Defence and Security Council, the majority of whose 11 members hail from the military, and which can declare a state of emergency if the nation is threatened. Because Suu Kyi is minister of foreign affairs, she has a seat on this powerful committee. But essentially, even though the Lady controls parliament, she is forced to maintain practical relations with the heirs of the generals who confined her to house arrest after her never-honoured electoral triumph in 1990.

While Suu Kyi has many recognised skills and talents, it is no secret that diplomacy is not one of them. Daughter of the “Father of the Nation”, Aung San, she feels she has been vested with the mission of putting Myanmar on the right path. This attitude has also pushed her to centralise power in the NLD, even in the management of minor issues. However, her first moves indicate that even with her four ministerial positions, Suu Kyi understands the risks of doing everything herself. Her government includes NLD members, technocrats and even two former ministers from the junta. Relations with the military hierarchies are said to be cordial, though there is a lack of mutual trust.

In any case, the government is faced with a difficult task. Myanmar is devastated after half a century of isolationist and paranoid dictatorship, and it has missed the boat of the Asian boom. Even though the country lies in a strategic position, between China and India, the Burmese are one of the poorest peoples on the continent: pro-capita GDP is just above 1,000 dollars (€883), one-fifth of that of neighbouring Thailand. In the countryside, millions still live on subsistence farming. Infrastructure is in a precarious state, as is healthcare and education. The foundations for a functioning state must be laid down. But resources are limited, and increasing them will mean disturbing vested interests.

Obviously, the advent of democracy will result in increasing interest from investors. In a country of 50 million people, where wages are extremely low, there is huge potential in sectors such as tourism and light manufacturing. However, these changes will not happen overnight. Back in 2011, when Western sanctions were lifted, Myanmar was already being viewed as the new El Dorado. And yet many potential investors baulked. The lack of basic services, uncertainties caused by a slow and corrupt bureaucracy as well as astronomical property prices forced several investors to delay their entry into the market. But the situation is different now. As a European diplomat explains, “The Burmese oligarchs have already positioned themselves in view of the flood of investments. A democratic Myanmar is handy for everyone”.

Regarding Burmese society, Suu Kyi will also have to manage religious tensions and ongoing conflicts. The 2012 pogroms against the Rohingya people clearly illustrate the widespread intolerance towards the 5% Muslim minority, who are viewed as an odious historical leftover of British colonialism. And the Buddhists fear their demographic growth. The Ma Ba Tha monks (the Patriotic Association of Myanmar) fan the flames, with the connivance of the armed forces. How will the Lady react if violence erupts again? She has already been caught between a rock and a hard place once: hard-line nationalists accused her of being too soft on Muslims, while human rights’ organisations criticised her for not taking a stand.

The other legacy of fifty years of dictatorship is a series of ethnic conflicts in the north and the east. The war in Kachin State left thousands dead, and 100,000 people have fled since the conflict began in 2011. Meanwhile, in Shan State, militias are getting rich off of opium and are fighting against the army. The recent peace process involved various groups, but not everyone. Even if ceasefires are agreed, the central question remains – what kind of state should this mosaic of ethnicities, languages and religions adopt? The army has always centralised everything. Minorities want more autonomy, or even a full-blown federal state. Suu Kyi has let it be known that she understands their aspirations; but here again, mutual trust must be created, given that the Lady is a member of the Bamar majority. How will the military react if minorities are granted unprecedented concessions? Will the army follow the government’s orders on how to managing conflicts? The potential for renewed instability is extremely high. Thus for Suu Kyi, after a life as a dissident, the truly hard part starts now.


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