A New, Democratic Myanmar?

The first openly contested elections and its consequences for Burmese

April 18th, 2016

November 2015 was a historic milestone in Myanmar’s transition process, when in the democratic elections the National League for Democracy won a thumping majority under the leadership of the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The government formally took power in the April 1st, 2016. Military generals theoretically transferred the power to the pro-democracy party, but the junta is not ready to fully surrender the control and cede power.

In 1962 the army seized power in Burma and the military dictatorship started with enough power to destroy both people and ideas that challenged them, using the rhetoric of restoring stability. In 2008 a new constitution came in power to move towards to a democratic system, on the other hand this is a constitution of compromises, which still protects the army’s core powers. The country got a new name, Republic of the Union of Myanmar, but the structure of the power did not change. After the general elections in 2010, a quasi-civilian government formed & led by Thein Sein, a former general who wears a civilian suit now. However, in 2011 the military junta officially dissolved, they maintained the control over the most important levels of power, but also achieved hundreds of positive results.

According to the constitution written by the junta, the head of the army has the right to nominate generals to control three key ministries, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Border Affairs. The military’s party is guaranteed 25% of the seats unelected in both houses in the assembly, which is enough to block changes in the constitution requiring more than 75% of votes. Moreover, rules give military personnel impunity for crimes committed in the line of duty. In connection with the actual democratization process, the constitution blocks the opposition’s best candidate Aung San Suu Kyi - the previously mentioned leader of the party with absolute majority, the face of the country’s democracy movement, daughter of the country’s assassinated revolutionary hero - from assuming the presidency, because her children are British.

Even so, this year’s presidential elections do represent progress, because this is the first time in decades the Burmese people have had a civilian president. Htin Kyaw, nominated by the NLD party is related to Aung San Suu Kyi with strong personal ties and has his desire to rid the country of their military overlords. He is expected to act as a proxy for Suu Kyi in her fight with the army while she will be the one who leads the government. Suu Kyi, the only women in the cabinet will run four ministries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, the Ministry of Energy, and the Ministry of Education. As a first act of the bicameral legislation, she is set to get a Prime Minister type of role in the government by forming a new post of State Chancellor, giving her influence both in the executive and in the legislative arms of the government. All in all Myanmar still has two governments, a civilian one and a military one, they have to collaborate to be able to deal with the country’s biggest problems, including the one of the longest ongoing ethnic civil war.

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Cultural Diplomacy News
Bettina Kovacs, CD News