After decades of stultifying military rule, all the talk was of a new era and a fresh start. “They [the people] hope that every problem will be solved automatically after the NLD becomes the government,” said Shwe Mann, the outgoing speaker of parliament.
Expectations were running sky high as Myanmar’s first democratically elected parliament in more than 50 years, dominated by the former opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), convened for the first time on Monday tasked with choosing the country’s next president.
But the challenges ahead – political, practical, structural and strategic – are daunting. Myanmar remains riven by ethnic conflict involving, among others, the Shan, Karen, Kachin and Lisu peoples. Taken all together, minorities comprise about 40% of the population of 52 million, and most feel disadvantaged to some degree.
The outgoing president, Thein Sein, signed a national ceasefire agreement last October with eight leading armed groups. But fighting continues in many states, where local people seek greater autonomy and expanded rights over resources. Significant problems persist concerning political prisoners and minority activists held without trial.
Ending abuse of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, and the broader issue of how to curb Buddhist chauvinism, are other urgent issues. Most Rohingya were barred from voting and, for the first time since independence, they have no MP in parliament, the Burma Campaign UK pressure group said.
The NLD, led by national icon and Nobel peace prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi, is not best placed to address this problem. It admitted before the election that Muslim candidates had been struck off its lists after pressure from nationalists.
Even with the national parliament in place, the unusually long transition to civilian rule is far from complete. An NLD-led government has yet to be installed. Most of the new MPs from whom the new administration must be drawn lack political experience. State and regional assemblies have yet to start work.
The new president will not take over until April. It will not be Aung San Suu Kyi, and her future role remains shrouded in uncertainty. Despite an 80% popular mandate measured in parliamentary votes, she is barred from the highest office due to an arbitrary constitutional prohibition engineered by the former junta.
Aung San Suu Kyi has said she will nevertheless be in charge, acting “above the president”, but it is unclear how this will work. She has so far given no indication as to who will take over from Thein Sein, and the NLD has no clear number two.
Constitutional gerrymandering by the Tatmadaw – the military – means it retains de facto control of key security ministries, including borders and defence. In a national crisis, as defined by the generals, the military has a legal right to take control of the government, including management of the economy.
The longer these uncertainties continue, the more drawn out the transition, and the more difficulty the NLD government faces in implementing new policies, the greater will be the impatience of voters for Aung San Suu Kyi to fulfil her mandate to bring real change.
As if this were not all difficult enough, Myanmar faces acute problems of poverty and child malnourishment, ramshackle education and healthcare systems, and a chronic lack of modern infrastructure. The legacy of social division and inter-communal distrust is formidable and will take years to overcome.
The NLD must also struggle with complicated strategic challenges. For years, China was the Tatmadaw’s closest friend and ally. In return for turning a blind eye to political illegitimacy and human rights abuses, Beijing gained access to cheap natural resources and lucrative contracts, such as the now halted Myitsone dam project.
The US and EU, in contrast, championed the pro-democracy cause, maintaining sanctions on the junta. Even so, her overriding need to keep the army onside may lead Aung San Suu Kyi towards an accommodation with China, even if it means alienating the west.
While Aung San Suu Kyi has adopted positions that are generally receptive to China’s interests, to the dismay of some supporters, the Chinese government has stirred up low-level trouble in some border areas in order to gain leverage and make the army appear indispensable, according to Min Zin, an analyst.
“Several political and military officials in Myanmar and intelligence officers in Yunnan [said] they expect Beijing and the NLD to strike some kind of arrangement after the NLD forms a new government in a few months,” Min Zin wrote.
“China would press ethnic rebel groups to cooperate with the NLD on a national ceasefire accord, handing Aung San Suu Kyi a victory that has eluded the current government. In exchange, the NLD would yield to important Chinese interests in Myanmar, such as major infrastructure and investment projects.”
Myanmar’s so far limited democratic renaissance already has the full support of the west. But in order to maintain the fragile internal political balance, both Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw require the support of China, the regional superpower.
If either of Myanmar’s two major power groupings – the NLD or the military – feels it is losing ground to the other, it is to Beijing, not Washington or Brussels, that they will turn. Given China’s disdain for democracy and open societies, this level of influence is not an encouraging prospect for Myanmar.