From building relationships with the military and ethnic armed groups, to satisfying political activists hungry for rapid change, Myanmar’s new government faces multiple challenges, argues our senior policy consultant, Matthew J Walton.
Children in Myanmar celebrate NLD victory. Photo: Mark Baker
Around the world, the excitement generated by the National League for Democracy’s landslide win in Myanmar’s November 2015 election barely had time to peak before discussion had turned to the challenges facing the incoming government or the weaknesses of the party and its leadership. Analysts and pundits within the country and without celebrated a key transitional moment but also voiced worries about the (former) opposition’s ability to deliver at the same time.
"One of the most remarkable and positive aspects of Myanmar’s new Parliament is the large number of former political prisoners who are now lawmakers."
The list of challenges facing the new government is so immense that it is probably not worth trying to prioritize them. But we can identify a few key areas that will require progress if the country’s transition is going to deepen and reach a satisfactory conclusion.
One of these is the new government’s relationship with the military and the military leadership’s views on their institution’s continued political role. Even if the NLD-led government can take up leadership of the stalled peace process, the military remains the key actor; its decisions on the ground will determine whether any settlement can hold. It also remains to be seen whether military leaders will feel comfortable with a government that is mostly civilian-led and whether they might begin to lay out plans for gradual withdrawal from politics. A push by the NLD to amend parts of the constitution that protect military power is certainly likely to invite strong resistance and the party is wise to have backed off of this track (at least publicly) in recent months.
There are questions related to the peace process on the other side as well, where ethnic armed groups (both signatories to the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement and non-signatories) are waiting to see how the new government plans to handle ceasefire negotiations and the related national political dialogue. There is no shortage of goodwill for Myanmar’s first (mostly) non-military government in decades, but there is still uncertainty on the part of ethnic groups as to whether the party’s leadership (made up primarily of ethnic-majority Burmans) truly understands their struggle or their concerns. Even military leaders are happy to discuss the formerly-taboo notion of 'federalism' these days, but some of the new government’s first moves seem to indicate a predilection towards increased centralization rather than the power-sharing that ethnic communities are expecting.
"The new government and its leaders must navigate the balance between necessary external assistance and satisfying a diverse domestic constituency that has been suffering under decades of authoritarianism but now expects the changes they have long deserved."
One of the most remarkable and positive aspects of Myanmar’s new Parliament is the large number of former political prisoners who are now lawmakers. This marks an important opportunity for people-centred governance that has never occurred in recent years. But it also highlights what could be a serious headache for the government in the near future: Myanmar’s political activists are increasingly well-organized and have high expectations for rapid social and political change. The government’s recent moves to drop politically-motivated charges against many activists and release a group of political prisoners were welcomed by NGOs and advocacy organizations, yet every statement from the latter also contained a clear message that the government needed to do more. Furthermore, released student and land rights activists made clear their intentions to continue demonstrating against what they perceive as unjust laws, policies, and practices. A key test will come (probably sooner rather than later) when this former opposition party must respond to large-scale protests against its policies. How will it respond?
To these three issues we could add a host of others including economic development and the creation of a taxation system, foreign relations (especially with China), an even greater and more rapid influx of aid, and the persistence of hierarchical tendencies within the ruling party. The new government and its leaders must navigate the balance between necessary external assistance – especially with regard to expertise and financing – and satisfying a diverse domestic constituency that has been suffering under decades of authoritarianism but now expects the changes they have long deserved. As the country gets back to work after the New Year holiday, we will learn more about how they choose to navigate this challenging path.
Matthew J Walton is Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where he directs the Programme on Modern Burmese Studies. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, with a special emphasis on Buddhism in Myanmar. He is currently a consultant to The Elders on Myanmar.