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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 January 2019

Year in review 2015: All eyes on the generals following Myanmar elections

The streets of Yangon turned red on November 8, 2015, as supporters of the National League for Democracy celebrated a victory for democracy they could only dream of during the decades of Myanmar’s military rule.
Supporters for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy shout with pleasure in front of the NLD headquarters in Yangon, while looking up at a large screen showing returns from Myanmar’s general election. The country’s election commission said the same day the opposition party has won 49 of the first 54 parliamentary seats. Kyodo
Supporters for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy shout with pleasure in front of the NLD headquarters in Yangon, while looking up at a large screen showing returns from Myanmar’s general election. The country’s election commission said the same day the opposition party has won 49 of the first 54 parliamentary seats. Kyodo

On November 8, the streets of Yangon turned red as supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) celebrated a victory for democracy they could only dream of during the decades of Myanmar’s military rule.

The scale of Aung San Suu Kyi’s win – about 79 per cent of contested seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament – was predicted by few. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was reduced to just 8.5 per cent of seats, and the ethnic minority parties failed to capitalise on traditional loyalties.

The NLD – with its promise of “change” – emphatically claimed the right to run Myanmar, and achieved what most had doubted possible: a big enough majority to ensure it could choose the country’s next president, despite the military retaining a constitutionally guaranteed 25 per cent of overall parliamentary seats.

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Yet while Aung San Suu Kyi’s mandate for the change is unquestionable, there are major challenges ahead. With three months to wait until the newly elected NLD politicians are eligible to take their seats in parliament and a new cabinet not expected to be appointed until February, uncertain times lie ahead.

Initial reactions from the generals appeared positive. The current president, Thein Sein, accepted the election results and promised there would be a peaceful transition – and he agreed to meet Suu Kyi.

The international community monitored the situation closely, and on November 19, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon phoned Sein to stress the need for cooperation between all parties in the “formation of the new government”. On December 3, Suu Kyi held talks with Sein, and senior general Min Aung Hlaing. In addition, the country’s former dictator, Than Shwe, has reportedly pledged to support the woman who he had placed under house arrest for most of his 19 years in power. But how this will play out in the months ahead is hard to quantify.

Meanwhile, An NLD spokesman, U Win Htein, has said the party’s priorities in government will be constitutional change and peace. Despite the signing of what was billed as a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” in October, fighting in the north of the country has displaced thousands of people in ethnic areas in recent weeks. Negotiating peace between the armed groups and the military, which has opposed Suu Kyi’s leadership for so long, will be a key challenge and unlikely to happen in the near future.

Under the constitution, which requires military agreement to amend, Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president on the grounds that her children are foreign citizens. Changing that, along with an eventual alteration to the part of the constitution that guarantees the military 25 per cent of parliamentary seats unelected, is one of her key goals, but Win Htein has said it would take at least a year to achieve.

Speculation is rife over who the next president will be, but the NLD leader and senior party figures have made it clear whoever it is will be a proxy.

Suu Kyi has said “she will be above the president”, and last week an NLD spokesman hinted that the person would be someone without a high public profile.

In the meantime Suu Kyi needs to find a way to build bridges that will allow her to work with the military – which is guaranteed powerful ministerial positions under the constitution, including defence, home affairs and border affairs. It is also recognised she will require support in governance from outside her own party. The NLD representatives may be loyal and dedicated, but they lack experience in running a country.

Suu Kyi must be well aware that this is a time where she will require all her skills as a negotiator to work towards a smooth transition and there are a myriad of power games already under way.

The future shape of Myanmar politics remains far from certain. Two things are clear however: that barring serious military intervention the government will be led by Suu Kyi; but the generals will continue to wield extensive powers.

Fiona MacGregor is a freelance journalist based in Yangon.

Updated: December 26, 2015 04:00 AM

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