The sidewalks of the city of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, serve as a perfect metaphor for the problems the country faces. The cement pavers are cracked and crumbling, and often jut out at such extreme angles that it would be easier to walk if they hadn’t attempted to build a sidewalk at all. In the uncertain political climate that lingers over the country, these kinds of basic infrastructure issues will be easy to address in comparison to the longstanding political and social conflicts that plague Myanmar.
On February 1st, the newly elected parliament will convene in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, to start facing major issues that have beleaguered this fledgling democracy. Myanmar will enter uncharted waters as the National League for Democracy (NLD) and their standard-bearer, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, take firm control after winning a supermajority in both the upper and lower houses of the Assembly of the Union, with absolute majorities in all seven regional parliaments and three of the seven state parliaments.
While this was a clear victory for the NLD, the party’s future is less certain as it makes the transition from a long-persecuted opposition to governance. Sources within the NLD leadership acknowledge bluntly that “[their] people have little or no experience in actual governance.” This lack of experience will no doubt hinder the party as it navigates the transition from military to civilian rule that began in 2011.
The NLD will have to compromise with the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, as it controls 25% of parliamentary seating under the current constitution. The 2008 constitution also specifically barred Suu Kyi from assuming the Presidency, a provision that the NLD seemed poised to ignore in early December, worrying military hardliners. In January, however, the NLD announced that they would instead “appoint a figurehead president,” while allowing Suu Kyi to govern in an unofficial capacity. This compromise suggests that moderate members of the NLD want to avoid conflict with the military. The military leadership has shown frequently that it is not squeamish about using force to maintain its power; political reforms, such as the 2008 constitution, under President Thein Sein and the military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party have further solidified the armed forces’ influence in Myanmar’s future. However, the USDP and the military have also made some critical reforms—media freedom in the country has steadily improved, from ranking among the most censored countries in the world, to, this year, boasting the fourth-most free press in ASEAN.
Compromises, like these, will be necessary on both sides to ensure a successful transition. The NLD must engage and work with the elements within the military that are open to reforms, without compromising its values. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD’s silence on the continued persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in the country is extraordinarily troublesome. A senior NLD spokesperson admitted last year that, while he personally “sympathized” with the stateless minority, they were low on the priority list, and considered a political liability for the NLD—“if we say something in favor of the Muslims, in Arakan all the people will be against us. If we say something in favor of Rakhine people then all Muslim people [in Myanmar] and the Muslim international community will be against us. That is why we stay quiet.” A year later, now that the NLD has won the election, the silence has become deafening. Refusing to take a stance is no longer an option; the party must articulate a position, not only on the Rohingya people, but the entire Muslim population in Myanmar, which has continually been threatened by the Islamophobia and Buddhist nationalism that has become worryingly common. This issue, as well as a lack of clear plans and proposals from the NLD on how they intend to govern once the parliament convenes have left many in the international community slow to fully embrace the party.
While there is more hope than ever for Myanmar’s future, the country’s long-standing problems and enduring conflicts need quick and collective action from the incoming civilian politicians as well as the reformist elements of the military establishment in order to turn this hope into a reality.