“The times have changed, the people have changed.”
With that assertive statement, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi announced a historic change in one of Asia’s oldest civilisations and proudest nations.
Suu Kyi was contesting not just an election but carrying the weight of the hopes and fears of millions of her countrymen on her frail-but-strong shoulders. For the first time in a quarter century, the military strongmen had opened the gates to a democratic change. She had to not just win but also capture a majority to form the government.
The complex structure of the parliamentary system set by the 2008 constitution and approved by the military appeared pre-set to deny her both. The military had set aside 25% of parliamentary seats in perpetuity to ensure that none could threaten its power. Its commander-in-chief is answerable to none, not even the president; there would be one military figure among three vice-presidents; one of would be elected as president. And three key posts including defence are controlled by the military.
However, the epic scale of Suu Kyi’s triumph has taken everyone by surprise. The election commission on Friday announced that the National League of Democracy (NLD) had won more than two-thirds of the seats, well beyond the number needed for a simple victory. Parliament elects the president and this is likely to take place when the term of the current reformer-general-turned President Thein Sein is over in March.
As one reflects on the stunning pace of change that has come to Myanmar, one cannot underestimate the formidable challenges that face Suu Kyi as she prepares for a transition over the next few months. The following issues are significant.
The first will be to ensure that she and the military leadership, highly sensitive to any effort to undercut its power, remain on the same page in her plans for change. The military has been virtually the only institution that Myanmar has had for nearly 60 years and it has, for better or worse, stitched the country together despite charges of extensive human rights abuse.
Suu Kyi cannot afford to alienate the army whose commander-in-chief is senior general Min Aung Hlaing. Under the 2008 constitution, as head of the defence forces, he has the ability to assume power during times of ‘national emergency’. The equation between the new democratic forces and the army needs to be addressed with sensitivity and accommodation of mutual interests.
The second is Suu Kyi’s own role in the new government. The constitution bars her from holding the top elected post since she had married a foreign national and her sons hold British citizenship. She has posited a Sonia Gandhi-model of governance, saying that she could place a nominee who would follow her suggestions. This would be a rather unwieldy system of governance. At one point, the Nobel laureate called the clause blocking those with foreign spouses/children “silly”. In the light of the massive mandate, she could consider a change in the constitution. But she is aware, given the sensitivity of the military, of the need to step cautiously.
A third priority will be to bring the ethnic groups, which have long been fighting the Myanmar army, into a national ceasefire agreement. On October 15, after a nearly two-year peace process, eight of the 15 groups signed a ceasefire agreement. They agreed to accept Myanmar’s territorial unity but would retain their arms. The question remains whether Suu Kyi would resume the talks or review them, as any new government would be entitled to, and think of new ways of taking the process forward.
Another major task is of bringing a sense of equality and inclusion to religious minorities, especially the Muslims in the Arakan, known as the Rohingya, who have been disenfranchised and stripped of their nationality. This has been a sensitive issue with successive regimes in Myanmar and has drawn sharp international criticism.
Finally, while New Delhi would want to know how Suu Kyi would handle relations with her major neighbours, this may not be as much of a pressing priority as the others. China remains a huge investor and supporter, both beneficiary and beneficent, far ahead of India. India’s relations are also on the up, despite the activities of the SS Khaplang faction of the NSCN. It does not make sense for New Delhi to push hard against Khaplang, who is accused of organising the June attack on the army in Manipur along with Paresh Baruah of Ulfa. Both men have a price on their heads but there’s a difference: Khaplang is a Myanmar national with a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government; with barely 2,000 men, he is not regarded as a major threat.
Given New Delhi’s recent success with the extradition of Anup Chetia of Ulfa, it may be looking at the possibility of getting Myanmar to turn the heat on the elusive Ulfa leader, who is from Upper Assam.
Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal