New era dawns as Suu Kyi’s party strides into Myanmar Parliament

  • AFP, Naypyidaw, Myanmar
  • Updated: Feb 01, 2016 17:21 IST
Aung San Suu Kyi walks along with other lawmakers of her National League for Democracy party as they leave after a regular session of the lower house of Parliament. (AP)

Myanmar marked a new political era on Monday as Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy MPs took their seats in Parliament.

Wearing orange uniforms, lawmakers from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) arrived for their first day of work in the capital Naypyidaw buoyed by a massive popular mandate from November’s election.

That poll saw the NLD wrest a majority from the army establishment and has spurred hopes of a new political dawn in the long repressed nation.

Suu Kyi, the figurehead of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy, entered the cavernous Parliament building without making a comment.

She took a seat alone for the short opening session which saw the lawmakers sworn in and the appointment of a close ally, Win Myint, as lower house speaker.

“Today is a day to be proud of in Myanmar’s political history and for the democratic transition,” Win Myint said in an acceptance speech.

The new government faces a daunting rebuilding task in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries where the economy has been crushed by generations of junta rule.

Picking a president

Suu Kyi’s party can form a government, but who will lead it?

The Nobel laureate is barred from the presidency by a clause in the junta-drafted constitution because her children are British.

Many believe it was scripted specifically to block her path to power.

She has said she will rule “above” a puppet president, who will replace outgoing President Thein Sein in late March.

If she does, that position is not covered in the constitution and could rile the powerful military who have ceded some powers but retain 25% of seats in Parliament -- and with them an effective veto on major charter change.

Myanmar's military members of Parliament attend the new lower house parliamentary session in Naypyidaw. (AFP)

Military still in play

Given the presidency issue, Suu Kyi may need to sweeten up an army which held her prisoner for some 15 years.

Observers say good relations between Suu Kyi and the military will be crucial to get anything done.

That is because the military’s political powers are not limited to Parliament.

The 2008 constitution that was scripted under ex-dictator Than Shwe hands the army chief control over three key ministries: home affairs, defence and border affairs.

Home affairs is a bureaucratic juggernaut and includes the police force and the sprawling General Administration Department (GAD), a vast network that forms the backbone of the civil service.

Beyond this soldiers are also in active combat as civil wars continue to rage in parts of Myanmar’s ethnic minority borderlands.

Uncertain peace

Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have fought for greater autonomy for more than 50 years.

Thein Sein signed ceasefires with several of the country’s major ethnic armed groups, but heavy fighting continues, particularly in Kachin and Shan states.

As a member of the ethnic majority Bamar, Suu Kyi has sometimes been viewed with suspicion by these groups.

But the NLD won handsomely in ethnic states and Suu Kyi has pledged to work towards a federal system.

She also must tackle the scourge of anti-Muslim sentiment that has fomented since an explosion of unrest in Rakhine state in 2012 between Buddhists and minority Rohingya communities.

Tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya are still trapped in bleak displacement camps and the next government faces pressure from the international community to find a solution for them.

But they will be wary of enraging Rakhine Buddhists, who largely see the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Economic development

Myanmar’s economy has surged under reforms by Thein Sein’s government. Foreign investment swept in as most western sanctions were lifted.

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, car imports are rising fast and several special economic zones are in the pipeline.

The economy grew at 8.5% in the 2014/15 fiscal year, but the World Bank expects this to moderate to 6.5% this year.

But poverty is still a problem for huge swathes of a country that relies on agriculture.

With many of the previous government’s so-called “quick win” policies already enacted, the NLD has said it will focus on luring more international investment.

Speedy development is held back by patchy electricity supply, poor road and rail networks and an unskilled workforce.

Graft is also endemic. Myanmar ranked in joint 147th place out of 168 in Transparency International’s 2015 corruption perception index.

There is also the question of febrile relations with China -- Myanmar’s biggest trading partner.

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