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Myanmar’s national election represented a milestone on its path to democracy, but there are likely to be many difficult days ahead.

Elections in Myanmar: After the NLD’s Victory, What’s Next?

November 15th, 2015

By Davis Florick – Junior Fellow

Myanmar’s national election, held on November 8th, represented a milestone on its path to democracy, but there are likely to be many difficult days ahead. For over fifty years a military junta dominated the political process in the country. Under its authoritarian rule, the vast majority of the Myanma people did not have a voice in the political process. The junta’s repression came to be symbolized in the person of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of modern Myanmar’s founding father, Mr. Aung San. Ms. Kyi was repeatedly confined under house arrest, but now serves as the leader of the victorious opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD). Having dispatched the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), as well as a number of smaller ethnic and regional entities, Ms. Kyi’s party must transition from the position of an opposition party to a governing role. The NLD must quickly adapt and remold itself into a management institution.

Faced with a myriad of domestic and foreign challenges, there are five major obstacles that Ms. Kyi’s party must now address. The NLD’s significant hurdles include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Nominating and gaining parliament’s approval for a new president,
  2. Alleviating ethnic and sectarian frictions,
  3. Developing a working relationship with the military,
  4. Striking a balance in Myanmar’s policy approach with the United States (US) and others, and
  5. Redefining the diplomatic relationship with China.

Ultimately, the aforementioned items will come to define the success of Ms. Kyi’s party. Consequently, it is necessary to analyze the intricacies of each  to better understand the complexities of the challenges the NLD faces. Moving forward, the NLD’s ability to maneuver through Myanmar’s domestic and foreign challenges will be pivotal.

First, the NLD will need to develop its governance platform and leadership structure. As the representative body of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, and by extension, the face of the regime’s opposition, the NLD carried sufficient credibility to attract substantial support without conducting an extensive policy debate. In actuality, providing a more detailed platform may have been counterproductive as it would have created opportunities for criticism. Unfortunately, domestic expectations for reform, modernization, and eventual prosperity are sky high. Having not experienced the intricacies of democratic politics before, both the party and the majority of Myanma may well be disappointed in the inevitable delays of governance.

Delving further, finding the candidate that best fits the presidency and the powers that person will be invested with will test Ms. Kyi and the word of the military. During the recent constitutional approval deliberations, the government added a clause that barred anyone with close foreign relatives from the presidency – an obvious attempt at preventing Ms. Kyi from obtaining the position as her husband, now deceased, was British. While Ms. Kyi has indicated she will not test the constitution’s viability by running for the presidency (she can at best be parliamentary speaker), she has stated her intent to manage the president. The military and USDP have posited that this action would be a constitutional violation. How the relationship between Ms. Kyi and Myanmar’s appointed leader plays out will do much to determine the country’s trajectory.

Second, major questions remain over how to deal with Myanmar’s diverse ethnic and sectarian minorities. Along the state’s borders, a myriad of peoples have clashed with the central government over the decades. These groups include the Kachin, Karen, Rohingya, and Shan. While a number of minorities have reached settlements in recent years, considerable divides remain. Most notable among these friction points is the Rohingya along Myanmar’s western border. A Muslim minority, their plight has received significant international attention. Segregated and systematically disenfranchised by the military junta and the local Buddhist population (ethnic Rakhine), the Rohingya are a source of tension which will be a major issue for Ms. Kyi. Yet, the new administration must be careful to avoid being perceived as unsupportive of the Buddhists given they comprise nearly 90 percent of the total population. Meeting the expectations of the many ethnic and sectarian groups residing in Myanmar will be complicated.

Third, working alongside the military will present a unique set of dilemmas for the NLD. The constitution mandates that 25 percent of assembly seats – in both houses – be selected by the military. Given that any amendment to the constitution requires 75 percent approval, there are considerable political challenges for the NLD. Furthermore, the military’s commander-in-chief is not appointed by the president, which will cause additional friction. Compounding matters, the head of the armed forces will appoint the defense, home, and border affairs ministers. With so much authority residing in offices outside of the president’s control, there are certain to be moments of contention. Should Ms. Kyi and the NLD adopt policies that run contrary to the military’s views, there could be significant friction between the two. If tension arises, it will be pivotal to see how the military works with the civilian politicians. The NLD’s ability to manage the relationship with the military could well determine the success of the party.

Fourth, Myanmar’s departure from authoritarianism fundamentally alters the Naypyidaw government’s posture toward the US and the democratic world. For the first time in decades, Myanmar has become a destination for private and public investors, all seeking to find opportunities in Southeast Asia. The transition from the military junta has created trade space for lucrative international engagements, yet the NLD must balance liberalizing reform with foreign interests’ desires and conservative reservations.  Working with the military, Ms. Kyi’s party must raise standards of living for all – particularly the conditions for minority groups. Hastening integration across the cultural landscape must occur in parallel to bolstering Myanma enfranchisement. In conjunction, strengthening civil, political, and other freedoms is crucial toward promoting Naypyidaw’s fledgling democracy. Reforming the entire state is necessary if the new government desires foreign investments, but it will need to avoid isolating key constituencies – the military and conservative Buddhists especially.

The fine line Ms. Kyi’s regime will need to walk between showing progress toward democracy, reform, and modernization while not alienating key elements within Myanma society will be a challenge. Bear in mind, the junta and USDP sought to transform the political process in the pursuit of foreign investments. However, if the US and others hold to demands for reform and offer investments in exchange, the transactional relationship may prove too costly for the military to accept. As mentioned earlier, the possibility of the armed forces taking a more demonstrative political stance may have decreased, but it has not fully abated. Indeed, Ms. Kyi’s ability to strike equilibrium between foreign assistance and appeasing conservatives may well determine Myanmar’s long-term growth opportunities.

Fifth, apart from its relationship with the US and other regional partners, the dynamics between China and Myanmar have shifted. For decades, China helped keep the military junta in power with economic aid and political support. Naypyidaw was useful to Beijing as it created an additional basing asset should regional tensions flare. However, the Myanmar leadership recognized that its vassal-like relationship with China had limits. To ride the wave of regional prosperity, Naypyidaw’s foreign policy orientation needed to change. The potential now exists for the tables to turn in Naypyidaw’s favor. The introduction of assistance from the US and others carries with it an alternative to China. As a result, Naypyidaw no longer has to accept aid under Beijing’s terms. Conversely, China is exploring damming options along the Irrawaddy River and transit routes for its southwestern manufacturing centers, both of which will necessitate some degree of Myanma assistance. These projects could well be the first measuring sticks along a new path in China-Myanmar relations. Invariably, some level of defense and economic engagements may be indispensable, but the days of Beijing being able to monopolize Naypyidaw have almost certainly come to an end.

Winning the national election was the easy part; the real challenge for the NLD will come from governing.  Domestically, Aung Sun Suu Kyi and her party face a number of challenges. In the short term, the most pressing issue will be identifying a presidential candidate who is both capable and willing to manage the relationship with Ms. Kyi. Over the long term, the real challenges to the NLD’s legitimacy, both internally and externally, will come from managing the myriad minority populations and the civilian administration’s relationship with the military. Ms. Kyi must make strides toward giving minorities greater representation if she wants international assistance. However, the NLD must also weigh issues advocated by the military and appease their needs in order to avoid internal instability. Perhaps of secondary importance, the foreign alignments Myanmar pursues – specifically its leanings toward the US and China – will also be telling. The NLD’s ability to balance enfranchisement concerns, economic growth, the military’s role in the state, and other issues will largely dictate its ability to attract ever-increasing international opportunities. At this moment, its strategic location will present value, but Naypyidaw will need to do more to ensure continued outside assistance. Indeed, Aung Sun Suu Kyi and her supporters have only begun their struggle.

About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Senior Fellow in the HSC Security and Defence division, a Special Assistant to the United States Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and a James A. Kelly non-resident fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has completed his Executive MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, holds a master’s in East-West Studies at Creighton University, and will be starting his PhD in International Relations at George Mason University in Fall, 2018. His foreign relations areas of concentration include East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union. Davis has been published in International Affairs Forum, the World Business Institute, and the International Affairs Review, the Diplomat and RealClearDefense. He was also a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.