A Strange New World – Myanmar awakes to new order: a parliament with a freely elected majority
Feb 6th 2016 Economist
It felt like the first day of school. On February 1st freshly sworn-in legislators belonging to the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Myanmar’s Nobel peace-prize winning campaigner for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured, in pink), walked uncertainly through the parliament’s cavernous corridors in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. Some looked bewildered. Others smiled and chatted with old friends, brimming with excitement. A small kiosk selling souvenirs did brisk business as new MPs bought key rings, fridge magnets and postcards depicting their unfamiliar new workplace. It is part of a sprawling complex of official buildings built by an unelected junta to withstand a popular uprising. Now, for the first time, it is about to be controlled by an elected government.
For some, getting to parliament on that opening day had involved an arduous trek. It took two of the MPs 15 days by foot, on horseback and by bus just to reach the airport nearest their village, high up in the mountains near Tibet. Others had endured greater hardship: more than 100 of the NLD’s MPs served time in prison for the crime of belonging to the party. One, Bo Bo Oo, spent 20 years in jail for supplying medicine to students who had fled to a remote area after a failed uprising in 1988. While in prison, he says, he remained convinced that one day the NLD would form a government. Tin Thit, a poet, environmental activist and ex-prisoner, said the day felt “like a dream”.
With its promise to transform impoverished Myanmar after more than 50 years of control by the army, the NLD won 80% of contested seats in November. That has created high expectations—unrealistic ones, some fear. “People expect that the NLD will solve all their problems,” says Mr Bo Bo Oo. “But it will take at least ten years before we see real change.” This view is echoed by Tin Oo, a co-founder of the NLD. The 88-year-old ex-general calls parliament’s opening just “a first step” in a long struggle.
So far, procedural issues have dominated the new parliament’s agenda: the swearing-in of new members and the election of speakers for the upper and lower houses. A bigger task looms: choosing the country’s president. The NLD’s victory gives it comfortable majorities in both houses, despite the 25% of seats reserved by law for the army. Each house selects one presidential candidate, as does the army. The winner is chosen by parliamentary vote, with the two others automatically appointed as vice-presidents. The president-elect then chooses a cabinet. The new administration will officially begin work at the end of March, when the term of the current president, Thein Sein, ends.
Given the NLD’s bicameral majority, there is no doubt which party will determine who becomes president. But it is still a mystery who that person will be. It is unlikely to be Miss Suu Kyi: the constitution bars anyone with a foreign spouse or children from the job (her sons are British). But she may try to get the constitution changed in her favour. Speaking to journalists on February 3rd, she noted that parliament had until March 31st to choose a president, prompting speculation that she may even be looking for a way to get the constitution revised before then. Whoever ends up getting the job, she has been clear about who will call the shots: she will.
Miss Suu Kyi’s power will be restrained, however. Despite the NLD’s landslide, the army is still powerful. It controls the home, defence and border-affairs ministries, as well as the country’s security forces and civil service. It can thus frustrate the NLD’s attempts at reform. Revising the constitution may prove even more difficult. That would require a parliamentary supermajority exceeding 75%. The army’s reserved seats give it a veto. Its newspaper said this week that the constitutional provisions regarding the presidency should remain unchanged “for the good of the mother country”. In a national crisis, as defined by the generals, the army can still legally seize control again.
Many expect that Miss Suu Kyi will try to avoid confrontation with the army, and that she will even appoint ministers who worked in the outgoing administration. She is likely to focus first on ending conflicts involving ethnic minorities living in border areas. As Khin Maung Myint, an ethnic Kachin MP from northern Myanmar, puts it: “Everything that parliament will do is worthless without peace.”