“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society,” said Mark Twain. In fewer places than Myanmar has the saying held truer where clothed men—uniformed to be more precise—have had all the influence for more than 50 years.
That's changing with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy winning a decisive majority in the November 2015 elections. She is sending a clear message to the generals: civilians are going to call the shots from now on and she will be in charge.
Barred from becoming president by the military-drafted 2008 constitution “for the good of the mother country”, she assumed three key positions in the government to fortify her leadership—“State Counsellor”, foreign minister and minister in the president's office. The combination of jobs will allow her to oversee the president's office, shape foreign policy and coordinate decision-making between the executive branch and the parliament.
Things have started moving. As “State Counsellor”, she bypassed the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs and used legal processes to release students who had been jailed last year for protesting the new education reform law. In her first meeting as foreign minister with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, she made it clear that Beijing would have to pursue its interests in Myanmar with her rather than through the Army, as had been the case in the past.
Military members of the parliament denounced the moves as “democratic bullying”. At a parade last month, Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, reminded citizens that “the Army ensures the stability of the country” and “has to be present in a leading role in national politics”. The four-star general, despite reaching the retirement age of 60, will see his term extended for another five years, according to Wall Street Journal. He is in no hurry for the Army to step back from politics.
Suu Kyi cannot send the generals, who kept her under house arrest for 15 years, back to the barracks overnight. They still control three important ministries—home affairs, defence and border affairs. The first allows them to control the state's administrative apparatus, right down to the grassroots level. Through these centres of power, it dominates the National Defence and Security Council which can dissolve parliament and impose martial law. Amending the constitution remains impossible as it requires a majority exceeding 75 percent in the parliament. Since the army has 25 percent seats reserved by law, it holds a perpetual veto.
The task ahead is daunting. In most key human development indicators, her country sits at the bottom of the pit in Southeast Asia. The new government inherits high inflation, large budget and current-account deficits, an unstable exchange rate and institutions ossified by decades of corruption and authoritarian rule. FDI rose to over USD 8 billion during the last fiscal year, but much of that money remains concentrated in the country's jade, oil and gas industries—tied to former generals. And as the country opens up further, it is the urban “elites” and big corporations under the control of armed forces that are likely to benefit most from increased liquidity while people in rural and ethnically segregated live in extreme poverty, without basic physical or financial infrastructure.
Other priorities include reaching lasting peace with ethnic minorities along the country's borders some of whom have been fighting the central government for decades and put an end to laws that have been used to stifle dissent. Most important of all is to redress the vicious persecution of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas who have been made stateless by a 1982 law and have been languishing in squalid camps or confined to their villages while thousands more have fled the country, many into the hands of human traffickers. Suu Kyi has to find a way to quash the Anti-Islamic sentiment violently stirred-up among the near 70 percent Bamar population in part by the 969 movement initiated by radical Buddhist monk Wirathu.
Myanmar's new government will also have to tackle land rights: confusing and poorly enforced laws leave rural farmers vulnerable to confiscation. The NLD's election manifesto promised land reform, but it is easier promised than delivered as it will have to confront the still-powerful Army on the matter.
As of right now, Myanmar has the world's goodwill and potential abounds. Washington wants to seize the opportunity to pull the Army away from China's ambit and towards itself at a time when it is looking for new partners in the Indo-Pacific region to bolster its “pivot” strategy. The country has abundant natural resources and is wedged between the massive markets of China, India and Southeast Asia. A lot of expatriate Burmese are returning home, bringing in ideas, enthusiasm and skills with them. Foreign investment, especially in telecoms and energy, is pouring in. Many believe it can reclaim its title as the world's leading rice exporter.
The low-hanging fruits of Suu Kyi's victory have been picked. Further change will rest on deeper, structural changes that will take much longer. “People expect that the NLD will solve all their problems,” said Bo Bo Oo, an MP who spent 20 years in jail for supplying medicine to students. “But it will take at least ten years before we see real change.”
The writer is a member of the editorial team of The Daily Star.