Asia Pacific: Myanmar – The Many Virtues of Patience

Tears flowed as Htin Kyaw (70) was sworn in as the first president of Myanmar without ties to the military in over half a century on March 30. Moments after assuming power, Mr Kyaw – a close friend of Nobel peace prize laureate Aung Suu Kyi (70) and hand-picked by her to head the incoming government – called for national reconciliation, an end to ethnic strife, and for changes to the 2008 military-drafted constitution that barred Ms Kyi from holding the presidency because her sons are not Myanmar citizens. It is widely thought that the rule was specifically written to deny Ms Kyi the presidency. Her late husband Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture, was British as are their two children.

Ms Kyi repeatedly called the constitutional provision “silly” and assured her followers in the National League for Democracy (NLD) that she would rule the country regardless. In the general election of early November 2015 the NLD claimed 255 out of the House of Representatives’ 440 seats after it won 57% of the popular vote.

It took the upper house of parliament – the House of Nationalities – but two days to clear the way for Ms Kyi to become, in effect, the president’s boss by naming her state counsellor in charge of coordinating government policy and advising the executive. Ms Kyi also heads four ministries – Foreign Affairs, Education, Energy, and Presidential Office.

By ushering Ms Kyi into government via the side door, and granting her sweeping powers, parliament immediately asserted its independence from the military. The Myanmar generals may have relinquished power; they still hover in the background reluctant to let go of all political reins. They are, however, a spent force. The constitution awards the armed forces a quarter of the seats in both houses of parliament. This enables the military – in theory – to frustrate attempts at undermining their legal handiwork and legacy.

The armed forces also held on to three ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defence – and made sure one of their own was appointed second vice-president. However, President Htin Kyaw seemed unfazed as he assured the nation that his administration will work tirelessly towards achieving a constitution, “that has democratic norms and is suitable for the nation. We must try to fulfil the hope and will of the people of this country.”

Three Decades to Freedom

The transition of power at the end of March concluded a political struggle for democracy that started with the 8888 Uprising – named after key events took place on August 8, 1988 – when students were joined in their protests against rising prices and political oppression by housewives, workers, Buddhist monks, and others.

The unrest quickly spread throughout the country and targeted the military-backed regime of the Burma Socialist Programme Party. During the crisis, Aung Suu Kyi – daughter of the country’s independence leader Aung San who was assassinated in 1947 – rose to prominence, at one point addressing a crowd of an estimated 500,000 people from the steps of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon (Yangon), calling for freedom and an end to one-party rule.

Shortly after, the State Law and Order Restoration Council – a thinly disguised military junta – took direct control of government in a coup followed by a violent crackdown that is thought to have cost thousands of lives though the official tally never exceeded 350.

Once firmly established in power, the country’s new rulers proceeded to loosen state control over the economy, albeit at a glacial pace. Since obtaining its independence in 1948, Burma – as the country was then called – had embraced central planning. The government implemented an Eight-Year Plan that was to transform Burma into a welfare state. Instead, the economy collapsed. In their first of repeated forays into political life, the army grabbed power in 1962 and introduced the Burmese Way to Socialism, nationalising industry, restricting trade, and banning foreign ownership of economic assets.

Endowed with a wealth of natural resources, and under British rule the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia, Burma was soon turned into one of the world’s most impoverished nations – awarded Least Developed Country Status by the United Nations in 1987. While the regime that took power the next year promptly distanced itself from totalitarian socialism, and allowed the private sector to stage a modest comeback, international sanctions thwarted its strenuous efforts at enticing foreign investors to return.


Prying the Generals from Power

Lacklustre economic performance and an emboldened opposition forced the generals to slowly loosen their grip on power. They did so most reluctantly. The proliferation of satellite dishes – at first illegal, but eventually tolerated – and Internet cafés made it increasingly difficult for the regime to keep its people in the dark. Deemed “likely to undermine the community’s peace and stability,” the generals did keep Aung Suu Kyi under house arrest off and on for a total of 15 years over a 21-year period. While she was allowed to leave the country, the government warned her that a return would be out of the question. Ms Kyi decided to stay put and be a thorn in the regime’s side.

The first larger cracks in the junta armour’s appeared in early 2011 after a carefully choreographed election, duly boycotted by the NLD, brought a pseudo-civilian administration to power. However, its president, former army general Thein Sein, failed to follow the script. Instead of enriching himself siphoning off the lucrative trade in ruby and jade, President Sein surprised friend and foe by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, easing censorship restrictions, opening up the economy – and asking Ms Kyi to join the country’s political life. It got him a lot of goodwill, and a visit from US President Barack Obama, in return.

As one fear receded, another one took its place. In 2012, ethnic violence erupted in Rakhine State (Arakan Province), west of Rangoon, between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines who feared that they would soon become a minority in their home state. Both sides went on a rampage that only ended after the army intervened. By then, some 140,000 people had been driven from their homes. Ms Kyi has chosen to remain silent on the topic. In an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, taking up the defence of a widely despised and persecuted Muslim minority may not be the smartest of political moves.

While Aung Suu Kyi remains the most popular political leader by far, she is not without critics. Ms Kyi removed members of the 88 Generation, a group of prominent former political prisoners, from the list of NLD’s parliamentary candidates and expelled those who complained about this from the party. She also backed the previous government in a dispute between subsistence farmers and a Chinese-financed copper mine, arguing that foreign investors need to feel welcome in Myanmar.

These slight asides do not detract from the genuine joy felt across the country at the departure of the generals from power. The military may linger backstage, but even Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing admitted, in so many words, that the game is up when he stressed that constitutional reforms must not be enacted “too quickly.” Pointedly, General Hliang did not outright reject constitutional change.

Economic Take-Off

Meanwhile, the Myanmar economy is poised for take-off. In 2013, the country managed to cancel or refinance almost two-thirds of its national debt with the Bank of Japan writing off $3bn and the Paris Club cancelling $2.2bn. A fast-track liberalisation drive has removed most of the shackles that kept the economy from growing. As a result, foreign direct investment has ballooned with over $8bn flowing into the country last year. In a recent report, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that Myanmar may easily quadruple the size of its economy between now and 2030, provided it avoids ethnic strife, controls the illegal trade in drugs, and manages to implement sensible policies.

Whilst that seems a tall order, it is not: the incoming administration may be inexperienced in the art of governing, it is not devoid of political savvy. The National League for Democracy has fought an uphill battle since its founding in 1988. On the insistence of Ms Kyi, the party stuck to its guns and defeated the junta without appealing to violence. Instead, the NLD patiently disassembled the regime’s defences until the generals had no other recourse but to hand over power – bit by bit. That resilience will stand the country’s new administration in good stead as it prepares to undo over five decades’ worth of economic mismanagement.