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The enigma of Myanmar's new 'democratic' era

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Myanmar's National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for the opening of the new parliament in Naypyitaw on Feb. 1.   © Reuters

Crowning a year of unprecedented change in Myanmar, the Feb. 1 launch of the country's new parliament -- the second since the end of outright military rule in early 2011 -- was the most potent symbol so far of an emerging new order. Few countries have undergone an extraordinary transition as rapidly as Myanmar, from decades of harsh, secretive military dictatorship to a functioning parliament and electoral system, increasingly vibrant democracy and open -- albeit flawed -- economy, all in five years.

     Serious problems remain, particularly over human rights and sectarian issues and a broken economic system. But the fact that Myanmar expatriates could watch the inaugural parliamentary session on Monday live on the internet spoke volumes about a country where internet access was virtually zero just five years ago. So, too, did the vibrant LGBT film festival taking place concurrently in Yangon -- in a country where homosexuality is still technically banned.

     Like many events in Myanmar, however, the long-awaited opening of the new parliament was not as expected. Only the 440-seat lower house was convened on Monday. The 224-seat upper house is to open the next day, and the first session of the combined Union parliament set for Feb. 8.

     Even so, the ponderous parliamentary ceremony in Naypyitaw highlighted the greatest irony of the "new Myanmar:" that one time pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy will preside from April 1 -- the official start date of the new government -- over a virtual one-party state.

     The NLD controls about 80% of elected parliamentary seats and will appoint the cabinet. Under Myanmar's quasi-electoral college system, the party will choose the president and one of two vice presidents -- a process that will begin on Feb. 8. The NLD itself has an internal structure that some describe as being more rigid than that of the outgoing Union Solidarity and Development Party -- reinforcing the power of one person who must approve all main decisions and statements: the party leader, Suu Kyi.

     Therein lies one of the two biggest anomalies of Myanmar's new era: first that the only check and balance on a party that controls both the executive and legislative branches rests with the military, known as the Tatmadaw. The second is that the country's most powerful and popular politician is also ineligible for the presidency. Under a constitutional provision barring Myanmar nationals with foreign family from the role, Suu Kyi, clearly the people's overwhelming choice, cannot take her rightful place.

     Through a flawed but cunningly structured constitution drawn up under the previous military regime, no single entity can gain absolute control of the political system. Even the provision for a military takeover in a crisis requires the country's president to declare a state of emergency. Despite the NLD's crushing election victory last November, the Tatmadaw with control of 25% of parliamentary seats holds the ultimate key to power --  a veto over constitutional changes, which require 75% support in parliament.  Beyond the constitution and security issues however, the NLD will have pervasive authority. 

Stranger and stranger

It is a strange but exhilarating new era, ushered in by the oddly named "roadmap to a discipline flourishing democracy" launched in 2004 by former dictator Than Shwe.

     A ruthless and secretive ruler, Than Shwe's vision for a democracy nevertheless has largely come to fruition. Not, perhaps, in the way he envisaged it although one of his sons -- a military officer -- has been appointed to the Yangon regional parliament.

     From now, the order of business is for parliamentary speakers to take their positions. Their names will be known by mid-February and voting will take place, according to NLD insiders. By the end of March, a new cabinet will be appointed and officially take power on April 1.

     On the political front, early decisions on key parliamentary appointments show a surprising degree of inclusiveness, according to NLD officials who confirmed that three of the four main positions as speakers and deputy speakers of the upper and lower house will come from minority groups while both deputies will be from other parties including the ruling USDP. Win Myint, an NLD member from the Burman ethnic majority will be lower house speaker while Ti Khun Myat, an ethnic Kachin, will be his deputy.

     Win Khaing Than, a Karen member of the NLD will be upper house speaker, and Aye Thar Aung, from Rakhine state, his deputy.

     Suu Kyi has vowed to pursue reconciliation but her choice of Ti Khun Myat -- a member of the USDP former ruling party and the target of allegations linking him to the narcotics trade and militia activities -- as deputy speaker prompted questions from some critics.

     The big question for many is who will be president. Theoretically this should not matter, as Suu Kyi has downplayed the role under her leadership saying she would be "above the president." The only way it would matter is if her choice is controversial -- for example, Shwe Mann, the outgoing parliamentary speaker, a former junta leader and her close confidante. Some NLD insiders dismiss such rumors though most expect an important position to be bestowed on the former general.

     Other potential presidential candidates include that of party elder and co-founder Tin Oo; Suu Kyi's personal physician Tin Myo Win; close adviser Htin Kyaw, son of poet Min Thu Wun; and even Tin Mar Aung, Suu Kyi's devoted personal assistant.

     More interesting perhaps is how Suu Kyi will define and play her role. Despite speculation that she may take the post of foreign minister, some insiders believe she will stay without portfolio and oversee the government in her unofficial capacity. If she took a cabinet position she would have to surrender her parliamentary seat, currently the only official basis for her political role. 

Down to business

One huge challenge is the sheer volume of issues facing the new administration that need urgent attention -- not least on the legislative front. Bills pushed through in the last session including critical economic and financial laws such as the Banks and Financial Institutions law and those governing foreign and domestic investment, as well as a controversial bill that offers legal immunity and lifelong security for former presidents.

     But a daunting array of legislative issues including at least 14 bills held over from the last parliament face the new legislature, among them proposed amendments to laws concerning companies, land rights, insurance and banking sectors, taxation and foreign exchange management. On top of that are growing popular demands to repeal more repressive laws including four contentious race and religion laws pushed through in the last session.

     There are also crucial decisions ahead on a second round of foreign bank licenses and likely tenders for foreign insurers and telecoms operators.

     For Suu Kyi, success or failure depends on myriad issues. But the bottom line perhaps is the modus operandi with the still powerful military. She has signaled willingness to compromise and build good relations with the military, holding a second private meeting with the Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in late January.

     Amid speculation about their possible agreements to cooperate on government appointments and in parliament, one concrete sign of compromise has been Suu Kyi's silence on the presidential immunity bill and her assurances that she will not seek blanket retribution for military abuses.

     On the military's side, it has upgraded its parliamentary representation, signaling a new level of engagement in legislative affairs. As Maung Aung Myoe, an author expert on Myanmar's military affairs, wrote in the Nikkei Asian Review, of 26 military officers newly appointed to national parliament, 22 have master's degrees from the National Defense College.

     Above all, as one NLD adviser explained, the military holds the key to all security-related issues, including three military-related cabinet positions: defense, home affairs and border affairs. The Tatmadaw also commands absolute power over the conduct of internal military operations. That is why it also holds the key to a crucial element of success for the new government -- achieving peace with ethnic armed groups. Suu Kyi has criticized the outgoing government's efforts to achieve peace, even downplaying the signing of a ceasefire agreement in late 2015 with eight of 16 armed ethnic groups. But from now, she clearly must rely on good working relations with the military she once disparaged to achieve any progress -- and her ultimate goal of attaining the presidency.

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