This week, Myanmar began a new phase in its journey towards democracy. U Htin Kyaw, a former political prisoner, took over as the new president on March 30. Aung San Suu Kyi, the best-known former prisoner of conscience, joined the new cabinet as its sheet anchor. She has four important ministries (foreign affairs, education, energy and the president’s office) and the overall responsibility to lead the nation. The cabinet also includes three lieutenant generals nominated by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.
Political adversaries of yesterday are now partners in government. The army ruled the country since 1962. Now, a significant chunk of power shifts to leaders elected by the people. This is a long stride towards democratic governance. The transition process, begun with 2010 elections, gathered momentum with a landslide victory of National League for Democracy (NLD) in the elections last November.
Is it a new dawn? Surely the change cannot be minimised. NLD now controls both houses of the parliament, has the bulk of cabinet posts, has nominated chief ministers of states, and will speak for the nation. But it shares power with the military.
The latter has provided the senior vice-president, three critical ministers (home, defence and border affairs), controls 25% of MPs, and is inclined to continue its political role sanctioned by the constitution. The Myanmar polity looks like a car with two drivers.
Should the two principal partners – NLD and the army – cooperate fully, they can lead the nation to a new dawn. All friends of Myanmar should wish them well.
Thanks to the reform set in motion by Thein Sein, the previous president, the nation has been recovering perceptibly from decades of misrule, poverty, insurgencies and conflict. Inaugurating the change was the military’s way to recognise misjudgments and failures of the past. The people have done the rest.
Through the first free and fair election since 1990, they sent out a powerful message. The army received it, loud and clear. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government thus embarks on a historic journey.
In a brief statement after his swearing-in, President Htin Kyaw identified four main goals: national reconciliation, internal peace, constitutional reform, and improvement of the quality of people’s lives. While taking oath on the existing constitution, he emphasised it should be in accord with ‘the democratic norms suited to our country’. Resistance to achieving this goal is expected from the army.
The new government faces daunting challenges. Many of them – ethnic conflict, Buddhist-Muslim tensions, Rohingya issue – will take a long time to be resolved satisfactorily. They will test NLD’s political skills.
Other issues are even more urgent: designing constitutional reform, accelerating economic growth that is inclusive, implementing administrative reform, and crafting a formula that allows the parliament, government and military to work in unison. The last task is of exceptional significance. Only through a mixture of persistence and patience by one side (NLD) and flexibility by the other (army) can Myanmar hope to move forward.
How the new government conducts its foreign policy will also be interesting to watch. Its policy approach may reflect a blend of NLD and army worldviews. The blending process will occur in the current regional context when east Asia experiences a sharpening strategic contest between the US and China.
During her long struggle against military rule Suu Kyi received valuable support from the West, whereas the generals – shunned by most nations – got precious succour from China. President Thein Sein showed a creative middle way in the past five years. He built constructive relations with the US, Japan and others, while re-fashioning the China equation with a rare mixture of firmness and resilience. This line is likely to continue, but initial endeavours to strengthen Myanmar-China ties are not ruled out.
As Myanmar’s new foreign minister Suu Kyi may wish to establish cooperative ties with Asean leaders, overcoming her party’s past grievances. Asean’s ‘constructive engagement’ with the military-ruled Myanmar was not to NLD’s liking. Asean leaders are now set to visit and cultivate the new leadership.
Suu Kyi is widely known as India’s friend, a believer in Gandhian philosophy and an admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru. With her in power, India-Myanmar relations should flourish in the normal course. Hopes are being expressed about a possible return to ‘the golden age’ that existed in the 1950s.
An alternative view is that, as Myanmar experiments with two tracks of governance, India should merely ‘wait and watch’. However, thoughtful experts point out that a passive Myanmar policy would be self-defeating. After all, India has vital stakes in its eastern neighbour which, for its own reasons, needs India’s proactive cooperation.
Hence, it is time for New Delhi to unveil a series of measures to upgrade relations with Myanmar. This could include a high-level bilateral visit as soon as possible; agreement to hold an annual summit; a new and generous development package; a fresh endeavour to motivate India Inc to enhance its engagement; and a determined drive to help civil society and expand people-to-people relations. At the same time, communication and cooperation with the army leadership should continue.
When opportunity knocks wisdom lies in welcoming it, equipped with a sound plan.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme at Gateway House, former ambassador to Myanmar, and author of ‘India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours’ (Routledge).
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