Myanmar moves into Unchartered territory

NOVEMBER 12, 2015, Stratfor.com

Myanmar’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) appears to have won a landslide victory in the country’s historic Nov. 8 elections — the first nationwide general elections Myanmar has seen since 1990.

The vote is a triumph for the NLD’s leader, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent the better part of 20 years under house arrest. It is also a validation of the West’s 2010 decision to abandon its strategy of isolating Myanmar’s military government and begin engaging with the ruling generals to implement their “roadmap to democracy,” an incremental and uneven process designed to democratize the country without undermining the military’s role as the ultimate arbiter of power. Nonetheless, power in Myanmar is diffusing after five decades of authoritarian rule, and the next phase of the transition is unlikely to run smoothly. Now the NLD’s task will be to forge a new power-sharing arrangement that does not alienate ethnic minority parties, ascendant grassroots Buddhist nationalist factions or military stalwarts…

With its new sway in parliament, the NLD will be able to unilaterally name the next leader and one deputy. Though Suu Kyi herself is barred from running by a clause in the constitution, she has stated emphatically that, given the chance, the NLD will elect essentially a puppet president who would answer to her. Depending on the final official tally of NLD seats, this president could be a major thorn in the military’s side, especially if backed by enough of a majority to table constitutional changes. With 25 percent of seats, the military has the ability to harpoon such changes, though doing so would be risky as it would highlight the still-entrenched institution’s role in an ostensibly democratic system.

Uneasy Partners

In theory, according to the military, the constitution creates an arrangement that allows the two sides to tend to separate realms — the military fulfilling its self-styled role as protector of the nation, the NLD saddled with the more grim day-to-day tasks of nudging Myanmar into modernity. But it also raises the risk of prolonged standoffs between the two that destabilize Naypyidaw and cripple the ability of the next government to address important outstanding issues, most notably the intractable ethnic conflicts still raging in several parts of Myanmar’s upland periphery. Furthermore, it portends a tumultuous working relationship going forward on issues where military and government prerogatives overlap. Ethnic tension will be especially key: An October cease-fire agreement between the government and some armed groups is entering a period of negotiations over checkpoints, territory and arms. The military will naturally play a major role in these talks, and the NLD will have to work closely with it if it wants to maintain legitimacy and expand the cease-fire to more armed groups.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi has promised to form a reconciliation government, but constitutional reform is reportedly at the top of her agenda. As the NLD tests the limits of its newfound power, it will risk violating the military’s vision of “discipline-flourishing democracy.” If the party’s vast popular mandate is seen as a threat to the military’s core interests or unity, the generals will become more unpredictable…

Myanmar’s economy lacks the institutions, governing experience and legacy of stability to shrug off a turbulent transfer of power, especially if the military feels goaded into some form of retrenchment. The country can ill afford a protracted fight that prevents the new government or its successors from building out Myanmar’s nascent regulatory framework, banking sector and infrastructure. On the other hand, if the country’s generals work to ensure a smooth transition, they will likely secure sanctions relief (even though continued conflict and human rights issues in the periphery will make this an uneven process) and be in prime position to reap the rewards of Myanmar’s liberalization.

Indeed, a government headed by the NLD will make investment and engagement more palatable for Western investors wary of the military’s human rights record, as well as those deterred by the uncertainty and complications created by the sanctions still in place. On Nov. 10, China warned the next government against embracing the West too closely. But the NLD will face the same imperatives that compelled the generals to begin moving away from international isolation in the first place: the need to balance relations among outside powers, including China, and court investment from all corners.

Myanmar Moves Into Uncharted Territory is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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