The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in November’s general election, and now leads Myanmar’s first genuinely civilian government in 53 years. The overwhelming popular mandate delivered by the electorate, and the strong international support it enjoys, has delivered the incoming government a wealth of political capital for its inaugural term.
Myanmar's new foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi with vice president Henry Van Thio (Photo: Getty Images)
How will that capital be spent?
Not blessed with the governance experience, economic leverage, and control over the armed forces of previous governments, the new administration will find it challenging to deliver on its ambitious promises for peace and reconciliation.
The subject of reconciliation is where the roots of Myanmar's long history of ethno-political conflict and democratic struggle intertwine. On both fronts, progress in the country has repeatedly stuttered — in boycotted elections, disputed constitutional processes, outbreaks of civil war, or aborted ceasefire processes — when the country’s leaders have failed to forge political processes that incorporate the diverse interests of its fragmented ethno-political mosaic.
To genuinely deliver on its promises for peace and reconciliation, the new government will need to build more inclusive parliamentary and non-parliamentary processes than the country has ever seen, without allowing descent into the 'chaotic democracy' the army fears. In the short term, this requires opening space in either parliament or the peace process for ethnic political parties and ethnic armed organisations, several of which are still at war with the Myanmar military. In the long term, this means political compromises that meet ethnic minority aspirations for more autonomy in their ancestral homelands.
The critical question is how broad the new government’s definition of reconciliation will be.
Narrowly defined reconciliation — and a necessary step in any case — will require the NLD to develop a tacit understanding with the military. The party must pursue its agenda without straying too far from the 'Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy' set forth by the military which, despite losing the legislature, still holds the balance of power across the country’s spectrum of constitutional, economic, and military assets. If the NLD builds confidence that it can lead a stable government without undermining the military's economic or security interests, the military will endorse the democratic transition and may gradually recede from political life.
Broader ‘inter-ethnic’ reconciliation will require measures that the military will find more difficult to accept. The new government is inheriting a peace process that in September achieved a ceasefire agreement with only half of the country’s ethnic armed organisations. Conflict has escalated in the northeast to levels not seen since the 1990s. To get the peace process back on track, the new government must find terms that convince the Myanmar army that all of the ethnic armed organisations it is fighting should be included in a nationwide ceasefire.
Delivering on the commitment to do so will be critical.
Together, the ‘non-signatories’ to this agreement constitute a fighting force of more than 40,000 and wield considerable influence in Myanmar’s northeast. Until they are bought back into the peace process, these groups will continue to defend their cause on the battlefield rather than the negotiating table.
Even more importantly, the new government needs them back in the fold in order to maximise the reconciliatory potential of the peace process’s next phase, the proposed national dialogue, which would enable negotiations for the first time between all of Myanmar’s armed and unarmed political stakeholders; the government, parliament, political parties, national military, ethnic armed organisations, and civil societies.
This level of inclusion, which would model national dialogues undertaken in a number of transition countries, would provide a unique and genuine opportunity to bridge the country’s entire political mosaic, address the causes of the country’s repeated political failures, and forge a constitution that all can abide by.
In calling for a conference in the spirit of Panglong — referencing the historic pact between her father and Myanmar’s ethnic groups — Aung San Suu Kyi has signaled her party’s willingness to try. Repeated references to constitutional change and the creation of a federal union have appealed to ethnic minority interests, suggesting that the new government is willing to advance these causes despite the military’s fears that greater autonomy for minorities could lead to Balkanisation of the country.
These public pronouncements certainly appeared to reflect a desire to build a more inclusive peace process. When it came to appointing the new government this year, however, ethnic minorities may well have become concerned the NLD has not walked the talk.
While the party nominated ethnic minorities for vice president and three of four house speaker positions, these individuals for the most part were not drawn from ethnic political parties, and in some cases have closer ties to the Myanmar military or its proxy political party.
The selection of chief ministers, who govern Myanmar’s 14 states and regions, also disappointed ethnic leaders. Despite appeals from ethnic parties who had won majorities in state legislatures, the NLD chose to appoint chief ministers from among its own ranks, even when incoming ministers have admitted to being unqualified and reluctant candidates.
In the interests of reconciliation, it is unlikely to be enough for the NLD to simply elect people of ethnic minority identity. They must be considered by ethnic minorities as legitimate representatives with genuine intent to act on behalf of their interests. These credentials are most commonly found in the leaders of the armed and unarmed ethnic organisations that have long championed the cause, but for the most part still remain outside of the political fray.
The new government has the political capital required to roll out a truly inclusive peace and reconciliation agenda. We are yet to see if it can and will.