Now comes the hard part, really running Myanmar
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Now comes the hard part, really running Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, delivers a speech during her election campaign rally in Yangon, Myanmar, on Nov 1, 2015. - EPA
Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, delivers a speech during her election campaign rally in Yangon, Myanmar, on Nov 1, 2015. - EPA

The people of Myanmar are now enthusiastically preparing for life under a democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, after the party swept to an enormous victory in last Sunday’s elections.

‘Overwhelming endorsement’: Above and below, supporters of the opposition NLD gather to celebrate the early election results outside the party’s headquarters in Yangon last week. Mrs Suu Kyi has urged her backers to remain calm until the victory is consolidated.

The NLD now has an absolute majority in the national parliament in what was nothing short of a landslide, although there are concerns the authorities may not respect the election results.

These fears have been partly dispelled by President Thein Sein, army commander-in chief Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing and parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, who have accepted Mrs Suu Kyi’s offer for talks. These are planned for today and they are expected to discuss “national reconciliation” in the wake of the election.

Mrs Suu Kyi now controls the national parliament, with substantial majorities in both the upper and lower houses, even with a quarter of the MPs being soldiers selected by the army chief. The NLD also controls virtually all the 14 regional parliaments.

“Everything is going to be better now,” said Lay He, a fruit seller in Yangon’s China town. “We have been waiting too long to show these people what we thought of them and that we wanted them gone for ever.”

It was an overwhelming endorsement of Mrs Suu Kyi and her party. The NLD won about 80% of the seats contested across the country — with only Shan and Rakhine states out of step with the national sentiment.

The people are ecstatic, and anxiously waiting for Mrs Suu Kyi to take control of the government. But the delays in announcing the results last week raised fears of government skulduggery. “We don’t trust them [the army], we have never trusted them, and after nearly 60 years of experience, we have good reason not to trust them,” said Nwe Nwe Aye, a retired doctor.

This summed up the general mood, at least in Yangon. But Mrs Suu Kyi called for calm from her supporters from the moment the polls closed. She and NLD party leaders were never in doubt about the result, but cautioned their supporters to be magnanimous in victory. An essential approach, given the drawn-out process of handing over power to the election victors.

“Everyone wants the transfer to be smooth and peaceful,” said businessman and commentator Kyaw Kyaw Hlaing, chairman of the Smart group of companies. "It is in no one’s interests for there to be instability, uncertainty or violence.”

The NLD’s nominee for president — who has still not been announced — will certainly be elected president in the joint sitting of the national parliament in February, and form the cabinet.


Despite the result, the election was only ever for a share of government, rather than absolute administrative power. The NLD has to work with the military, as the army controls 25% of the seats in the national and regional parliaments, and appoints three key cabinet ministers — those of border affairs, defence and home affairs — who are also senior serving officers.

Stepping aside: Thein Sein has assured the nation that his government and the military will respect the election result.

The army also nominates one of the three vice-presidents, from which the joint sitting of parliament elects the president. The commander-in-chief, under the constitution, can also initiate an administrative coup, if he felt the country’s security and stability were threatened.

So today’s planned meeting between Mrs Suu Kyi and Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing will be crucial to the transition. While some analysts fear a confrontational meeting, many believe reason will prevail. “We never say we don’t trust the military,” the NLD speaker, Nyan Win told Spectrum. “Our policy is national reconciliation, and we must involve the military in changing the country.”

Independent political analyst Win Min said, “The military is the most important player in the forthcoming transfer of power. Contact between the two [Mrs Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing] needs to be kept confidential and secret; her public statement calling for talks was neither diplomatic nor appropriate, but the president’s positive response was a good sign.”

The transition will take time: the new parliament will meet in late January, after which the president is elected. The president’s cabinet will be sworn in at the end of March.

“There will be a lot of horse-trading during that time,” said Myat Thu, a lecturer at the Yangon School of Political Science. “A compromise is likely to be struck, but in the meantime, government administration may grind to a halt.”


Attention is now turning to who the NLD will choose as president and who will be in the new cabinet. Mrs Suu Kyi says the party has a presidential candidate. When Spectrum went to press it was a tightly kept secret, with few in the know and party figures saying the person’s identity cannot yet be made public for security reasons.

Senior party officials continue to deflect all speculation, saying the nominee will be revealed at an appropriate time. Nyan Win said it may come after the electoral commission announces the final results.

Many analysts, diplomats and businessmen are more concerned about who the NLD plans to include in their cabinet.

“It will be a government of national unity,” Sean Turnell, an expert on the Myanmar economy at Australia’s Macquarie University and an informal economic adviser to the NLD, told Spectrum. He thought it could include members from business, civil society, civil servants and even members of the current executive.

Mrs Suu Kyi has already drawn up a list of potential ministers, according to party insiders — though it is still secret even within the NLD.

“Competence, technical expertise and appropriate experience will be the key criteria,” said Ye Min Oo, a businessman and NLD activist close to the party’s leader. There are likely to be few party members selected, according to some NLD senior executives.

Mrs Suu Kyi is expected to go outside the party in her search for the candidates who are best qualified to be ministers.

Mrs Suu Kyi has been very tactical in her calculations, and has a well-developed strategy in mind. While expertise will be the hallmark of her cabinet, she wants NLD MPs to play the major role in governing the regions. She plans to make key NLD members chief ministers in the states and divisions.

The candidates for key areas, including Yangon, Mandalay and Saigang, have already been selected. They are mainly young politicians who served as MPs in the previous parliament but stood for seats in the regional assemblies so they would be eligible for the local posts. The president appoints the chief ministers from the MPs in the regional parliaments.


One issue the new government will tackle early is reforming the bureaucracy — including merging ministries, Ye Min Oo said.

High hopes: Supporters of Mrs Suu Kyi celebrate the election result.

The plan is to streamline the government. “With some 31 ministries — all with two deputy ministers — government administration is inefficient, lacks collective control and coordination, and is a burden on this country and its economy,” said Myo Myint, a member of the party’s economic committee.

Public service reform — started under Thein Sein — will be become a priority when the NLD takes control in March.

Many businessmen are hoping for a more efficient government. This is essential if the country is to prosper, according to Phone Win, who runs a micro-finance company in Yangon giving credit to about 2,000 SMEs.

“More freedom from bureaucratic regulation is what’s needed most,” he said.

“In the past five years, our experience was that as soon as a law is passed, there’s a multitude of directives and instructions; more than 10 instructions and directives, often replacing a previous one — every two or three months another one is issued.”


Although the government will be riding a wave of unprecedented public support, many are worried Mrs Suu Kyi will have difficulty living up to expectations.

“She has her work cut out for her,” said businessman Kyaw Kyaw Hlaing.

“Tackling the key issues on the table, the role of the military, corruption — endemic in government — national reconciliation, including federalism, and of course the problems in Rakhine state will be a daunting task.”

Senior party members know they face a hard task reforming the bureaucracy to ensure democracy delivers a dividend to the people — especially the poorer urban dwellers and the rural farmers who have not benefited from the past five years of Thein Sein’s reforms.

“It’s so important to establish early credibility,” Mr Turnell said. “But unlike its predecessors, the NLD government’s approach, especially to economic policy-making, will be grounded in rationality and reason.”

He said the NLD’s approach is to increase economic freedoms and provide the security to encourage enterprise, fiscal prudence and monetary stability. Mr Turnell is confident this will create growth, secure property rights and respect for the rule of law.

Mr Turnell said a key priority is to boost agriculture.

“This would involve granting the country’s farmers their land rights, creating greater and easier access to credit, and ensuring seeds, tractors and milling equipment are available, as well as improving market access,” he said.

Boosting spending on health and education, and improving the quality of service, would also be high priorities, he added.

Businessmen are very clear on their main expectations from the NLD: clean government above all else.

“There must be transparency and accountability — not just lip service as in the past,” Kyaw Kyaw Hlaing said. “There must be a level playing field, and the inefficient state-owned enterprises need to be privatised and made public companies.”

He said the government should have a detailed development plan, with clearly stated priorities. “Some thought should also be given to a measure of protection for local businesses, especially those that create employment,” he added.


As the government deals with the reality of the army in parliament, its economic interests are unlikely to be tackled in the near future. However, NLD senior leader and patron Tin Oo said tackling administrative corruption would be another priority. “Corruption is endemic in government and it must end,” he said.

Businessmen, however, are concerned about the NLD’s attitude towards the country’s cronies. The cronies — including former generals from previous governments — have interests everywhere, and many smaller businesses are dependent on them for survival.

“They [the cronies] have bled the country of its resources, stolen land from poor farmers without adequate compensation and benefited from preferential treatment by successive military governments,” Nyan Win told Spectrum last year.

Some in the business community endorse this view. For Phone Win there can also be no half measures. “Don’t give space to the cronies: corruption and nepotism needs to be stamped out,” he said. “The political and economic environment cannot change while the cronies are around.”

But senior NLD leaders are more practical, suggesting they will not take a confrontational approach.

“What is important is that they will no longer enjoy special privileges, will have to bid for new projects along with everyone else, which will be assigned through a clear, accountable and transparent process,” Ye Min Oo said. “Above all the cronies — and other big businesses — will have to start paying appropriate taxes.”


Tax reform is the one change expected to be implemented immediately, as it is crucial for the budget and would underline the NLD’s commitment to prudent and rational economic policy. For now, tax collection in Myanmar amounts to about 7% of GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund, compared to 20-30% in Thailand and Vietnam.

But it also needs to be transparent, and the temptation for corruption and backhanders removed completely. The government might consider farming out tax collection to an international accounting firm like Deloitte or KPMG, according to Yangon-based business consultant Billy Selig, head of New Crossroads Asia.

But before anything can happen Mrs Suu Kyi must negotiate a smooth and peaceful transition with the army commander. Constitutional change is certainly going to be a major bone of contention. It is the party’s highest priority now that it can form government.

“What we need is real democracy,” Tin Oo said. “The Tatmadaw [Myanmar army] should understand that disciplined democracy is in their interests. They must accept it.

“We need to do away with the quota of soldiers [in parliament] — but not straight away. We need to build trust. Perhaps reduce [the quota] over time. It needs to be done gradually and cleverly … but at some point they have to clearly quit politics.”

Tin Oo said it was necessary for the key players to sit at the same table and talk, but with an agenda of substance. For a successful, smooth and peaceful transition, that needs to start at today’s meeting planned between Mrs Suu Kyi, Min Aung Hlaing and Thein Sein. Tin Oo said this will only be the first step in what has to be the formation of a government of unity.

Already there are fears Mrs Suu Kyi will be too aggressive and demanding, and will not be able to manage to make her government sufficiently inclusive. “She doesn’t understand what a unity government is,” said Kyaw Lin Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Peoples’ Forum.

While welcoming the NLD’s success, Chin politician Cheery Zahau — who lost her parliamentary bid to the NLD — said there was now a real risk of returning to the dark days of the Ne Win era. “There’s a danger that the NLD’s overwhelming victory will lead to a one-party state, as before,” she said.

First lady: Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition NLD party has secured an election victory far more crushing than many predicted, though delays in announcing the result raised fears of government skulduggery.

Defensive position: A quarter of Myanmar’s parliament remains in uniform under the military-drafted constitution.

Facing a new battle: Aung San Suu Kyi received tremendous support before last weekend’s landmark election, but now faces the challenge of living up to her promises of change.

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