A Changing of the Guard

Myanmar Navigates the Transition from Junta to Democracy

By Nicolas Jimenez

If you ask residents in Myanmar today about the new president, they will respond with blank stares and inquiring shrugs. As soon as you mention Aung San Suu Kyi, however, their faces light up, and they smile and nod in eager recognition.

Perhaps the most famous living icon of democracy, Suu Kyi is a former political prisoner who has advocated for a democratic reforms in opposition to the extant military junta in Myanmar. Since 1952, the junta has operated a virtual dictatorship by stifling free speech and quashing rivaling parties–notably the National League for Democracy (NLD) established in 1990.

Suffering from economic difficulties and political isolation, the junta has slowly ceded its power in recent years to pave the way for legitimate self-government. As the final stage of this process, the country held general elections on November 8, 2015 that gave the NLD an absolute majority and therefore the ability to form a government. Now, as the world watches one of the only peaceful transition from a military junta to a democracy in the last century, the focus will turn to the people at the helm: Suu Kyi, the head of the NLD, and Htin Kyaw, the newly-elected president.

     For Suu Kyi, confronting the vestiges of the military’s influence remains a challenge. For example, the military successfully engineered an obscure constitutional provision that prevents those with foreign relatives from becoming president. This policy directly targets Suu Kyi, given that she has two sons with British citizenship, and is one of many attempts by the military to separate her from political power out of fear for her tenacity and widespread popularity.

That’s where Htin Kyaw comes in. Kyaw is the son of a distinguished writer and poet, and had been elected to parliament in 1990 when the junta prevented him from serving his term. United by their desire for a more democratic Myanmar, Kyaw and Suu Kyi, who have been close friends since high school, became political allies.

Although Kyaw will officially serve as president, Suu Kyi, with his blessing, intends to actually lead the new government. Joshua Kurlantzick, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains: “I think, at least at the beginning, Kyaw will indeed operate as a de facto puppet. Suu Kyi has made that clear. However, he still has to exercise some responsibilities, and over time, it is possible that he will begin to wield more of his own powers.”

Michael Posner, a former US State Department official, argues that “although she is clearly hugely influential, the reality is that you cannot have a government run with someone declaring they’re above the president. In the long run that cannot be maintained.” Posner believes there is an underlying problem with Suu Kyi’s bold statements, and that “one of the challenges of the NLD is to become a real political party that is not so reliant on one person.”

In addition to this challenge, there are a number of other problems facing the Myanmar government.“First,” says Posner, “is to figure out the balance of power between the old guard and the NLD.” This effort will likely entail a process of democratization that includes devolving the military’s economic and physical power. Today, the old military guard controls 25% of Parliament, the ministries of Defense and Border Affairs, and the vice presidency. Moreover, as Posner points out, “they control many of the ethnic areas in rural Myanmar, where military commanders basically have unbridled control.” These regions are prized for their abundant natural resources, including jade, woodstock, and oil.

Along with the issues of sovereignty, the administration will need to resolve the tensions in the society between the buddhist population and the minority muslim populations, notably the Rohingya. It will also need to resolve the border wars between the ethnic groups that have been fighting the government for decades. To accomplish this, creating a stable and peaceful government is necessary.

To fulfill these goals, the NLD will have to implement radical policy changes. And in light of such recent elections, it is premature to predict how exactly the government’s decisions will unfold. But ultimately, whether it can meet these challenges successfully will be a key determinant in the country’s political future.


Nicolas Jimenez is a sophomore in Calhoun College. Contact him at nicolas.jimenez@yale.edu