Optimism in post-election Myanmar

Optimism in post-election Myanmar

Several meetings after the November elections between pro-democracy Aung San Suu Kyi and political and military heavyweights have signalled that both sides are working towards a peaceful transition and national reconciliation. This holds key to Myanmar’s economic development.

Myanmar’s historic elections in November ended with a landslide victory for the NLD party. The NLD won almost 80 percent of the contested seats in both the lower and upper houses, giving it a 60 percent majority in each house.

The NLD now enjoys a massive mandate, but the military still plays a significant role in Myanmar’s politics. Since the pivotal elections a month ago, Aung San Suu Kyi has met with departing President Thein Sein, army chief General Min Aung Hlaing, parliamentary speaker (also a former general) Shwe Mann, and most notably with former dictator, Than Shwe to discuss power transition and cooperation.

Meetings with military heavyweights bring hope

While the NLD has secured a majority in the contested seats, the military still holds 25 percent of the seats of both houses. Therefore, although the NLD has control over legislation it does not have control over constitutional amendments, which require 75 percent support from the parliament.

Thus Ms Suu Kyi and her party NLD will have to work closely with the armed forces to continue political reforms. That’s why after the elections, the party leader has downplayed pre-election confrontational rhetoric and called on NLD members to work with the armed forces and former regime members for national reconciliation.

Her counterparts – President Thein Sein, army chief Min Aung Hlaing, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann – have promised cooperation, and the former head of the junta government Than Shwe has called her the ‘future leader of Myanmar’.

From another perspective, the army-backed USDP has suffered a huge defeat and lost over 85 percent of its seats in both houses. It is a clear sign that electors have given little credit to the military for ending dictatorial rule and to the reforms that the quasi-civilian government has initiated.

The military, while being the strongest institution in the country and also controlling key posts in ministries of defence, internal order, and border affairs, is aware of its unpopularity and the shift of political sea. Thus, unlike the 1990 election, it looks increasingly likely that the armed forces will accept the election outcome this time.

The military will want to revise its image as an institution that allows free and fair elections and a peaceful power transfer as it seeks reassurance amid the changing political landscape in 2016.

While the topics discussed during the several meetings remained undisclosed, and it is unclear if any compromise has been reached, it is a sign that both sides are willing to work together.

Continuity and a better trade environment

Political change and liberalisation under the current administration has led to economic growth and a surge in foreign investment. With the new government expected to take power in late March or early April, foreign businesses hope to see continuity from the previous government rather than a new agenda.

With insufficient skilled technocrats available and little policy development work from the NLD party, this means that the new government, at least in the short run, will likely retain some of the key people and policies from the departing government.

Another issue that the business community is concerned about is the impact of the new government on sanctions. Myanmar has long suffered sanctions from the US and other Western countries, but some trade restrictions were lifted after the country shifted from a junta-ruled government to a semi-civilian government in 2012 (following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and parliamentary by-elections).

Last week, the US has temporary lifted sanctions on shipping hubs to aid democratic transition. Businesses can expect more trade restrictions to be dropped if the transition goes smoothly.

While many of the key industries such as airlines and oil are controlled or linked to the junta, large companies are optimistic that with the new government, which enjoys high international legitimacy and recognition, there will be a loosening of trade sanctions.

Be it for political reforms or economic liberalisation, a smooth power transfer and national reconciliation between the NLD and the armed forces holds the key to Myanmar’s economic prospects. Decades of mutual distrust will not be overcome easily, and how both sides will coexist in the long run depends on the political wisdom of two leaderships.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Qingzhen Chen

Qingzhen is a GRI Senior Analyst and a research analyst for an international information company. Her research focuses on China and the Asia Pacific. Previously she was a market researcher for PwC. She has gained regional knowledge from internships with the UNDP, China Policy, and the Royal United Services Institute. She holds a BA in Politics and East European Studies and an MSc in Security Studies from University College London.