Htin Kyaw’s election as president of Myanmar (also called Burma) on March 15 was not a shocker. It was as much of a sure bet as one could expect in a country that has been one of Asia’s most isolated since its 1962 military coup. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won this past November’s general elections in a landslide victory, handpicked her confidante Htin Kyaw for the top leadership post.
Suu Kyi cannot herself hold the position because the junta’s 2008 constitution forbids anyone with children holding foreign citizenship from attaining the presidency—a clause likely targeted at Suu Kyi, whose husband was British and whose two sons also have British nationality. Instead, in a list of cabinet nominees Htin Kyaw submitted on March 22, she is rumored to hold positions for the foreign affairs, energy, and education ministries as well as the president’s office, the first of which would allow her to serve on the executive-level National Defense and Security Council. But the Lady, as she is popularly known, will still be calling the shots regardless of her exact post. As Myanmar begins what will be a long and difficult transition to more meaningful civilian rule, both the Burmese public and international watchers will keep their eyes on Suu Kyi as she governs through a proxy presidency.
At the moment, however, the NLD has reason to celebrate. The November results were an enormous success for the party and Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, given that the last time free elections were held, in 1990, the junta refused to hand over power to the winning NLD. In the nearly two decades since, the military has cracked down on dissent, even among the country’s revered monks during the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
“As Myanmar begins what will be a long and difficult transition to more meaningful civilian rule, both the Burmese public and international watchers will keep their eyes on Suu Kyi as she governs through a proxy presidency.”
Beginning in 2010 with Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, the military government started edging toward liberalization, allowing greater freedom of expression and opening up the economy. In 2011, the military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party’s Thein Sein, a former general, won the presidential election. Following this win, the nominally civilian government made further advances toward rebuilding ties with the West, with Sein even hosting then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that year and President Obama a year later. Under Sein’s presidency, Myanmar also experienced an influx of foreign direct investment (FDI) as countries began dropping their sanctions and businesses started exploring new resource and consumer markets.
Despite these promising signs that the military may be loosening its grip, the junta will not back down easily. Constitutional provisions, such as the requirement that the military retain 25 percent of parliamentary seats, will remain a hurdle to complete civilian control, although the NLD managed to secure the presidency through winning a supermajority of the available legislative spots.
That post-November events have not been a repeat of 1990 are evidence, however, that the junta is slowly coming to terms with the political, economic, and international conditions necessitating a reexamination of the status quo. The meteoric rise of Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Thailand in contrast to Myanmar’s widespread poverty, tensions in the bilateral relationship with China, and domestic ethnic unrest have created a political situation that is unsustainable under the heavy-handed military dictatorship.
In order to address these woes, the government had to open itself to both foreign influence and the needs of the domestic population, precipitating the NLD’s November win and, more importantly, the military’s acknowledgment of the results. With the additional confirmation of Htin Kyaw’s election, Suu Kyi now has the flexibility and additional legitimacy to move forward with a pro-democracy agenda. But the political realities inherited from the junta may prove a difficult balancing act between economic and public interests.
Although the effects of the recent economic transformation are not yet widespread, increased FDI is one viable method for Myanmar to reintegrate itself into the global economy and aid in democratization. But there are several hurdles facing FDI, particularly with the country’s abundant natural resources such as jade. Although the United States still maintains sanctions on Burmese jade, the gemstone is often smuggled into China, Myanmar’s largest trading partner. Some estimates list the value of the illicit industry in the billions of dollars. Jade mining itself has wreaked havoc on local villages, and fatal landslides due to improper mining methods have caused hundreds of deaths, with one in November killing approximately 100 people.
“With the additional confirmation of Htin Kyaw’s election, Suu Kyi now has the flexibility and additional legitimacy to move forward with a pro-democracy agenda. But the political realities inherited from the junta may prove a difficult balancing act between economic and public interests.”
Some of these natural resources are located in areas of ethnic strife—for example, the northernmost Kachin state where the Kachin Christian minority live. This complicates any safe and legitimate foreign investment in resource extraction. Layered on top of these concerns is the issue of exploitation as a result of corruption from military elites, and the need to create equitable deals that provide protections for Burmese workers and the environment as well as for foreign companies wanting to do business in Myanmar.
In order to attract and maintain investment, the NLD should strengthen the rule of law, ameliorate endemic corruption, and maintain political stability—which may be particularly difficult in the human rights arena, where Suu Kyi has stayed mum on how she will deal with the plight of the country’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
Aung San Suu Kyi must walk a fine line between improving the economy for the public benefit and ensuring that foreign interests do not overwhelm the fledgling government. While her enduring popularity may protect her public image even if she cannot fulfill all expectations, she must navigate the domestic and international political waters with savvy. Suu Kyi faces innumerable challenges on the path to democracy, but the NLD electoral victory and the military’s relaxation of its grip on power are indicators that a sea change may be taking place in a country that has suffered under military dictatorship for the better half of a century.
Image: National League for Democracy Office, Meiktila, Myanmar. (Nicola Miles/Flickr, Creative Commons)
Hiromi Oka is a 2015 graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she majored in international politics with a certificate in Asian studies. She was selected as a participant in the Georgetown-Japan 2020 Initiative, a program meant to cultivate the next generation of Japan scholars, and conducted research on nationalism in the Japanese media. She has also interned for the U.S. House of Representatives and the Wilson Center. You can follow her on Twitter.