Myanmar’s transition to representative democracy took a critical step on Nov. 8 as the nation held the first general election since almost 50 years of military rule ended in 2011. While ballots are still being counted, the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, appears headed to winning control of parliament. Priscilla Clapp, a former American diplomat in Myanmar and U.S. Institute of Peace specialist on the country, discusses the implications of the voting for democracy and the challenges that lie ahead.

Voters line up at a polling station in Dagon High School in the Dagon township of Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 8, 2015. The opposition party of the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said Monday that it was confident of a sweeping victory in the country’s landmark nationwide elections, while the ruling military-backed party acknowledged its poor showing.
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Adam Dean

The military began easing its control over political life in Myanmar in 2011 with the appointment of a civilian president. Are the generals completely surrendering power with this election?

No. Under the constitution written by the military, the generals retain 25 percent of the seats in parliament, allowing them to exercise a veto on any constitutional changes. And the military kept for itself three of the most powerful ministerial posts — home affairs, defense and border affairs—in addition to the post of commander-in-chief.  Those ministers are nominated by the commander-in-chief. The military also occupies five of the 11 seats in the powerful National Defense and Security Council that makes key security and foreign policy decisions.  

At this point, it looks like Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is heading for victory with a wide margin. Will she emerge as the country’s leader?

She won’t be president. Under what she believes is a targeted constitutional provision, no one with children holding a foreign passport can hold the highest office, and two of her children are British citizens.  But she will be in a position to choose the next president.

What position is she likely to end up in, then?

Aung San Suu Kyi herself is likely to be voted speaker of the Lower House, which would essentially put her in charge of an increasingly consequential parliament and make her a member of the powerful National Defense and Security Council, where she would govern in concert with the president, vice presidents, commander in chief, and the military ministers.

Who will be president? How much power is the NLD likely to have?

If the NLD wins 70 percent or more of the elected seats in the parliament, they’ll control selection of the next president in the February-March time frame. The president is elected from among three candidates who are nominated by the Upper House, Lower House, and military representatives, respectively. With control of both the upper and lower houses, the NLD would be in a position to nominate two of the three and determine the vote of the whole parliament, probably making the Lower House candidate president. The other two would become vice presidents. So the military would still have a vice president in the next government.

How do you think the relationship between the military and NLD will actually play out?

Obviously there will be a substantial change in the complexion of the government from heavy ex-military to much more civilian. The ex-generals who were elected to the outgoing parliament and appointed to the leading executive and ministerial positions by former Senior General Than Shwe are likely to be gone. That said, Aung San Suu Kyi said in a recent press conference that an NLD government would be one of “reconciliation,” meaning they would aim to share power with the ethnic minorities and presumably, the current government party. Most significant, however, is that the next government could be one in which the NLD and military share power and negotiate many issues directly, until the constitution can be amended.

The transition to democracy has been complicated by religious and ethnic violence. How will minority groups fare in this new framework?

We could expect the NLD president to appoint a variety of qualified people to ministerial positions, including ethnic minorities. Many of the new NLD members of parliament will be ethnic minorities. The new government may also seek equality for the country’s Muslim population, which appears to have voted heavily for the NLD.

In the end, what will be the impact on how Myanmar is governed? How much will change?

While it’s much too early to predict the full implications of such a dramatic change in government, it’s quite likely that the NLD will choose to reformulate many of the approaches of the outgoing government, including the peace process with the ethnic armed groups, constitutional revision, and rule of law, to name a few. This is likely to bring hiatus and some confusion during its early months, which will require a great deal of patience and support from the international community.

What has been the role of the USIP in Myanmar?

USIP has been working with various civil society, religious and media groups in the country to address sources of conflict and social tension and promote rule of law. It has also worked with election and security officials to ensure violence-free elections.

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