A tentative first step taken in Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi’s commitment on profound reform will soon be tested

 

The gathering of Myanmar’s MPs in its capital Naypyitaw for the first session of the new parliament is an important and welcome milestone in the country’s transition to democracy after 50 years of military or quasi-military rule. But transition it still is and Myanmar remains, as Sean Lemass once put it of Fianna Fáil, only “slightly constitutional”.

It is unclear yet whether the military, or their proxies in the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), will actually submit to democratic control of the institutions and ministries that the constitution they have bequeathed to Aung San Suu Kyi guarantees them: the powerful ministries of home affairs, defence and borders, and places as of right in a mandatory power-sharing government that many fear will shackle her.

Veteran opposition leader and Nobel prize winner Suu Kyi, who yesterday belatedly took her rightful place on the frontbenches of the parliament for her swearing-in, has also found herself deprived of the right to stand for the presidency – the head of government – by virtue of her children’s foreign status. She has said that, nevertheless, as leader of the National League of Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide in the elections in November, she will stand “above the president” and in complete control of the government.

Her ability to perform such a balancing act will soon be tested as will the extent of her commitment to profound reform. The economic challenges after years of sanctions and international isolation facing this country of 51 million are huge.

And Suu Kyi, a champion of human rights, will also be expected, not least by the international community, to tackle the systematic persecution of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. By the hundreds of thousands, they have been stripped of citizenship, sent to concentration camps where they are deprived of basic medical care, jobs and even food, and held prisoner in villages. In a bitterly Islamophobic climate during the elections, Suu Kyi was not willing to confront the issue. In power she will not have that choice.

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