Myanmar entered a new political era yesterday as Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy MPs took their seats in parliament, bearing the hopes of a nation subjugated for decades by the military.
Wearing pastel orange uniforms, lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) arrived for their first day of work in the capital Naypyidaw, buoyed by a massive popular mandate from November’s election.
That poll saw the NLD wrest a majority from the army establishment and has spurred hopes of a new political dawn in the long-repressed nation.
Suu Kyi, the centrepiece of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy, entered the cavernous parliament building without comment.
She took a seat alone for the short opening session which saw the lawmakers sworn in and the appointment of a close ally, Win Myint, as lower house speaker.
“Today is a day to be proud of in Myanmar’s political history and for the democratic transition,” Win Myint said in an acceptance speech.
The new government faces a daunting rebuilding task in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries, whose economy was crushed by almost half a century of junta rule.
Many NLD MPs are also political novices, unskilled in the business of government.
They must swiftly adapt to a difficult decision-making process in a legislature where unelected soldiers occupy 25% of all seats.
“It’s a historic moment for the country,” said Myanmar political analyst Khin Zaw Win.
The country will now choose a new president to succeed President Thein Sein, the former general who in 2011 launched dramatic political and economic reforms which culminated in the election. Suu Kyi herself is barred from the post by a military-scripted constitution because she married and had children with a foreigner.
The 70-year-old has vowed to sidestep this hurdle by ruling “above” a proxy president, although she has yet to reveal her choice for the role.
While there is no clear schedule for the selection of candidates, it could be within days.
Elected members of both houses and the military will nominate three candidates to replace Thein Sein, who retains his post until the end of March.
The new president will then be chosen by a vote of the combined houses.
Observers are closely watching Suu Kyi’s relationship with the still-powerful military, which holds key ministries as well as the 25% parliamentary bloc. Suu Kyi may try to persuade the army to help her change the charter clause that blocks her path to power, analysts say, although it has so far baulked at any attempt to redraft it.
After decades under the military yoke, Myanmar’s people queued in their thousands to cast ballots for Suu Kyi and her party last November, throwing their support behind her simple campaign message of “change”.
With a resounding parliamentary majority, her lawmakers are — at least initially — expected to act as a rubber-stamp for her government. While the NLD majority will need to time to find their feet, the military has had plenty of time to prepare for the handover.
A quasi-civilian government has steered reforms since outright army rule ended in 2011.
The military has appointed “more senior and experienced, and probably better prepared” soldiers to parliament, according to Renaud Egreteau, an analyst who has studied Myanmar’s legislature.
Thein Sein has led the opening up of the long-isolated country, spurring international investment with sweeping political reforms. But Myanmar remains blighted by civil wars and ethnic and religious divisions. Poverty rates are high and the bureaucracy is poorly funded and riven with corruption.
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