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Why It Matters

Myanmar in Suu Kyi's hands

Myanmar will get its first truly democratic Parliament in decades, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) its first real test, when the chambers convene in Naypyitaw today.

The NLD has 390 seats in the two-chamber, 664-seat Parliament. The army has 166; its ally, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (the outgoing ruling party), has 41. Other seats are held by smaller parties, some based on ethnicity in a nation with 135 officially recognised ethnic groups.

Despite dominating both Houses, the NLD will have to cohabit with the army, which will continue to control three key security-related ministries and is the nation's single most powerful institution.

The NLD, in power for the first time, must also deal with an anomaly. The junta-era Constitution bars leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency because her two sons are foreign - they are British. To sidestep this, the party will propose a figurehead president who will take orders from her.

Still, the NLD will have complete power and control over lawmaking. Also, riding the wave of its landslide victory in last November's elections and, given Myanmar's history of military rule, it is likely to have a longer than usual honeymoon.

But it will have to manage strong internal tensions. The most critical may be the central government's difficult relations with ethnic minorities, an issue inextricably linked with the role of the army. It is the army that will make or break peace deals with the minorities.

Another is the democratic transition itself. There is wide consensus among the elites, including the military, that Myanmar's best bet is democracy and reverting to army rule would be an anachronism. But democracy is still on trial and expectations are high.

This is the work before the NLD as it takes its place as the ruling party today. Ms Suu Kyi has always played a high-stakes game; now she has a strong hand but the ace may still be with the army. Much depends on her statesmanship. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline 'Myanmar in Suu Kyi's hands'. Print Edition | Subscribe