Editorial Notes

Safeguarding ethnic groups is the biggest challenge for Myanmar's NLD: The Nation

A Shan ethnic woman from the Akha hill tribe wearing traditional costumes.
A Shan ethnic woman from the Akha hill tribe wearing traditional costumes. PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on Nov 25, 2015, The Nation says that an assault on a town in central Shan state is ample proof that Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has difficult times ahead.

Myanmar's ethnic minorities were among the segments of society cheering loudest at the landslide victory of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in the Nov 8 election.

Expectations are understandably high as a new page is turned, and Ms Suu Kyi's promise is one of change. For ethnic people, that raises hopes that their history of repressive, second-class citizenship is finally at an end, along with government-sanctioned violence.

However, the NLD's achievement in winning the support of these people pales in comparison to the monumental effort that will be required to improve their status.

With great victory comes great responsibility, and Ms Suu Kyi has far surpassed the mandate granted to or seized by previous regimes.

The NLD won most of the parliamentary seats in the ethnic-majority regions, with particularly impressive results in Karenni, Kachin and Mon states.

These voters have clearly entrusted it to take charge of the process of peace and reconciliation and, given Ms Suu Kyi's status as a Noble Peace Prize laureate, the opportunity to enshrine and protect their rights as citizens. 

The process has not had an auspicious start.

On Nov 9 - the day after the election - government troops attacked the town of Mong Nawng in central Shan State.

Armed militants offered resistance and the fighting continued for three days, emptying the town of many of its 6,000 inhabitants. 

The NLD, which will not take up the reins of power until at least January, would have been immediately aware of the difficulties it faces.

It won the majority of votes in Shan and will have its people looking to Ms Suu Kyi to halt such assaults and harassment and bring into being at least a semblance of representative democracy. 

"The rights of ethnic people are equally as important as democracy," Karen National Defence Organisation chief Nerdah Bo Mya declared in congratulating the NLD on its triumph at the polls.

"Without them you don't have justice. If they fail to acknowledge us, they will fail."

As much as any other group or citizen of Myanmar, the NLD yearns for peace and stability of an order that would have been impossible to attain under authoritarian rule.

Its challenge now is to find a way to bring about authentic and lasting change that will benefit the ethnic groups, who make up 68 per cent of the general population.

Ceasefire agreements signed with previous governments have come and gone.

Trust was manipulated and faith trampled.

Will Ms Suu Kyi be the one who keeps their best interests in mind?

Good intentions will not be enough.

The NLD must wrestle with the military to resolve decades-old issues involving the ethnic groups.

Beyond the Shan and the Karen and others, there is the fate of the beleaguered Rohingya people to consider - an issue on which Ms Suu Kyi has maintained a stoic silence all along, much to the consternation of her admirers around the world.

Preyed upon by Buddhist extremists, denied citizenship, the Rohingya are suppressed to such an extent that thousands of them have risked all they have to flee the country of their birth. 

With the military constitutionally guaranteed a quarter of parliament seats and still very much in control of defence, border security and the civil service, any attempt by the NLD government to effect significant change is certain to be a battle.

Not only can Ms Suu Kyi forget about a "honeymoon" in her first few months in power, she can count on a long and rocky marriage. 

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The Nation is a member of The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers seeking to promote coverage of Asian affairs.