Myanmar's new challenge

With its Cabinet ratified by Parliament on Thursday, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is ready to take power on April 1, in Myanmar's first real experiment in decades with a democratically elected civilian government.

April 1 will be a first step on a long climb. The NLD inherits a bureaucracy whose upper echelons have long been occupied by retired generals. A long list of issues awaits its lean, 18-member Cabinet - many of whom are first-time MPs - which will have to prove quite quickly that it can perform in government.

The challenge is not only to cohabit with the army, which controls three key ministries and 25 per cent of Parliament and state assembly seats, and whose own nominee is the first of two vice-presidents. It is also to manage pressure from civil society on issues such as ethnic minority rights; the suspended Myitsone Dam project which China wants to revive; and right-wing Buddhist nationalism. How these issues are handled in the early months of the new administration will set the tone. There were no great expectations of transparency and integrity in the past, but these are now sky-high. Failing to meet these expectations would test the party internally, tarnish the experiment, sour the public mood and, worse, give the army grounds to claim democracy is not working. That one incoming minister has a doctorate from a fake university is not a promising start.

NLD chief Aung San Suu Kyi runs the party with a kindly but iron hand, and has set a high bar for integrity. Party MPs, for example, must live in modest barracks-style one-room government quarters, and contribute 25 per cent of their monthly one million kyat (S$1,131 ) salary to the party.

Pundits predict The Lady, as she is known, will have a longer honeymoon than most newly elected leaders. Still, notwithstanding her personal stature, any political uncertainty under the NLD government will cloud the future and dissipate goodwill - a letdown Myanmar can ill afford.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline 'Myanmar's new challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe