By Samuel Glickstein —
In November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy (NLD) achieved a massive victory in Myanmar’s general election. In addition to winning in traditional party strongholds, the NLD also dominated in most ethnic-majority states. People in these areas voted for the NLD because they believed that Aung San Suu Kyi had the ability to end decades of internal conflict, revitalize a process of national reconciliation between the government and the country’s armed ethnic groups, and deliver economic growth throughout Myanmar.
Nonetheless, it will be difficult for the NLD to meet these high expectations. The Myanmar military, which has not shown much willingness to compromise to facilitate the peace process, will hinder the NLD’s efforts. In addition, relations between the rebel groups have become increasingly divisive since President Thein Sein signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight armed groups in October 2015.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s rhetoric on the peace process has raised the hopes of many of the nation’s ethnic groups. She spoke about creating a more inclusive ceasefire agreement before and after the elections. During the election campaign, she said the NLD would facilitate political dialogue. Furthermore, she voiced her support for changing Myanmar’s system of government to a federal one and upholding the principles of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which proposed giving ethnic states greater autonomy. These promises helped the NLD gain the trust of rebel leaders and convinced voters in ethnic-majority states to choose NLD candidates, rather than nominees from ethnic parties. Some leaders of ethnic armed groups that are still battling government troops also believe that she might be easier to negotiate with than the previous government.
Yet the NLD will encounter numerous obstacles that will hamper it from implementing its peace building platform. First, the NLD has to deal with a powerful military that has fought against armed ethnic groups for over five decades and has shown no sign of disappearing from the political scene. Military officials suspected of involvement in the illegal timber and jade industries would not want fighting to stop, as peace could threaten their substantial economic interests in these resource-rich areas.
The rocky nature of the political transition and negotiations between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military does not bode well for future cooperation on the peace process. The military refused NLD attempts to change the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to serve as president and has insisted on continuing to appoint the chief ministers for various states and divisions. The NLD has little leverage over the military since it controls the country’s security body and three ministries: Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. Aung San Suu Kyi will need to convince the military to support peace and national reconciliation—an arduous task, given that the two parties argued even about protocol for the power transfer ceremony. Military leaders, who have never had to answer on ethnic issues to non-military entities, may view her decision to form a new ministry for ethnic affairs under the NLD government with suspicion.
In addition to military stubbornness, the NLD faces a collection of armed ethnic groups divided by the ceasefire. Seven groups that were part of the 15-member Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team—which had been negotiating with the Thein Sein government since 2011—last year refused to sign the agreement; and the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), another ethnic coalition, expelled the eight ceasefire signatories from its ranks. This split has exacerbated distrust and inter-ethnic conflict between groups such as the Shan State Army-South, a ceasefire signatory, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, a non-signatory and UNFC member. The two groups have been clashing in northern Shan State since October 2015 over territory and resources, with the latter alleging the former of aligning with government troops. The military’s decision to send troops to the area earlier this year has generated further instability. This ongoing violence will not end just because the NLD takes the reins of government.
These hurdles will make it challenging for the NLD to fulfill its promises of peace and reconciliation. Aung San Suu Kyi may decide to build on the ceasefire reached under Thein Sein’s leadership by persuading some of the non-signatories to join. Yet a more inclusive ceasefire does not mean an end to conflict. Both the military and ethnic rebels have a history of violating ceasefires. In addition, without addressing the entrenched conflicts over control of resources and land, Aung San Suu Kyi will not be able to get to one of the roots of Myanmar’s ethnic dilemma.
Aung San Suu Kyi could also try to create a federal union system of government. Carrying out this pledge would require amending the constitution, which would need the support of military parliamentarians. The government of President Thein Sein agreed to recognize the principle of federalism during talks with the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, a concession that initially angered the military but which it has reportedly come to accept as part of any long-term political deals with ethnic groups. It remains to be seen whether military lawmakers will use their 25 percent share of seats in Parliament to veto amendments on federalism and any provisions that would allow greater autonomy for ethnic states down the road.
In the short term, the NLD government could experience the same problems as the previous government and likely get roughly the same results.