By Aung Din —
It was March 30, a beautiful but extremely hot summer day in Myanmar. The sky above Naypyitaw, the secluded capital, was clear. The enormous parliament compound was filled with thousands of people and I was one of them. I had flown thousands of miles to witness the inauguration of U Htin Kyaw, the first elected civilian president of Myanmar in 54 years.
Thanks to Mann Win Khaing Than, the new speaker of the Union Parliament, I got a seat in the observation gallery of the Union Parliament meeting hall, where the inauguration was held. Thousands of people, who traveled from all over the country to attend this historic event, were sent to the dining hall next door to watch the event on a large screen TV. Millions of people were glued to TV screens at their homes and other public places. The people of Myanmar had waited for this day for a long time. We might be in different places witnessing this inauguration, but we all had the same feelings, honoring this day with great pleasure and missing our loved ones who had died during the long journey to democracy and human rights with great sadness.
The event was only an hour long. In the first session, President U Htin Kyaw and his two vice-presidents were sworn in before the Union Parliament speaker. Then the president left the room. It was the time for his cabinet ministers, including Aung San Suu Kyi, members of the Constitutional Court, and members of the Union Election Commission, who all were nominated by the President and approved by the Union Parliament last week, to be sworn in by the speaker.
Then President U Htin Kyaw came back and delivered his first presidential speech, which lasted about three minutes and in which he outlined the three policy priorities of his government: national reconciliation, internal peace, and the emergence of a constitution that will make the country a democratic federal union. After the speech, the president left to go to the Presidential Palace to officially accept power from outgoing president U Thein Sein, who refused to come to the parliament buildings. Then a nationwide celebration began.
I was one of the student leaders who organized the popular democracy uprising in Myanmar in 1988. I was also one of the thousands of political prisoners, arrested, tortured and imprisoned by the military regime for simply demanding human rights and freedom for the peoples. I fled the country when I was released from the prison, but I never stop working to support my colleagues back home. During the long and tortuous intervening years — which were filled with brutal oppression by the military regime, courageous and peaceful defiance by the people of Myanmar against tyranny, and tireless efforts by people in exile campaigning to increase international pressure on the military junta – I sometimes felt depressed and lost hope. Sometimes, I had a feeling that we were fighting a war that we could not win.
However, the situation in Myanmar has dramatically changed since 2011. The military regime has given up power, hundreds of political prisoners have been released, the “iron curtain” that isolated the country from the international community has been lifted, and restrictions have been relaxed.
The victory of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in the November 2015 election, had encouraged us to believe that the permanent ending of authoritarian rule in Myanmar was possible. In February, I had seen my colleagues, veteran democracy activists who spent years behind bars for their commitment to the non-violence democracy movement, take their seats in parliament for the first time in 27 years. From March 30, the new civilian government, led by President U Htin Kyaw and under the guidance of Aung San Suu Kyi, has assumed power for five years. A new era in Myanmar has begun.
The new government still faces great challenges ahead. The military is still powerful and has authority to get involved in governing, law making, and defending the 2008 constitution. The country’s judicial system is still weak, unjust and corrupt, and the new president is not able to replace incumbent judges because the constitution allows them to serve more than one presidential term. The country’s economy is still controlled by the military’s economic enterprises and “crony” business tycoons.
Corruption is deeply rooted within the bureaucracy. The number of religious extremists and ultra-nationalists are on the rise. The use of illicit drugs among young people and narcotics trafficking are out of control. Although some ethnic armed groups signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement last October, many others refused to sign and armed clashes are continuing in some ethnic states, leaving thousands of peoples homeless. Yet the expectations of people about the new government are sky high.
To add into these challenges, the beginning of the new civilian government has not been perfect. The election of some parliamentary leaders, cabinet ministers, and a vice president raised concerns among the public due to their controversial backgrounds. The newly appointed ministers are old and fragile, 65 years and above. Relatively young, well-educated, and qualified party loyalists were left out of the government and parliamentary leadership positions. The influence of former speaker Shwe Mann in the selection of people appointed to high ranking positions is visible and disappointing to many. And many peoples are wondering how Aung San Suu Kyi will manage her four ministerial posts: foreign affairs, electric power and energy, education, and minister in the president’s office.
It is reasonable for Myanmar watchers to worry about the future of the country. However, I have a belief that my colleagues will be able to overcome these challenges with the spirit of national reconciliation and with the help of friends in the international community. They are seasoned soldiers of the democracy movement. They have already endured the burden of torture and imprisonment. They may not have governing experience, but they have a strong will to serve their best for their country. They also have a strong desire to improve their capabilities.
The people likely will not see economic and social development of the country right away, but they have already started to see some differences. The new government is much smaller than the previous one, and therefore will save millions of dollars for the country every year. The new leaders have refused to accept excessive privileges of office, such as several luxury cars, several assistants, several large houses, and several body guards, which normally come with their newly appointed positions. They donate significant amounts of their salaries to their party and for the victims of natural disasters.
The new leaders welcome constituents to meet with them without creating walls with gate keepers. They have traveled all over their constituencies and listened to the voices of their citizens. The people of Myanmar will be happy that those they have elected are not living in ivory towers, but living among them. The people clearly see major differences of morality and humanity between the previous power holders and the new ones. I believe they will not mind accepting the fact that their expectations will not be met immediately, as long as they are being treated as the masters of the country, for the first time in their lives.
Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently lives in the United States. He serves as a consultant for Moemaka Multimedia, based in San Francisco, and as senior adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a non-profit organization based in Yangon that promotes the right to information and education. See more information about OMI here.