Hope Renewed as a New Year Dawns in Burma

By The Irrawaddy 31 December 2015

Another year draws to a close, but it was far from ‘just another year’ in Burma.

In November, people from all walks of life across the country headed to their local polling stations to cast votes in Burma’s general election. The National League for Democracy (NLD) was the beneficiary of an overwhelming mandate for change.

To the surprise of many seasoned Burma watchers, the poll was widely regarded as credible and, importantly, violence-free. The extent of the NLD’s victory, which saw them claim majorities in both legislatures, was also unexpected but welcomed by many who have long fought for the democracy cause.

After the political vanquishing of the military-backed ruling party, the president and army chief vowed to facilitate a peaceful transition during separate meetings with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

With the drawn-out political handover still in motion, many observers will be keenly watching the process, with the memory of past, unmet pledges still fresh in the collective memory.

After decades of military rule, whether the country’s slow transition toward democracy will continue, only time will tell.

Burmese politics is seldom without intrigue and the Nov. 8 vote was followed by an unexpected meeting between Suu Kyi and former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

That confab in Naypyidaw kicked off speculation that the former junta leader would support Suu Kyi as the country’s “future leader” despite a clause in the military-drafted Constitution that effectively bars her from the role.

The word around Naypyidaw is that the 70-year-old NLD chairwoman is not out of the running to formally assume the country’s top post. Just how this would occur is, again, an open question.

Backed by a stunning democratic mandate, Suu Kyi is the rightful leader of the country and has repeatedly said that, regardless of her official position in government, she would act as leader.

Internationally, there is renewed interest in Burma, not to mention renewed optimism, as reflected in The Economist’s designation of Burma as its “country of the year.”

The NLD-led government will no doubt have much goodwill behind it, but it will have to hit the ground running. A raft of issues awaits, including the peace process, the ailing crony and military-dominated economy, health and education reform.

While the election result ensured the year ended on a bright note, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Fierce fighting flared in the Kokang Special Region in February; deadly floods inundated swathes of the country mid-year; the ranks of Burma’s political prisoners grew and religious nationalism simmered on, fueled by the outspoken Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha.

Trusting their hopes and rising above the politics of fear, Burmese people overwhelmingly voted for change.

In an ideal scenario for many, Suu Kyi would be able to assume the presidency in 2016. Regardless, the military will remain the country’s preeminent institution, with a quarter of seats in Parliament and control of the home, border and defense portfolios.

Despite this, there are signs the military may be preparing for its own transition, with some leaders potentially viewing the army as needing to adapt to new realities.

The majority of Burmese have modest expectations for the year ahead, but broadly desire a better standard of living and more opportunities to secure a brighter future. Already, there are more smiles on the streets.

As the current government’s term slowly winds down, many will bring in the New Year cautiously optimistic as to what lies ahead. After so many years of dictatorship and repression, hope is on the rise.

On that note, we wish our readers a healthy and happy 2016 and thank you for your loyal support. Stay tuned!