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5 Challenges Facing Burma’s New Civilian Government

6 minute read

A new President was sworn in to office in Burma on Wednesday, capping a transition from military dictatorship to the country’s first civilian-led administration in more than half a century. President Htin Kyaw is a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who led the country’s struggle for democracy and endured years under house arrest before leading her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to a comprehensive election victory in November.

The military men who ran the country’s economy into the ground and brutally suppressed ethnic minorities and political opponents have stepped back, allowing liberalizing reforms and new freedoms. A young population is grasping new opportunities, and some hope that the resource-rich nation could finally fulfill its potential.

Seen another way, however, all that has happened in Burma’s transition so far has been tightly controlled by those same soldiers, and the power of the military is largely undiminished. The constitution they wrote in 2008 necessitated Htin Kyaw’s appointment, stating that the President cannot have family members owing “allegiance to a foreign power.” The people’s true choice for their leader, Suu Kyi, has two sons that are British citizens. Instead of the top job, she may call the shots in a specially created Prime Minister–like position of “state counselor.” She remains the leader of the largest party in parliament and is taking on four ministerial posts.

Read More: Who Is Htin Kyaw, Burma’s New President?

The constitution poses other problems for the new civilian leadership. It enshrines the army’s position in politics — men in fatigues occupy a quarter of the seats in parliament, which gives the Commander in Chief a practical veto over constitutional amendments. Still, Htin Kyaw has promised to reform it. “I have the obligation to work towards achieving a Constitution that has democratic norms and is suitable for the nation,” he said during a speech at his swearing in ceremony, according to Myanmar Now.

But there is plenty else for the new government to do.

1. A Broken Economy
Burma, officially known as Myanmar, is predicted to see healthy GDP growth of 8.4% in the year up to March 2017. But years of mismanagement and economic sanctions have taken their toll. The road and rail networks are past crumbling and major cities still suffer frequent power outages. The Asian Development Bank estimates the necessary upgrades will cost $60 billion through 2030.

Barriers to investment also include land-grabbing concerns, poorly enforced employment standards, rampant child labor, and an economy dominated by cronies of the former military regime and companies under the control of the Ministry of Defense.

“The military is deeply involved” in the economy, says Priscilla Clapp, the former U.S. chief of mission in Burma, who authored a report for the Council on Foreign Relations last week calling for remaining American sanctions against the country to be scaled back. Moving forward, the new NLD-led government would now be able to negotiate directly with the military over its role in the economy, Clapp tells TIME.

“They are going to have to face it directly,” she says. “I don’t know where it’s going to lead. That is going to be the elephant in the room for the next five years.”

2. A Failed Cease-Fire
The country also remains at war — with itself. Since independence from Britain, armed groups avowing to represent the interests of ethnic minorities (and, earlier, communists) have been taking up arms against Burma’s central government. A cease-fire signed last year failed to include the groups who still control territory along the border with China. Fighting in the country’s northeast has ramped up since it was signed, and the federal system of government demanded by minorities appears a long way off.

On top of numerous allegations of abuses by the armed forces, videos have emerged on social media in recent weeks seemingly showing soldiers beating civilians they suspect of being linked to an ethnic armed group. Again, the new administration is unlikely to be able to do much about this. The Minister of Defense is still a military appointee, and the civilians in government have few powers of oversight over the armed forces.


3. The Golden Triangle
Then there’s Burma’s drug problem, which is not unrelated to the ongoing conflict. The drug trade flourishes in the unruly, mountainous area known as the Golden Triangle, bordering Thailand, China and Laos.

Read More: Burma’s ‘Wild East’ Is a Debauched Land of Drugs and Vice That Reforms Forgot

Burma ranks as the No. 2 source of the world’s opium — after Afghanistan — with the military, proxy armies and rebel armed groups all thought to make money from the crop, which feeds demand for heroin in China. Burma is also a production hub for synthetic drugs like meth. Domestic drug use is a rising problem, as is a lack of clarity over where the massive profits from the narcotics trade are going.

4. An Unwanted People
Successive Burmese governments have enacted discriminatory policies against the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority numbering just over 1 million, who are restricted to run-down camps or villages penned in by checkpoints in the western state of Rakhine.

Thein Sein, former President and Htin Kyaw’s predecessor, announced that a state of emergency in the state had been lifted, almost four years after clashes that saw scores of people killed and tens of thousands displaced, mostly Rohingya. But Burma doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as its citizens, contending that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh — a view widely supported among the population.

Read More: Burma’s Nowhere People

Suu Kyi has faced criticism from a Buddhist monk-led nationalist movement for being too sympathetic to Muslims, while also being challenged to do more by foreign observers and rights advocates. She hasn’t set out a clear policy on the issue, and few hold any hopes that the misery of the minority will end soon.

5. Inherited Oppression
A recent Amnesty International report charts how Burma’s previous government held highly visible mass releases of political prisoners — more than 1,100 people have been freed since 2011 — only to begin locking up a new generation of activists simply for taking part in demonstrations over issues like education reform and land confiscation. A government led by a former prisoner of conscience, Suu Kyi, takes power with at least 90 people — including students, journalists and Facebook users — currently behind bars for expressing political views.

The new President can hold his own prisoner amnesties, but with the military retaining control over the police, there is concern over “how and to what extent will the NLD-led government be able to break this cycle of politically motivated, arbitrary arrests,” Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia, told TIME recently.

“The authorities rely on a range of draconian laws to silence and lock up ‘critics,’” Patel said, “As long as these laws remain on the books, arbitrary arrests and detentions are likely to continue, even with a new government.”

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Write to Simon Lewis at simon_daniel.lewis@timeasia.com