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Burma: February 2017 update

Published Thursday, February 16, 2017

Many hoped that the November 2015 general election would be a tipping-point in Burma’s ‘democratic transition’, which began in 2011. While there have been many positive developments since then, the limits of Aung San Suu Kyi's power are arguably being exposed by her inability to control the actions of the security forces in Rakhine State, where they stand accused by the UN and international human rights groups of committing further serious human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya over the past three months or so.

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The National League for Democracy (NLD) won an unexpectedly overwhelming victory in the November 2015 election, taking 79% of the elected seats in parliament. The persistence of an unelected military bloc of members was not enough to deny the NLD a majority in both the lower and upper houses.

There were concerns about the fact that some sections of the population were unable or unwilling to vote – for example, the Muslim Rohingya and ethnic minorities in conflict-affected areas of the country. But overall the elections exceeded international expectations.

Aung San Suu Kyi reluctantly abandoned efforts to find ways around a Constitution expressly designed to deny her the right to stand for the Presidency, securing the position for a close ally instead. But a new position, State Counsellor, was created for her and she is effectively at the head of the NLD Government that took office at the beginning of April 2016.

The new government faces huge challenges. The NLD has decided to be relatively pragmatic in its attitude to the military and its political representatives. There remains a risk that, if it challenges military interests too directly, army hardliners will try to destabilise the NLD Government.

Some worry that this could mean that the country’s democratic transition may have already stalled. The current resurgence of violence by the security forces against Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, which was triggered by attacks by armed groups against security installations in October 2016, has heightened these anxieties. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD Government have been accused of not doing enough to bring the violence there to an end.

The NLD Government is also having to be careful how it handles the Buddhist nationalist movement known as MaBaTha, in which Buddhist monks play a leading role. This movement had success in passing four ‘Race and Religion Protection’ laws during 2015.

Managing high expectations and maintaining party discipline are two other major challenges for the NLD Government. Economic growth has been 7% a year since 2011. It needs to sustain this rate while doing more to ensure that growth is more inclusive than in the past.

Another risk is that the NLD mishandles efforts to achieve a genuinely comprehensive Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. A permanent ceasefire agreement was signed in October 2015 but it did not encompass all of the many armed minority ethnic insurgent groups across the country. Another peace conference began in August 2016. It was more inclusive. A second round of talks has been scheduled to begin on 28 February.

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