Myanmar is a country experiencing intense change. In 2010, following decades of authoritarian military rule, elections were held under a new Constitution approved in 2008. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the key opposition party, boycotted the elections and the military controlled Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) swept 80% of the seats through what has been widely considered a rigged process. A “civilian” government led by President Thein Sein came into power and a series of social, legal, political and economic reforms were introduced. Despite questions over the legitimacy of the government, many Western countries lifted economic sanctions opening the way for increased foreign investment and development assistance. Nevertheless, many problems related to continued armed conflict in the ethnic areas, widespread corruption, weak governance and policies which favor big business have limited the impact of these developments for most of the population leading rather to growing inequalities and increasing environmental damage.
At the end of its five year term, the USDP led government held what has been accepted as “free and fair” elections in November 2015. This time, the NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory sweeping 80% of all contested seats. With a government that has been elected by the people, there are now high expectations from the population that things will finally begin to change for the better, although the policies and plans of the new government are still not clear.
The government faces an enormous challenge, in particular, to resolve the myriad of inter-ethnic conflicts that have flared up again despite, or as a consequence of, the signing of a National Ceasefire Agreement by the previous government with only eight of the ethnic armed groups. There is also an urgent need to redress decades of disinvestment in the country’s economic and social sectors. The situation is further complicated by the need for the NLD to tread carefully in its relations with the military which still controls 25% of the parliament, three key ministries and, through its circle, a large segment of the business sector.
Hence, while Myanmar is experiencing a period of high hopes and optimism, it is also a period of highest uncertainty. In addition to the untested capacities of the new government and the tensions between the government and military, the existence of different factions in society give rise for possible manipulation to cause division and unrest rather than forging of a cohesive movement towards a common good.
The resurgence of fighting among different militia groups and the rise of an ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement which has spread anti-Muslim rhetoric and supported the passing of new laws which constrain women’s rights give cause for concerns.
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