This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 7 December 2015
Conversations about Myanmar are rapidly adjusting to what we guess will be the new normal.
Last month’s National League for Democracy success at the ballot box is being translated into new waves of thinking about politics.
In one sense this should be straightforward. The dominant NLD performance means that they represent interests from across the social and political spectrum. It is a broad church.
The unifying centre of the NLD is also obvious: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Her image helped to organise the nationwide vote of displeasure with the military regime and its successor. With the counting done, there can be no doubt that Myanmar’s people would prefer a future where the armed forces constrain their political ambitions.
In practice this will require the NLD to make some serious decisions very quickly.
Much of today’s talk deals with who will hold the high offices. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s constitutional status is a big part of that story. But too much attention to her future role may serve, ultimately, as a distraction from the heavy policy work that the NLD now needs to accept as its own.
First of all, there is the job of quickly building structures that will support increased bureaucratic capacity. The NLD will need to work consistently and constructively with the key players in official Myanmar. Many of them were loyal servants of the former government. I have no doubt that, in most cases, they will prove similarly loyal to the NLD and its popular mandate.
In general, the instincts of these officials will remain conservative and incrementalist, but they will also tend to share the NLD’s sense of nationalist destiny.
What would risk this potentially happy situation is a purge of key officials that looks like retribution. The NLD has told the world that it seeks compromise and collaboration. That should trump the alternatives.
Next, the NLD policy teams will need to grapple with their international commitments. The number of foreigners seeking to offer advice and support will increase dramatically once the near-term political negotiations are hammered out.
Assuming that once the dust settles the NLD controls key levers of power, they will enjoy an unrivalled, and unprecedented, position to draw on international resources.
Making good decisions about foreign involvement in the country’s ongoing transformation will not be easy. Gatekeeping processes have evolved in erratic fashion. The NLD’s command cannot afford to be unduly distracted.
At the same time there should be an auspicious moment, which may not be repeated, with the world cheering for further political and economic success. That moment should not be missed.
This is why there is the need for more specific plans about how these changes are managed. During its decades as an opposition movement the NLD had the luxury to criticise the many inadequacies of the incumbents.
They may soon take that incumbent mantle, inheriting so many of the big issues. Before long, they will become the NLD’s problems.
For now we have only basic ideas about what an NLD-inspired government will seek to achieve. There is much talent within its ranks but almost no experience of running a 21st century nation-state.
Headline-grabbing problems – including ethnic conflicts, religious cleavages and the potential for economic calamities – will require skillful management over the next few years.
It is during this period that the foundations should be put in place for the further consolidation of political and economic improvements.
Ensuring that the education and health systems receive early attention makes sense. People will notice when their schools and universities, and clinics and hospitals, are better able to meet their demands.
Managed well, the internal migration to Myanmar’s cities will also help to lift millions out of poverty. This will put increased pressure on urban environments, but is one of the surest and fastest ways to give people a chance to improve their lives.
Policies that condemn rural people to a meagre existence in provincial backwaters will, at some stage, prove politically impossible.
It is this new electoral logic that is perhaps the greatest challenge for the NLD and all others who aspire to shape Myanmar’s future.
The institutions are now in place for regular elections and the clock is once again ticking. Before long, and if everything goes to plan, the NLD and its opponents will be getting ready for future elections. We might anticipate by-elections in the next year or so, with further contests theoretically scheduled for 2020.
This means that the competitive dynamics will only become more difficult, even for the triumphant NLD. They should not rest on their recent success.
Genuinely competitive political systems tend, over the years, to see alternative governments seize power. In the meantime, the NLD now has the special chance to show the people what democracy is all about.
Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala.