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Myanmar: getting down to business

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In Brief

Now that Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow National League for Democracy (NLD) party candidates are bona fide members of parliament, it’s time to get down to business.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party won 43 of 45 seats in the recent by-elections in Myanmar. But the new NLD


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members of parliament, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, immediately found themselves embroiled in an argument about a clause in the parliamentary oath that requires ‘safeguarding’ the constitution — a pledge they were unprepared to take. The pledge is a part of the constitution, and changing it will require a constitutional amendment, a procedure requiring a three-quarter majority in parliament.

At the behest of her party followers, however, Aung San Suu Kyi finally relented and agreed to take the oath. This was the right decision. The alternative — amending the constitution — would have been politically impossible. And the term ‘safeguard’ does not preclude the possibility of future amendments. The term is in line with other constitutions, including that of the US. Notwithstanding oaths to ‘protect the constitution’, American presidents have presided over 27 constitutional amendments. Myanmar’s parliamentarians, one would hope, recognise that they have the authority, even the duty, to change the constitution as circumstances demand.

More importantly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to proceed with taking the oath marked her as a pragmatist willing to reform the system from within. This is consistent with her other statements regarding her intention to work with the current regime to improve the country’s social and economic situation. It will also build a spirit of cooperation between the ‘big three’ — Aung San Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein and parliamentary leader Shwe Mann — into a critical coalition of like-minded reformists to overcome the huge challenges the country faces.

A key obstacle to reform will be the military, which is the main beneficiary of the current rentier state. Its implicit support will be essential in reforming the economy and reducing the reams of red tape and bureaucratic restrictions that create the rents that those in power then exploit. Bringing along the military while also reforming the economy is the biggest political challenge facing Myanmar. The delicate task of working around political obstacles and deeply entrenched vested interests will require the greatest combination of political savvy and committed leadership that the big three can bring to bear.

For this reason, big-bang reforms are out of the question. Instead, Myanmar requires slow and steady change that liberalises economic activity at the margin and gradually reduces the role of the state, making it easier to reduce its grip on economic activity over the course of time. It is important that the initial reforms register quick wins in the form of increased economic activity and visible effects on people’s welfare. As such, the Burmese would do well to learn from China’s post-1978 transition to a market economy and contrast it with the Soviet Union’s disastrous perestroika.

Vikram Nehru is Senior Associate in the Asia Program, and Bakrie Chair in Southeast Asian Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

An earlier version of this article was first published here by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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