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Myanmar

The following text forms part of Crisis Group’s Early Warning Watch List for December 2015, compiled for the European Union (EU) and its member states to provide analysis and updates on conflicts, and on opportunities for preventive action. Each Watch List identifies up to ten countries or conflicts which are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak or intensification of conflict or crisis – or which in some cases offer an opportunity for prevention or resolution – in the following six to twelve months.

Each country or conflict is chosen from the 70 crisis situations monitored by Crisis Group and regularly reported on in CrisisWatch; the choice of countries is representative of a range of conflicts and is not meant to be all-inclusive or a ranking of deadly violence. Each country summary contains an outline of recent developments and forthcoming events that may increase risks, and lays out opportunities for action for national, regional and international actors, in particular the EU and its member states.


Overview

The landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in November’s elections is a historic moment for Myanmar. Delivering a peaceful and credible election, in a country with deep political divisions and ongoing armed conflict, is a major achievement and a key waypoint on the road to a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous future. However, many challenges remain: the constitutional prohibition on NLD chief Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president, a four-month transition period, huge expectations on the inexperienced new NLD administration, and the need for it to build constructive relations with a military that retains significant political authority. Myanmar itself still faces huge structural problems which present major risks: ongoing armed conflict and an incomplete peace process means that major insecurity persists in the borderlands; a divided polity and a powerful elite who could become spoilers; surging Buddhist nationalism and potential recurrence of anti-Muslim violence; the status of the Rohingya Muslims in a highly volatile Rakhine State; deep poverty and inequality that is creating social tensions; and need for comprehensive institutional reform, including the judiciary.

The EU and its member states should:
  • Be mindful of the limited time and capacity that the new administration will have in its first months in power, as well as the importance of it balancing engagement with diverse international partners. Western donors should engage locally with China, Japan and ASEAN and coordinate among themselves, as well as ensure that their offers of technical assistance are demand-driven. Possibilities for budget support should be explored as soon as possible.
  • Move quickly to help the NLD think through what could be constructive and achievable in the short term – the party’s stated priorities of strengthening rule of law, reforming the judiciary and combatting corruption are important medium-term goals, but are unlikely to deliver rapid, clear results.
  • Engage early and robustly with the NLD to begin discussing the full range of policy issues that they will face, and encourage them to identify policy leads for all key sectors, rather than over-centralising policy authority in a handful of party leaders.
  • Encourage, as key supporters of the peace process, the NLD lead focal point on the process to begin reaching out to key stakeholders as soon as possible, and defining their approach. It will be vital for the EU to maintain robust engagement with non-state armed groups and ethnic political parties, some of whom fear they may be marginalised as a result of the NLD landslide.
  • Encourage and challenge the NLD administration to prioritise inclusiveness and consultation, in particular with civil society, just as they would any other government (including the current one). The same applies to EU and state bilateral assistance and the need for consistent long-term engagement with all Myanmar stakeholders.
  • Continue to push the new government to take practical and policy steps to improve living conditions and secure rights for Rohingya Muslims, and other Muslim minorities, while understanding the limited options available to them.
Background

The NLD won a huge majority in the November 2015 election, taking 79 per cent of elected seats in the national legislature, with an outright majority in both houses even when the unelected 25 per cent bloc of military appointees is included. This will give the party control of law-making, the ability to nominate two of the three presidential candidates (the other is chosen by the military), and to select the president. They will not however be able to change the constitution without the support of the army, which has a veto. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and its leaders have mostly been magnanimous in defeat, and an orderly transfer of power to the new legislature in late January, and to the new executive in late March, seems likely. But many powerful individuals have lost out, and could become spoilers.

Given the huge expectations among the general public and the NLD’s positioning of itself as the party for change, the party will undoubtedly be seeking a series of tangible “quick wins” to roll out in its first 100 days. The challenge will be that many of the obvious quick wins have already been prioritised by the current administration, and while they have not always been successful in implementing them, many of the reasons for this – inefficient institutions and outdated mindsets – will also face the new administration.
The NLD has always had very centralised decision-making, and Aung San Suu Kyi has said she will personally make all important political decisions, even though she cannot be president. These signals, along with the existing inclination on the part of other NLD leaders to defer to Suu Kyi, and a tendency toward hierarchical institutional structures in Myanmar as a whole, create a risk that very centralised decision-making could result in bottlenecks.

The peace process, which has reached a critical juncture with a partial signing of a nationwide ceasefire by eight groups in mid-October but ongoing clashes with several non-signatories, will be one of the most important and difficult issues to address. It will be a critical test of the NLD’s relationship with the military, and of their stated commitment to deliver federalism and resource sharing. The NLD has to date kept itself at arm’s length from the peace process, not wishing to endorse or give political capital to the current government. The party will thus face a steep learning curve in familiarising itself with the process, the personalities and sensitivities involved, and the state of the negotiations. While some armed group leaders may have more trust in Suu Kyi than the current government, and are more likely to reach a deal with a new administration rather than a lame duck one, they are concerned that the NLD does not have a good understanding of ethnic grievances, nor will the military necessarily back its commitments around the peace table.

The NLD administration will benefit from an enormous amount of international support and goodwill. There is a risk, however, that Western political support will translate into multiple, uncoordinated offers of funding and technical assistance. Similarly, many Western diplomatic visitors will likely all seek meetings with Suu Kyi and other key leaders in the first months. These risk overwhelming the limited time and capacity of the new administration, as well as reinforcing the strong perception in the military and in nationalist circles, and some countries in the region, that Suu Kyi and the NLD are too close to the West.

As with other governments, there are risks that an NLD administration may not always prioritise inclusiveness, consultation and the important role of civil society. Suu Kyi and the NLD have often been sceptical of the latter, and tended to see the party as representing the voice of the people. The landslide election victory may reinforce that perspective. The NLD administration, as any government, may seek to instrumentalise aid or military support, and exercise a veto on the kinds of engagement that donors are involved in.

One of the most challenging issues will be how to deal with a volatile situation in Rakhine state, and the situation of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities. There has been no major violence against Rohingya communities since 2012, but segregation and displacement persist in many areas, and the status quo is not sustainable. Given public perceptions that the NLD is not sufficiently nationalist on this issue, any attempts to move the situation forward will face enormous scrutiny from the Rakhine, as well as from Buddhist nationalists, whose continuing power and resolve should not be underestimated. There are no easy or obvious solutions, but Suu Kyi will not be able to ignore it, nor avoid dealing with Buddhist nationalism more generally.

Read the full Watch List for December 2015 (pdf).

Learn more about the Watch List.


Note: The Watch List is produced as part of the project “Strengthening Early Warning and Mobilising Early Action”, co-funded by the European Union. The project aims to strengthen the links between early warning, conflict analysis and early response, and to build civil society’s capacity for early warning.

The Crisis Group EU Early Warning Watch List is one of many products the organisation produces to alert policy makers and the general public on unfolding crisis or conflicts, and which offers them solutions to support conflict prevention, management and resolution initiatives.

 
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