Myanmar's Shaky Transition

A Treacherous Path to Democracy

Soldiers march during a parade to mark Armed Forces Day in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw, March 2016.   Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Since November, when the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the first elections to take place in Myanmar (also called Burma) for 25 years, the contours of the new regime have begun to take shape. Earlier this month, Htin Kyaw, the candidate nominated by the NLD, was elected president, affirming civilian rule in Myanmar. 

Yet despite the progress, serious challenges remain that could derail Myanmar’s democratic transition. Corruption is widespread, ethnic violence remains entrenched, economic reform is sorely needed, and, crucially, the military, or Tatmadaw, is still the most powerful political force in the country.

The 2008 constitution, written by the military junta, includes four provisions that limit the NLD’s power. First, it assigns the Tatmadaw 25 percent of all seats in both houses of the legislature. Second, it requires a majority of more than 75 percent to approve any constitutional amendment. Third, it prohibits anyone with a foreign spouse or child from becoming president, a provision likely written with the president of the NLD and long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in mind: Her children are British citizens. And finally, the 2008 constitution continued to give the Tatmadaw control of three key ministries: border affairs, defense, and home affairs.

Over the last few months, the NLD, led by Suu Kyi, has conducted talks about the shape of the new government with the Tatmadaw, led by its commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, although the military has consistently denied that anything resembling a “negotiation” has taken place. For now, the military seems to be playing a role that is neither accommodating nor disruptive. Clearly, the NLD will need to handle its relations with the Tatmadaw with great skill, if Myanmar’s democratic transition is to continue apace. 


After the parliamentary elections, Suu Kyi, widely known as “the Lady,” and her supporters tried to find a way around the law that prevented her from becoming president. But several rounds of talks failed to change the military’s stance.

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