Myanmar has sworn in its first civilian-dominated government for more than 50 years in the latest chapter of an extraordinary story of political and economic change at the heart of Asia.
The military-backed transitional administration handed over power on Wednesday to a successor led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, more than a quarter of a century after the Nobel Peace laureate launched her campaign against junta rule.
Emotions ran high for some on a day filled with reminders of how far Myanmar has come — and also of the stiff task the NLD faces to work with the still-powerful military to tackle problems ranging from mass poverty to regional insurgency.
“In my life, it is a very historic moment,” said Zin Mar Aung, an NLD MP who spent 11 years in jail under the military for her political activism. “It’s the very first step to move forward to be a fully democratic civilian government.”
Nevertheless, the army still holds a quarter of the parliament’s seats, a majority on a powerful security committee and crucial ministerial posts.
Ms Suu Kyi launched a bittersweet series of ceremonies by arriving for a joint sitting of parliament with Htin Kyaw, the man who has become president because she is constitutionally barred from doing so.
Military officers in green uniforms congregated together in their quarter of the chamber’s seating, leaving the rest of the room to the signature orange shirts, headscarves and traditional sarong-like “longyi” favoured by many NLD MPs.
The handover ceremony confirmed that Ms Suu Kyi would be taking on no fewer than four departmental portfolios in the new administration — foreign affairs, energy, education and the president’s office. Her aides say this is only a temporary arrangement, rather than what critics say is an autocratic style and a reluctance to delegate.
A large turnout of ambassadors highlighted the international backing for the transition, which some in Washington promote as a success story to contrast with post-Arab spring conflict in the Middle East. Since the junta stepped down in 2011, Myanmar has drawn investors from across the world to its resources ranging from hydropower to gems, and its largely untapped consumer market of more than 50m people.
The proxy president Mr Htin Kyaw spoke for only a few minutes, outlining NLD priorities such as national reconciliation and constitutional change. He also acknowledged the authority of his party leader, who has openly said she will make all the important decisions herself.
“The new parliament and new government is formed in accord with the policies of the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. “I have the obligation to work toward achieving a constitution that has democratic norms and is suitable for the nation.”
His remarks signal a likely escalating battle over the constitution’s block on Ms Suu Kyi becoming president because her two sons by her late British husband have foreign passports. The provision can only be changed by a 75 per cent plus one parliamentary supermajority, which is impossible to achieve should the military MPs oppose it as a bloc.
Than Aung Soe, an NLD MP, said it was a “priority” to change the constitution. Asked if that was realistic given the military’s continued influence, he laughed. “We will try step by step to reduce the military percentage,” he said.
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