Myanmar’s parliament, now dominated by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, on Monday began a new and historic session that will install the country’s first democratically elected government in more than 50 years.
The National League for Democracy won a landslide in the Nov. 8 elections, winning 80% of the seats in the two houses of parliament to defeat the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Legislators from the two parties and from smaller ethnic minority parties as well as nominated military representatives filed into the cavernous parliament for the session in which the members took a joint oath of office.
The session marks a historic turnaround for the NLD, which for years was suppressed by the military, which had ruled the country directly or indirectly after seizing power in 1962. NLD leaders including Suu Kyi and other critics were jailed, and overt political activity was crushed.
The Southeast Asian nation started moving away from dictatorship toward democracy in 2011, when the military rulers agreed to hand over power to a nominally civilian government headed by President Thein Sein, a general turned reformist.
He will stand down in late March or early April when an NLD president takes over.
Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from taking the presidency, and has vowed to rule from behind the scenes through a proxy. She has not announced who her party will nominate for president.
“We don’t know exactly when the presidential election will happen. We cannot tell you anything about who will be nominated as the presidential candidates as well,” said Zayar Thaw, an NLD legislator.
Despite its landslide victory, the NLD in practice will have to share power with the military, for which the constitution reserves 25% of the seats in parliament. Suu Kyi has met with senior military leaders to try to ensure a smooth change of government, and they have vowed not to interfere.
Thein Sein’s military-backed USDP won a 2010 election in which the NLD refused to participate, protesting that it was held under unfair conditions. After several changes in the election law, the NLD contested several dozen by-elections in 2012, winning virtually all of them.
The military called an election in 1990, which Suu Kyi’s party won handsomely, only to see the results annulled by the military and many of its leading members harassed and jailed.
Suu Kyi was put under house arrest prior to the 1990 election and spent 15 of the next 22 years mostly confined to her lakeside villa in Yangon. She was under house arrest when she won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Establishing democracy is only one hurdle the country faces. The new government will also have to contend with various ethnic rebellions in several parts of the country. The military-backed government signed a peace pact with more than dozen smaller ethnic armies before the elections but major groups have stayed away, and fighting continues in many states. Most are fighting for autonomy and rights over their resource-rich land.
“I hope this will be a good opportunity for us to speak out for the ethnic people and demand indigenous rights,” said Lama Naw Aung, a lower house member from the Kachin State Democracy Party, representing the Kachin minority who are engaged in ongoing battles with the army in the east of the country.
“I think there will be a change because Aung San Suu Kyi might want to finish the work for the ethnics that her father didn’t get a chance to do,” he said, referring to Myanmar’s independence hero Aung San who united various national groups. He and six of his colleagues were assassinated in July 1947, six months before Myanmar’s independence.