The Blog

Huge Expectations as Burma Waits

I arrived in Burma the day the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, was officially declared to have won the general election. With only 75% of the parliamentary seats up for the election, the NLD secured a landslide winning the 67% of seats needed to achieve an overall majority. The remaining 25% of seats are to be held by the military - an effective block for constitutional change. The new NLD Government will need to work with the military as some key ministries remain in their hands - so while change is expected just how far and how fast is practical is unclear.

Unlike in the UK where a new government takes over almost immediately, the current Burmese government will continue into next year. The existing MPs are required to complete the current legislative programme, including passing the budget. It will be two months before the newly elected Members of Parliament take their place.

Fortunately a strong and respectful relationship has been built up between the Speaker of the Parliament, Than Shwe, a former general, and Aung San Suu Kyi. At a meeting I attended Speaker Than Shwe emphasised the need for further democratic development and welcomed the support of international agencies. Much of the international community are keen to support the democratic transition and 41 Ambassadors recently met Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss developments.

Yet the challenges for the new government are huge. The country is rich in natural resources, but the unequal distribution of wealth has left many of the population living in poverty, and the country has very low spending on education and health. Addressing these unmet needs will be an enormous and lengthy task. With the country having low television ownership and low mobile phone access reaching the population to reassure them that progress is being made will be difficult.

In addition to the majority Bamar people there are lots of different ethnic groups, many of whom have been involved in armed conflict with the central authority, which in turn has led to significant numbers being internally displaced. Until this election MPs from ethnic parties largely represented the regions where ethnic minorities dominate. One of the surprises of this election was that the NLD did so well in many of these regions. There is no doubt that many within Burma see the NLD, personified in Aung San Suu Kyi, as providing the answers to the problems they face.

The parliament will also face significant challenges. Established parliaments struggle to cope with a large percentage of new MPs, few would welcome the task that faces Burma. A bi-cameral system, one chamber will have only 9% of its elected MPs returning and the other just 14%. On the positive side the number of women MPs has more than doubled without the use of quotas, taking the percentage from just over 6% to around 14% - 70 MPs.

The NLD will have 390 MPs and the leadership will have to consider how to harness the talents and energy of them all. Initially there will be support and enthusiasm but after many years of waiting they will all want to feel they can contribute. There is also the practical difficulties and opportunities in having a large majority; finding roles for all while maintaining the cohesion which led to victory in the first place.

In the last parliament the focus was on legislation, consequently MPs spent the majority of their time in the capital and only rarely returning to their constituencies. This lack of visibility in constituencies may have contributed to some losing their seats. Ensuring that MPs can spend more time in their constituencies will be important in order to keep in contact with those who elected them.

The democratic changes in Burma have come much faster than most expected, but building the institution of parliament and a strong culture of democracy will take much longer. The international community will rightly want to support the country as it moves forward. That should also mean recognising the enormity of the challenges within parliament and government and in the wider country as the Burmese people begin to take control of their future.