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Myanmar's new rulers take seats in parliament, eye presidency

The National League for Democracy won a landslide election win last November. It now controls parliament and is preparing to pick the country's next president. 

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Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to the opening of the new parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on Monday. After decades of struggle, hundreds of lawmakers from her National League for Democracy will form Myanmar's ruling party.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

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Myanmar entered a new political era Monday as members of Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party took their seats in parliament, paving the way for the selection of the country's first democratically elected government in more than five decades.

The National League for Democracy party (NLD) won 80 percent of the seats in November's watershed election. The challenge the party now faces is to turn "vague aspirations into a coherent policy platform" in one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries, Reuters reports. 

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First, lawmakers must choose a new president to succeed Thein Sein, a retired general who will step down at the end of March. While the military-dictated constitution bars Aung San Suu Kyi's from taking the presidency, she has said the NLD victory places her “above the president.” She has vowed to rule from behind the scenes through a proxy, though it's still a closely guarded secret whom she will nominate. 

"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," Zayar Thaw, an NLD legislator, told The Associated Press.

In the election of the president and other matters before parliament, observers are closely watching Aung San Suu Kyi's relationship with the military, reports Agence France Press. The constitution ensures that the military still controls a quarter of the seats in parliament and key government ministries, including home and defense. Aung San Suu Kyi has met with senior military leaders to try to ensure a smooth change of government, and they have vowed not to interfere.

Despite the challenges ahead, Roland Kobia, the European Union ambassador to Myanmar, said that the nation was on track to true democracy. “Myanmar is step by step confirming its aspiration to a real democratic change and to a genuinely new political direction,” he told the Guardian. “A lot still needs to be done, but meaningful progress can happen through the commitment of the Myanmar people and political will of its leaders.”

On the policy front, the NLD has made rooting out corruption a priority, along with improving the rule of law and raising living standards. As Delphine Schrank reported for The Christian Science Monitor last week:

In recent years, efforts for reforms under President Thein Sein, and the lifting of sanctions, meant an influx of foreign investment and loosening up of banking. But implementation has been unclear. The operations of military-linked conglomerates has been opaque. They, together with a handful of business moguls, have held a monopoly over key natural resources including oil and jade. That means the NLD economic team will have to tread carefully, according to members of its economic team. To really address an entrenched system of bribery, or “tea money” in the local parlance, will take a generational change, said tycoon Serge Pun.

Establishing an accountable and functioning democracy is only one of the hurdles Myanmar faces in the coming years. The new government will also have to contend with long simmering ethnic rebellions in several regions of the country and global pressure over human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority.