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Myanmar's first civilian president in over 50 years: A new dawn?

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Ye Aung Thu/Pool/Reuters

(Read caption) Myanmar's NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi smiles with army members during the handover ceremony of outgoing President Thein Sein and new President Htin Kyaw at the presidential palace in Naypyitaw March 30, 2016.

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Myanmar (Burma) has sworn in its first civilian president in over half a century, officially ending decades of military rule.

While Htin Kyaw of the National League for Democracy (NLD) is to fill the office, few observers doubt that the reins of power will be held by the party’s celebrated founder and leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest as she led a non-violent campaign to unseat the military.

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The swearing-in ceremony Wednesday marked the latest leap in the nation’s sprint toward democracy, and while the signs are auspicious, much progress still needs to be made – not least for Myanmar’s minorities.

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“This is quite a remarkable moment,” says Michael Williams, a former UN Under-Secretary General, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “This is a country that languished for decades under a military dictatorship.”

“It’s a really welcome development,” continues Dr. Williams, currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, “and although the military still exercises enormous influence, it represents a recognition of the progress that’s been made.”

Myanmar’s sudden spin toward democracy began in 2010, when the military junta allowed elections – the first chink in the iron fist that had encased the country since 1962.

Another major step forward came when NLD, which had boycotted the 2010 elections, won a landslide victory in the elections of November 2015, which were declared free and relatively fair by most observers. 

The enormously popular Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, was not allowed to run for president because of a constitutional clause that prohibits anyone with a foreign spouse or child from occupying the presidency. Aung San Suu Kyi's two sons are British, as was her late husband.

The incoming president made it clear that his government would address this.

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“We have the duty to work for the emergence of a constitution that is appropriate for our country and also in accordance with democratic standards,” said President-elect Kyaw, reported The Guardian.

But will the military stand for such reforms? Is this race toward democracy sustainable?

While the election constitutes “a real transition,” says William Ford, Myanmar's country representative for Freedom House, he notes that the incoming government faces significant limitations.

“Even if the NLD intends to make sweeping governmental reforms, they will be limited by military control of key levers of power at the highest levels as well as influential administrative posts at the local level.”

But it is still remarkable that Aung San Suu Kyi, while unable to wear the mantle of president, is now officially in charge of four government ministries, including foreign affairs, allowing her to be “the face of Burma to the outside world,” as former Under-Secretary General Williams describes it.

“This lends her authority and over time will grind down the army’s opposition to her being a candidate for president,” explains Williams, who served as special advisor to three UK Foreign Secretaries.

But political machinations and obstruction by the military are only some of Myanmar’s challenges, and perhaps not even its most significant.

Poverty, inter-communal conflict, civil war, grievance about past abuses, corruption, Myanmar’s relationship with China – all of these, along with the task of running a country, face the NLD as they seek to wrest more control from the military.

“If you were to ask me what is the most important issue facing the country, I would say the integration of minorities, even before economic development,” says Williams.

The Muslim Rohingya, perhaps the best known of these groups, are the least integrated and least represented, festering in one of the most impoverished regions of the country.

The NLD has shown little sign of addressing the situation, but, as Mr. Ford of Freedom House points out, while “it is far too early to judge what the incoming government will do ... it certainly cannot be worse than the approach taken by their predecessors.”

In looking ahead, Williams points to the track record of Indonesia, a nation that many in Myanmar look to as an inspiration. Under General Suharto, Indonesia suffered a military rule “as brutal as anything Burma has endured,” and yet since 1999, it has opened up, witnessed a better treatment of minorities, and laid down substantial roots of democracy, says Williams.

Ford also sees a positive future for Myanmar. “The challenges are enormous and the expectations could not be higher, but I am hopeful,” he says. “The Burmese people have shown incredible resilience throughout their history and I'm confident that they will be able to navigate these uncertain and challenging times in unity.”