Illustration by Jared Downing.

Myanmar enters 2021 with a rare opportunity to heal

Myanmar has held together remarkably well amid the pandemic, and the government has a robust new mandate, but now is no time for complacency.


Many of us will be happy to see the back of 2020 ­– and for good reason.

The emergence of COVID-19 has affected our lives in ways that would have seemed unimaginable 12 months ago.

In Myanmar, the virus has caused thousands of deaths – many of which are likely to have gone uncounted – and has cruelly deprived families across the country of the chance to see their loved ones for a last time.

It was wreaked economic destruction not seen for several decades, increasing poverty and hardship for millions. The effects will be felt for many years to come.

It has taken away much that we used to enjoy. We’ve been unable to see friends or family, or pursue leisure activities that we previously took for granted.

The virus is by no means under control here, but there are reasons to be optimistic as we enter 2021.

Despite meagre resources, Myanmar’s public health sector and its charitable organisations have largely met the challenge of the disease, and hospital beds were made available to severely ill patients even during the apex of Yangon’s outbreak.

 The country has also held a general election, choosing a new crop of lawmakers to sit in parliament. And despite the widespread suffering, it has also weathered the economic storm better than some, and taken steps to help society’s poorest that, though inadequate, are unprecedented in Myanmar. All things considered, the country has held together remarkably well in spite of the hardships of the past 12 months.

It also has an opportunity.

The election has delivered another huge majority to the National League for Democracy.

It was a victory built on both the trust that voters have in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the party’s record in office, particularly in delivering grassroots development.

But even its most partisan supporters would concede that the NLD made mistakes, particularly early in its term when it selected cabinet members and chief ministers. The party made some dubious appointments and also failed to reach deals with major ethnic parties, straining ties for the rest of its term.

It also shares some of the blame for the faltering peace process, deteriorating relations with the military (particularly Senior General Min Aung Hlaing), the Rohingya crisis and the eruption of a vicious new insurgency in Rakhine State.

Not many political parties get a second chance to learn from their mistakes, but that’s precisely what the NLD has now.

The next few months in the run-up to a new government in late March will be crucial in setting the tone for the next five years. There are already some positive signs that many of us did not see coming. The NLD has begun reaching out to ethnic parties and is talking of a “national unity” government. The Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw have not clashed for six weeks, and counting. Behind the scenes, the NLD is preparing to jettison some of its current cabinet members and chief ministers. The Tatmadaw and the government are taking steps to reassemble their peace negotiating teams. Renewed talks are said to be taking place between Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, who is due for retirement in June.

It’s a delicate time. Buoyed by its election victory, the NLD could seek to drive home its short-term political advantage in talks with other political parties, the military and ethnic armed groups. Rightly, it can point to the large mandate that the voters of Myanmar have bestowed on it.

But if the NLD chooses this maximalist path, it risks alienating its negotiating partners and thereby missing an historic opportunity to make real progress on Myanmar’s biggest challenge: creating a new political system that reflects the aspirations of all its peoples.

It is a time for wise political leadership, for making decisions with an eye on the long term, and for reaching out across the political aisle.

For the country’s sake, we hope Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are able to rise to the challenge.

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