On March 2, 1962, Burma’s de facto ruler General Ne Win, seized absolute power by assuming the office of president of the country. It thereafter took 54 years for the country to elect a civilian head of government. It took 26 years to oust the unpopular Ne Win who reduced the mineral-rich and agriculturally well-endowed country, to economic stagnation, abject poverty and virtual bankruptcy. Subsequent elections in 1990 led to a sweeping victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the hero of the country’s independence, General Aung San.

The army, however, remained determined to retain power. After ruling for two decades, it imposed a constitution that denied Suu Kyi the possibility of becoming the head of government. Undeterred, Suu Kyi led her party to a sweeping victory in national and provincial elections last year, which guaranteed her and the NLD, a predominant position in the national fovernment and in the governance of all but two provinces.

Masterly moves

On March 30, 2016, Htin Kyaw, a mild-mannered economist and confidante of Su Kyi, with no independent political standing, was sworn in as the first civilian president of Myanmar in over five decades.

Suu Kyi has manoeuvred matters skilfully to ensure that she remains the key figure in governance. Despite the elections, the constitution drafted by the military guarantees it a crucial role in governance. The army nominates one-fourth of the members of Parliament. The constitution cannot be amended on issues such as enabling Suu Kyi to become president, without the concurrence of the military. One of the two vice-presidents is from the army, which also dominates the powerful National Defence and Security Council.

The ministries of home, defence and border affairs are also controlled by the army, with their ministers being drawn from the ranks of the military. Lastly, the army commander in chief, senior general Aung Hlaing, wields substantial authority in dealing with ethnic insurgencies that have torn the country apart since its independence.

Aung San Suu Kyi has reduced the number of ministries in an attempt to streamline government functioning. But her most astute move has been getting key responsibilities allocated to her. She now holds charge of the ministries of foreign affairs, education, energy and electric power.

Crucially, she is also head of the office of the president. As foreign minister, she will have a seat in the powerful 11-member National Defence and Security Council. As head of the office of the president, she will be involved in finalising decisions on key appointments, while controlling economic and development policies. But she has stoked controversy by obtaining legal approval to become a ‘state counsellor”, assuming a role normally the prerogative the president.

Ethnic issues

Suu Kyi has established a separate ministry to deal with ethnic affairs, which will play a key role in ending decades of vicious ethnic conflicts. Efforts by President Thein Sein last year to restore ethnic peace were only partially successful. Only 8 out of 18 armed ethnic groups joined a formal ceasefire. Crucially, the most powerful armed separatist groups in the Shan state bordering China and the Kachin state bordering both India and China have not signed any ceasefire agreement.

Domestically, the real test of the abilities of the new dispensation will be on its ability to bring about ethnic peace in Myanmar. Suu Kyi will not only be challenged by the ethnic groups but also by the Myanmar army while seeking to deal with these issues.

Myanmar also faces several external challenges. The primary one is going to be on dealing with a China which got used to its economic projects in Myanmar being sanctioned without any serious questions being raised. Tensions between Myanmar and China across their borders in Shan state escalated after members of the Wa tribe carried out attacks on Myanmar territory from bases in China.

Beijing also has a cosy relationship with the Kachin Independence Army, which operates across the border between its Yunnan province and Myanmar’s Kachin state. Armed insurgents from India’s north-eastern States such as Assam, Manipur and Nagaland take refuge in these border areas, from where they maintain links in China’s Yunnan province. China will inevitably use its leverage with these groups to seek economic and diplomatic concessions from Myanmar. While Suu Kyi has visited China and met President Xi Jinping, the Chinese inevitably have doubts and misgivings about what are perceived to be her close links with the Americans and the British.

The Asean connection

There are also questions in the minds of Myanmar’s Asean partners about how Suu Kyi will take forward the country’s links with members of the organisation. She has, reportedly, been not been too pleased with what she regarded as Asean support for the military rulers.

Suu Kyi has a wide circle of personal friends in India. She spent a number of years in India, graduating from Lady Sri Ram College in New Delhi when her mother was Burma’s ambassador. She knows that while there was admiration for the struggle for restoration of democratic freedoms in Myanmar and that this had been clarified regularly at the highest levels to the military rulers, India had its own national security imperatives, which required it to maintain continuing, correct and friendly relations with the country.

Like her father, Suu Kyi is first and foremost a Burmese nationalist, whether it comes to addressing the issues of Muslim Rohingyas, or the Indian community. She will deal with India as a friendly neighbour and base the relationship on what it does to fulfil the aspirations of Myanmar’s people. Like most of her fellow citizens, she was unhappy at the crude chest-thumping that accompanied the cross-border raid India carried out last year on Myanmar’s soil. We would do well to remember this while dealing with Myanmar, and indeed, with all our neighbours.

Myanmar’s economy grew at 7.2 per cent in 2015-16 and is expected to grow at 8.4 per cent in 2016-17. Our diplomacy should remain focused on expanding trade and economic ties, promoting regional connectivity to and through Myanmar, and, most importantly, on security cooperation for maintaining peace, stability and cooperation, along the 1,640-km land border.

The writer is a former high commissioner to Pakistan