The 10 Habits of Highly Effective Countries

The steps Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi needs to take to ensure democracy.


After roughly 50 years of repressive junta rule, followed by a nearly five-year interregnum under a civilian-military government, Myanmar is poised to take a major step toward becoming a democracy. In November, the party of iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept the national election, winning 77 percent of contested seats in the lower house. As one former political prisoner put it to me during a visit to Myanmar in early December, “Midnight is behind us. We’ve seen the darkest it can go, and it will only get lighter from here.” But as the party prepares to take office in March, the to-do list in this country of 51 million people is daunting.

Moreover, despite the heady anticipation, this is hardly an ordinary transfer of power. Under the country’s 2008 constitution, Myanmar’s military retains a stranglehold on 25 percent of seats in the country’s parliament, conveniently just enough to block the supermajority required to amend the constitution. The constitution, in turn, provides that the military controls the country’s ministries of Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs — meaning that Myanmar’s newly elected leaders will not control its army, police, and court system. The constitution also bars from serving as president anyone who has immediate family members who are foreigners, a provision deliberately targeted to prevent 70-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, whose two sons were born British citizens, from taking office. The result is a contorted system in which Aung San Suu Kyi will sit “above the president,” as she said in November — but where the civilian leadership will not have power over the country’s use of force at home or abroad.

Under these circumstances, the crucial months after the NLD takes office may set the course for whether Myanmar becomes a genuine democracy or a state hamstrung by a power struggle. All eyes will be on Aung San Suu Kyi and whether she, after decades in politics and nearly 15 years of house arrest, has the superhuman savvy to jujitsu her way into becoming a true head of state — rather than the hogtied version that the constitution prescribes. Here are 10 benchmarks to look out for over 2016 in assessing whether Aung San Suu Kyi can rise to the occasion, changing hybrid rule into the genuine leadership needed to drive Myanmar forward.

1. Making the military behave. One of the most telling benchmarks in the coming year will be whether Myanmar’s military publicly (if not privately) defers to civilian control. The military’s harsh approach to student protesters in early 2015, penchant for prosecuting critics, use of child soldiers, and brutal tactics in suppressing violence in ethnic-minority areas are all inconsistent with Aung San Suu Kyi’s professed commitment to democracy and the rule of law. If the military persists in these methods — which led to a U.S. call in December for an investigation into atrocities against civilians in the country’s northern Shan state — it will be clear that Aung San Suu Kyi’s control and influence are limited. If this unusual civilian-military partnership is to work, it will be because the military realizes that with Aung San Suu Kyi in power, it will need to begin to act as if it is under civilian control, even if it isn’t.

2. Exerting effective control over civilian ministries. Myanmar has more than 20 government ministries, covering everything from information to industry to transportation and employing some 1 million civil servants. As of late December, most observers had little sense of what progress Aung San Suu Kyi had made toward appointing qualified experts to serve in cabinet-level leadership roles overseeing these core government functions (even the question of the next president seems undecided). If the NLD is not assertive in controlling the government functions that fall directly under its power, there is risk that these career officials — all of whom are linked to the prior regime — will continue to exert substantial control. When it comes to addressing issues like Myanmar’s dire poverty, the lack of electrification in roughly 70 percent of rural villages, the looming environmental consequences of rapid urbanization and industrialization, and a weak and hidebound educational system, harnessing the bureaucracy will be essential.

3. Addressing Buddhist extremism and the plight of the Rohingya. Activists, journalists, and diplomats based in Yangon stress that the Buddhist majority’s persecution of the Muslim-minority Rohingya should not be the sole or even the dominant lens through which the outside world judges or understands Myanmar’s transition. As one Yangon-based EU diplomat put it, “The Rohingya gets almost all the attention, but there are many things happening in this country.” That said, the country’s roughly 1.1 million Rohingyas face relentless persecution, and many people in Myanmar harbor anti-Muslim bias. Having done nothing to challenge analysts who have chalked up her silence on the Rohingya question to a pre-election political calculus, Aung San Suu Kyi will be measured — particularly by the West — for her willingness to tackle it now that the polling is past. This will involve speaking frankly about the conflicts in the state of Rakhine, where most of the Rohingya live, mobilizing a range of stakeholders — including the Rakhine population and leaders from Rohingya communities — to contribute to a solution, becoming more outspoken in rejecting Buddhist extremism, and working to connect with and mobilize moderate Buddhist voices.

4. Supporting and advancing the ethnic peace process. Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained her distance from the ongoing peace talks aimed at reconciling Myanmar’s many armed ethnic groups and the central government. She has faulted the process for not being inclusive enough. Yet the talks have progressed, culminating in an October cease-fire agreement involving eight militant groups. Once in power, she will have to draw in recalcitrant parties, shore up progress, and demonstrate that the country is not backsliding into civil war. Key players in the peace process, including the Myanmar Peace Center, have been seeking to more deeply involve Aung San Suu Kyi. But she has been circumspect about whether she will keep existing mediation structures in place — or assume a more direct role in the deliberations, either personally or through her deputies.

5. Jump-starting economic reform. Myanmar’s economy is beginning to take off, with growth estimated at above 8 percent in 2015, thanks to the lifting of sanctions and increasing foreign investment. Myanmar opened its first stock exchange in December, though actual trading won’t start until early this year. Although the civilian-military government began a series of key reforms, including floating Myanmar’s currency and loosening banking regulations, cronyism remains rampant, and the reform process stalled and retreated in the face of currency swoons that reinforced the government’s interventionist instincts. Aung San Suu Kyi has a tough task ahead, with budget and current account deficits, gaping infrastructure gaps, insecure property rights, a faulty tax system, distorted and inefficient agricultural markets, bloated military spending, and inefficient state-owned enterprises. The NLD can’t fix all this at once, of course. But it needs to be seen as tackling highest-priority issues such as fostering investor confidence and laying the groundwork for growth.

6. Bettering the lives of ordinary citizens. One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s first directives to incoming NLD members of parliament was to initiate trash collection in their localities, in some cases inaugurating rubbish pickup for the very first time in rural areas where local water sources and soil are badly polluted. While the country has rich farmlands and natural resources, as well as a geographically strategic location at the crossroads of India and China, unlocking this potential in order to uplift the country’s population is a herculean task. In education, Myanmar ranks near the bottom of the world’s countries for public investment in education, according to the U.N. Development Programme. The World Bank ranked Myanmar’s 2014 per capita income No. 178 out of 213 countries and territories. Aung San Suu Kyi’s early emphasis on trash collection suggests that she is mindful of the need for visible, if symbolic, steps to better the lives of her country’s impoverished majority. To convince the population that change will come, the NLD government will need to jump-start a combination of aid, growth, and decentralization to stimulate local economies and enable service provision.
7. Enabling transparency and access to information. One of the biggest hurdles cited by journalists and civil society activists to enforcing accountability amid Myanmar’s transition is lack of access to information. When it comes to the workings of government, many protocols and practices that long made Myanmar one of the world’s most closed countries remain intact in many cases. While ministries under the civilian-military government were instructed to engage with the media, journalists told me about being stonewalled on controversial stories and say that the arrest and prosecution of reporters and editors who have criticized the military has had a chilling effect. Aung San Suu Kyi’s early instincts seem to be self-protective — in her first meeting with incoming NLD parliamentarians, she warned them not to talk to the media, according to several people I spoke with in Myanmar. But establishing the rule of law, eradicating corruption, and empowering Myanmar’s people to take an active role in self-government will depend on loosening the strictures whereby policy deliberations — including national budgets — are kept off-limits and journalists are held at bay. Aung San Suu Kyi should adopt freedom-of-information protocols and open up herself and her ministries to the media.

8. Build strong relations with major global powers. Myanmar is bent on staying on good terms with — but also resisting domination from — its powerful neighbors, China and India. Myanmar also offers the United States and Europe the prospect of becoming an ally and solid democratic pillar in a highly strategic region. A simmering concern, however, is that the timing of the coming, crucial phase of Myanmar’s transition may not be on the NLD’s side. While U.S. and European funds have significantly supported Myanmar’s transition to date, a Marshall Plan for Myanmar does not appear to be in the offing. While people in Myanmar know that U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played personal roles in midwifing the country’s transition — and consider the country’s future part of their own legacies — they worry that if a Republican is elected to the White House, Myanmar could drop way down on the priority list. It will be Aung San Suu Kyi’s job to shore up these crucial relationships.

9. ­­Supporting civil society. Nearly five years after the end of junta rule, Myanmar’s civil society is flourishing. The country has dozens of newspapers and media outlets; nongovernmental organizations; professional bodies; and film, art and music festivals, along with many other manifestations of free-flowing social energy. Young activists are putting out journals, providing legal defense for other activists, challenging government decisions and regulations, reviving libraries as community centers, training journalists and filmmakers, carrying out peace-building projects in ethnic-minority areas, and working to address women’s and LGBT rights. Yet civil society organizations still face problems registering with the government — a requirement to set up a bank account and receive donor funds directly. News outlets have also been intimidated away from hard-hitting coverage of the military and government, chilled by prosecutions of journalists who cross an invisible line by probing into secret activities or criticizing prominent personalities. Aung San Suu Kyi will need to stand by civil society — releasing jailed journalists, facilitating the registration of organizations, and ceasing interference with media organizations.

10. Improving rule of law. Aung San Suu Kyi has made the rule of law a centerpiece of her vision for the future of Myanmar. This comforts the military, which feels reassured that its constitutional protections will remain intact and that its perquisites will not be vengefully stripped away. It also heartens foreign investors. But with both the police and the courts remaining under military control and, according to the NGO the International Commission of Jurists, massive deficiencies in the legal system, the NLD will be building from scratch. While there are fledgling efforts to train lawyers, the task of building a functioning and fair system is immense.

Many in Myanmar speak of Aung San Suu Kyi as a singular figure whose popularity transcends politics and policy. When such figures are exposed under the harsh light that shines on a government facing overwhelming challenges, history suggests that the legend of such leaders is either burnished, like with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, or destroyed, as with Poland’s ineffectual Lech Walesa. These 10 elements will help determine whether the mythology of Aung San Suu Kyi survives civilian rule.


Photo Credit: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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