NAYPYIDAW rose from the forests, it is said, because of vision: General Than Shwe, a high school graduate and postal clerk who ruled the country until 2011, saw the Buddha appear before him, promising eternal glory if he built Myanmar a new capital. Less than a tenth of the results from Myanmar’s historic election to its 664-seat parliament are out so far, and slow counting is provoking fears of malpractice, but based on these early results, newspapers are prophesying that the general’s citadel — home of a collection of objects curated by astrologers to radiate power, like white elephants, relics of the Buddha, and a zoo with a refrigerated enclosure for penguins — will soon fall to his nemesis. Though a constitutional tripwire bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the next president, since she was married to a foreigner, her National League of Democracy seems set for a landslide win. In 1990, a similar victory had provoked a savage crackdown by the generals. Now, it seems, she is finally to be rewarded for her extraordinary 25-year resistance against the military’s tyranny — which included 15 years in prison.
The truth, however, is less roseate: Real democracy will remain a distant dream in Myanmar. The country’s military will retain several key cabinet positions, including the ministries of defence, home, border security and the police. In addition, a quarter of all seats in the two Houses of parliament are reserved for military nominees. The constitution mandates that the military can take direct control of government should it deem it necessary. Perhaps most important, the military-dominated National Defence and Security Council retains decision-making powers on the most important issues facing the country: The conduct of war against the ethnic insurgencies raging across the country, the rising tide of Buddhist chauvinism, and the country’s appalling treatment of its Rohingya minority.
Suu Kyi’s NLD is prepared to play the long game. It accepted military primacy in the belief that the generals are willing to slowly retreat from the management of Myanmar’s politics. The generals, and the business oligarchs who back them, in turn realise that a credible election process will bring rewards, like greater Western investment. In coming weeks, there will be delicate negotiations between the military and the NLD on the election of the new president, as well as key political, administrative and judicial appointments. General Than, long retired, but still believed to wield formidable influence over the military elite, will be watching closely for signs of efforts to undermine the system he built. This election is but a first step towards democracy — many more remain to be taken, and the journey is full of dangers.