THOUSANDS waited for hours under a blazing sun on the football field in Taungup, a small town near the Bay of Bengal in Rakhine state in Myanmar’s west. Most wore the red T-shirts of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and waved flags emblazoned with the party’s star-and-peacock symbol (pictured). One teenager carried a rose, intending to present it “to my leader, to my president”. When Aung San Suu Kyi’s four-wheel drive bumped into view, the crowd chanted “Maa Suu!”—Mother Suu.
On the face of it, the campaigning across Myanmar ahead of a general election on November 8th might seem nothing exceptional. Yet the scene in Taungup would have been unthinkable five years ago—not least because the NLD was banned, Miss Suu Kyi was under house arrest and a downtrodden people were under the army’s boot. Today Miss Suu Kyi sits in parliament. Her NLD is set to reap the most votes in the election. To many in the West, it looks like a happy end to Myanmar’s long and dark journey. In fact, the election is but one stepping stone to an uncertain future. Many questions remain unanswered, including whether the Burmese can pull themselves out of poverty and when ethnic conflicts that have raged for decades will end.
The most immediate question is how much power Myanmar’s armed forces, who have been in charge since 1962, are willing to cede. The army wrote Myanmar’s constitution, which a sham referendum put into effect in 2008. Two years later a few generals traded in their uniforms for longyis and set up the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Together with the quarter of seats reserved by the constitution for the army, it has a comfortable parliamentary majority. Unlike in 1990, when the army ignored the election result, at least the outcome of this one appears likely to be respected. But the soldiers are taking no chances. However well or badly the USDP does in the election, the army’s 25% bloc will remain in place. The opening that Myanmar has witnessed over the past five years is astonishing in comparison with what went before. But it is taking place on the army’s terms.
The election is not entirely fair. Voter lists are inaccurate and ripe for abuse. In some violent areas voting will not take place at all. Meanwhile, perhaps 1m Muslim Rohingyas in a largely Buddhist country have been deemed stateless—non-persons ineligible to vote at all (see map). Three years ago Taungup was at the centre of communal mayhem that quickly flared into a pogrom carried out by Buddhist Rakhines against the Rohingya population. Tens of thousands of Rohingyas fled abroad on rickety vessels.
But Miss Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace-prize winner, is turning a blind eye to some of the election’s blemishes, believing the process still marks a big step forward. Her visit to Rakhine was not a gesture of sympathy with the Rohingyas. She has been shamefully silent on the topic. Muslims make up only 4% of Myanmar’s population, but being accused of supporting them is a fast way to lose Buddhist votes.
That matters to Miss Suu Kyi. She shows a steely determination to help her party win. Wirathu, a vitriolic Buddhist monk, and members of a pressure group calling itself the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, have been campaigning against the NLD in rural areas. They accuse the NLD of being pro-Muslim. Miss Suu Kyi says she deplores such chauvinism. But the NLD has no Muslim candidates. In Rakhine, Muslim shopkeepers complain that Buddhists boycott their shops and bus stations refuse them tickets. Yet on the campaign trail Miss Suu Kyi offers only bromides.
The real prize
In by-elections in 2012 the NLD won 43 out of 44 seats. This time it could win two-thirds of the 75% of seats that are up for grabs, which it would need for a parliamentary majority. But a landslide is not guaranteed. Despite Miss Suu Kyi’s popularity, and however hard it is to meet anyone who claims to be a USDP supporter in the big cities, the army-backed party is a well-financed machine able to get out the vote. Meanwhile, over 90 other parties, many ethnic-based ones, are also fielding candidates. Not all support the NLD.
The parties have their eye on who will succeed President Thein Sein, a former general. His successor will be elected by the new parliament when it convenes early next year. Legislators will choose from among three candidates—one each nominated by the upper house, the lower house and the army. The two losers automatically become vice-presidents, while the winner selects the cabinet.
The new president may not be known until February or even March. But one thing is certain: however well the NLD does, Miss Suu Kyi will not get the top job. The army-written constitution bans anyone with a foreign spouse or children from the presidency. Miss Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, as are her two sons. The provision seems designed specifically to block her. Miss Suu Kyi says the NLD will nominate “a civilian member of our party” to be president. But there is no doubt she would be the one effectively in charge. That would lead to opaque decision-making and a lack of accountability. Worryingly, Miss Suu Kyi evinces little interest in policy detail.
As for the USDP, a tussle within the party to curb the army’s influence seems to have ended, at least for now—to the benefit of the generals. In August, helped by troops who shut down the capital, Naypyidaw, Mr Thein Sein suddenly ordered the removal of his colleague, Shwe Mann, the parliamentary speaker. That ambitious politician, also a former general, was rumoured to have forged a working relationship and perhaps a future power-sharing deal with Miss Suu Kyi.
For the new president, an urgent task will be to find peace with ethnic groups who resent Burman dominance. Myanmar is a kaleidoscope of ethnicities. For decades the army justified its repression by claiming that, without it, the country would disintegrate. By contrast, ethnic groups say that the autonomy they were promised in 1947 in the Panglong agreement (signed for the government by Miss Suu Kyi’s late father and independence hero, Aung San) has yet to materialise.
The shady jade trade
On October 15th the government announced that it and several ethnic armies had reached a “national ceasefire agreement”. Mr Thein Sein called it a “historic gift” to future generations. In fact, it looks rather trifling. The agreement covered just eight of dozens of rebel groups, all of which had already agreed bilateral ceasefires with the government. It omitted groups that are still in conflict with the government, including the United Wa State Army, the Shan State Army North and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). And it neglected the thorniest issues of all—sharing resources and devolving power.
Increasingly, drugs and natural resources—notably gemstones and timber—are fuelling the conflicts. Much of the world’s jade is mined in Kachin state. A new report by Global Witness, an NGO, estimates that $31 billion of Burmese jade was sold in 2014, mostly on the black market. If this extraordinary figure is true, it would be more than 60 times what the government spends on health care.
The jade trade underwrites the KIA. It also enriches not only the KIA’s leaders but also a shady alliance of high-ranking army officers (who are supposed to be fighting the KIA), USDP bigwigs, crony companies and the kingpins who control both the gemstone and drug trades.
This pattern is replicated across several conflict zones. Any comprehensive peace deal would require regions to send at least some revenues back to the central government in the form of taxes, while the army would have to return to its barracks. However, powerful people on all sides do very well out of the fighting. And even if the issues surrounding resources can be resolved between regions and the centre, then there is the matter of trust. Many ethnic groups simply do not believe the government’s promises of federalism. Past promises, which came to little, give them good grounds for scepticism. Some rebel groups will wait and see what clout the NLD and Miss Suu Kyi have after the election. Given the army’s continuing role, they are unlikely to be impressed.
Until the country is at peace with itself, its people will struggle to escape from poverty. Take a striking example of multinationals’ new presence in Myanmar: two pipelines that emerge from the sea and run up the beach not far from Kyaukphyu, some 50 miles (80km) north-west of Taungup. These come from offshore oil and gas concessions that foreign energy companies have bid for. The government says that it wants to build around these pipelines an industrial zone, a deep-sea port, hotels and new homes. Yet the pipelines run straight into the Rohingya-Rakhine conflict zone and then north into restive Shan state. It is hardly an easy place to build on, and plans for the zone have so far come to little.
Indeed, only one of three proposed special economic zones intended to jump-start growth seems to be getting anywhere. The Thilawa zone near Yangon, the hectic commercial capital, is backed by the Japanese government. Roads are being built, a container port on the Irrawaddy river is going up, and factories are being laid out. Yet, South-East Asian entrepreneurs say, the pace could be much faster.
Among other things, they say, the money of the Burmese elites, much of it ill-gotten, is chasing up the price of land for factories at Thilawa. That undermines the chief thing Myanmar has going for it, as a destination for low-cost manufacturing churning out clothes, shoes, cheap electronics and the like. Though foreign investment has gone into telecoms and exploration for oil and gas, what Myanmar now badly needs are factories that might employ low-skilled Burmese currently living hardscrabble lives on the land. The country’s garments sector employs a mere 260,000 people in a population of 53m, compared with the more than 4m textile workers in neighbouring Bangladesh and 2.2m in Vietnam.
The challenges are daunting. The government is valiantly trying to improve a decrepit civil service. Commercial regulations are outdated and haphazardly applied. Transport infrastructure is woeful. In recent years the economy has grown impressively (see chart)—but from a very low base. Myanmar remains poor: GDP per person is just $1,270, compared with $1,670 in Laos, $5,370 in Thailand and $7,380 in China. Visitors to Yangon seldom see this. The city’s skyline is dotted with cranes, its streets are clogged with new cars and a chic bar or eatery seems to open every week. Kyaukphyu in Rakhine state has its traffic jams, too. But they are caused by bullock carts. If a new dawn is breaking in Myanmar, and it is far from clear that one is, it is not evident there.