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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Myanmar's Historic Day

Mar. 30, 2016

Myanmar is in the middle of a historic change after decades of military rule.

Its people have a new government -- and for the first time in more than 50 years, the country has a president who isn't from the military.

In the past, the military violently suppressed pro-democracy forces. But following last year's election, a civilian-led government has come to power.

About 10 years ago, the government suddenly announced it was moving the capital from the country's biggest city, Yangon, to Naypyidaw.

The opposition viewed the new capital as one of the symbols of Myanmar's undemocratic political system. But the new government will now lead the country from that city.

The National League for Democracy has a majority of seats in the parliament. But the military still holds 25 percent, as stipulated in the constitution.

"Upcoming government will lead the country to right path. I'm sure," said NLD lawmaker Bo Bo Oo.

Htin Kyaw is the country's first civilian president in more than 50 years. He and 2 vice presidents were sworn in to head the new government.

"We swear to protect justice, freedom and equality. We promise to spend our whole lives working for Myanmar," they said during the ceremony.

Aung San Suu Kyi holds 4 ministerial posts: foreign affairs, the presidential office, education, and electric power and energy. It is widely seen that she is the real leader.

The city's main market is one of the few places in the capital where ordinary people gather.

"I hope the new government will take the lead in developing all segments of society, especially education, so that it can take its rightful place in the international community one day," a woman at the market said.

But few people would talk to us. Many residents of Naypyidaw are government workers. Some told us that they'd prefer not to express their political views. Others were skeptical about the handover of power.

"The new government faces various difficulties. I think we should keep a close eye on them," one man said.

A Difficult History

The nation's journey to civilian rule has followed a long and sometimes very bloody path.

People in Myanmar have been living under the iron grip of the military for over half a century. But now, the country appears to be on the verge of historic change.

"Some people are afraid of change. But everyone will benefit with change. It's not something we should fear," Aung San Suu Kyi said in a speech.

The military under General Ne Win seized power in 1962.

By 1988, calls for democracy were being heard. On Aug. 8 of that year, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets of Yangon, which was the country's capital at the time.

Another significant event that year -- the person who would become the symbol of the pro-democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, returned from Britain to look after her ailing mother.

Suu Kyi is a daughter of the revered independence hero General Aung San.

"I believe all of you who have come here want democracy," Suu Kyi said at a rally after returning to the country.

But the steps toward democracy would be short-lived. Soon after the protests began, the military moved in with force. Human-rights group say more than 3,000 people were killed.

In 1989, the military put Suu Kyi under house arrest for "endangering the state."

The dictatorship continued to rule with force. In 1990, it nullified the results of an election that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won by a landslide.

In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But still, she remained confined to her home, and would spend a total of 15 years under house arrest.

As its neighboring countries enjoyed economic growth, the isolated country struggled under international sanctions targeting the military government.

However, the government was determined to follow its own path. A massive undertaking saw the capital moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005.

A nominally civilian government took power after the military-backed party won the 2010 election. But Suu Kyi and her party boycotted the vote.

In light of the crippling economic sanctions, President Thein Sein initiated steps toward reforms.

Suu Kyi was finally released from her lengthy house arrest in 2010. The US backed the move as it sought to curtail China's growing influence in the region.

Thein Sein also moved to resolve longstanding disputes with ethnic minorities by launching a peace process, ahead of the 2015 election.

Aung San Suu Kyi sought to reintroduce herself and her party back into the political process, and stepped up diplomatic activity by visiting many countries including Japan.

And in November, the NLD achieved a historic election victory after decades of military rule.

The military's 50-year rule over Myanmar has left a lasting legacy. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the country's capital, as NHK World's Thi Ha Thwe reports.

Myanmar's 500,000-strong military has long presided over the country's politics and its economy. The military staked its prestige on building the new capital city of Naypyidaw in 2005.

Ample funds from oil and natural gas exports aided the development of the city, which is home to more than 40 hotels and a large international convention center.

But many hotel rooms remain empty and dark. Foreign media refers to the city as a ghost town. The diplomatic district in the city center still has no embassies.

"I've seen military officers here, but I haven't seen any foreigners," one resident says.

Naypyidaw is seen as a symbol of the military government's wasteful spending.

Before taking power, the NLD decided to streamline government ministries, in which senior military veterans occupy nearly 100 ministerial and vice-ministerial posts. The party has pledged to cut the number of ministries from 36 to 21 and abolish the post of vice minister, in principle.

"We can use the four million dollars that would be saved by streamlining to improve our country's education, health and rural development sectors," Htin Kyaw said.

NLD lawmaker Khin San Hlaing has proposed a review of large-scale development projects, as well as the sale of state-owned lands that the lame-duck administration rushed to approve.

"For the good of the people and the state, I urge the government to scrutinize the projects again, so state funds aren't wasted," said NLD lawmaker Khin San Hlaing.

When an NLD member was criticizing the copper mine managed by a military-affiliated company -- military lawmakers stood up and interrupted with an argument, ignoring warnings from the chairman.

Khin San Hlaing is determined to forge ahead with reforms for the sake of the people.

"If the projects provide no benefits for the people but use up a huge part of the budget, we'll have to reconsider whether they're worth continuing," she says.

Many people in Myanmar still live in rural villages, 70 percent of them without electricity. The campaign to improve the lives of the people amid persistent military resistance is set to begin in Naypyidaw.

NHK World's Thi Ha Thwe joined co-anchor Sho Beppu in Naypyidaw.

Beppu: As we know, the military still has a big influence over this country. But what kind of relationship is the new government hoping to build with the military?

Thi Ha: The government will want to avoid a serious confrontation with the generals. Many of the challenges it faces require the military's cooperation -- for example, permanently ending armed conflicts with ethnic groups. So the new president and Aug San Suu Kyi need to keep the military on board as much as they can.

Beppu: Then, institution-wise, how would the military still keep the power over the political system in this country?

Thi Ha: Yes, the new government still does not have total power in a true sense. The head of the military has the authority to appoint 3 ministers related to national defense and security. And a former general known as a hardliner is one of the 2 vice presidents. So the new government won't be able to ignore the will of the military if it wants to get things done.

Beppu: On the other hand, I'm sure it will not be easy to ignore the authority of Aung San Suu Kyi. But what do you think she needs to do in terms of dealing with the military?

Thi Ha: Aung San Suu Kyi needs to strike a balance. She's heading up 4 ministries -- most significantly the post of foreign minister. That gives her a seat on the National Defense and Security Council, which is dominated by the military. She has publicly stated that she will be "above" the president, suggesting she will in effect control the government. How effective she will be depends on whether she can balance the people's expectations of change with building a relationship of trust with the military.

Beppu: Thi Ha Thwe, thank you very much.

It's getting close to 6 p.m. in Naypyidaw. The harsh sunlight during the daytime is getting weaker, and there's now a cool evening breeze, which tells me that this long historic day of change is finally coming to an end. A gala dinner is about to start at the presidential office.

Among the guests, there are former political prisoners who were imprisoned during the former military rule. Tomorrow, in the second part of our special live coverage from Myanmar, I'll go into more detail about the challenges that this new government is going to face.