Burma is reinventing itself on almost every level. Since 2011 political prisoners have become parliamentarians, generals have morphed into bankers and once-outlawed ethnic rebels have popped up on the conference circuit. In a country undergoing an extreme transition from military rule to a western-style democracy, Burmese have become accustomed to change and 2016 will be no different.
The most urgent task is to build on results of the historic national election. That means a new parliament with 75 per cent directly elected MPs, the rest made up of appointed military representatives. As the nation modernises there are calls to overhaul the constitution, which enshrines the military’s entitlement to a legislative role and bars opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. A question mark hangs over her aspirations but she ended 2015 insisting she could lead a government without becoming president.
Decades-old internal conflicts, being waged by 35 or more ethnic groups in the resource-rich borderlands, need to be dealt with. The big issue will be to build on a ceasefire agreement signed in late 2015 by the incumbent Thein Sein government with eight of 16 armed ethnic organisations. Achieving peace while keeping the military happy will be a challenge.
Strategically situated between China, India and Thailand, Burma has to preserve relations with its gargantuan northern neighbour but also needs to deepen engagement with the west and Japan, which has rushed in with aid, trade and business interests. The country needs to maintain momentum on economic and social reforms to draw desperately needed foreign investment and diversify from its once overwhelming reliance on China. Burma is also taking steps to launch its first stock exchange and open up for foreign investment. Expect the unexpected in the coming year.
ELECTIONS TO WATCH
Tsai Ing-wen is the favourite to replace Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan’s president. A win would make Tsai the country’s first woman president and restore her Democratic Progressive party to power after eight years. But can Tsai lower Taiwan’s economic dependence on China without a diplomatic stand-off with Beijing?
Elections in the Philippines are a chaotic affair: violence and vote-rigging have plagued past polls. In May more than 18,000 posts will be contested, from president to local-council level. Leading the field of two dozen presidential candidates is Grace Poe, a senator and the adopted daughter of a film star but the race is far from decided.
Half of Japan’s 242 upper-house seats will be up for grabs in this summer’s election. It will be the first national poll since the voting age was lowered to 18 from 20 in an effort to increase participation. Experts predict a strong showing from the 2.4 million new voters.
POLITICIAN TO WATCH
A former champion boxer and member of the Philippine House of Representatives, Manny Pacquiao is competing in May’s elections for one of 12 seats in the 24-member Senate.
Pacquiao, 37, is a celebrity at home and his humble origins and reputation for donating earnings to help the poor give him an edge over a crowded field of 172 candidates. But he has spent more time on boxing than on duties as a congressman of late and a six-year term in the upper chamber would boost his chances if he decides to enter the presidential race when he reaches the minimum age to run in 2022.
CITY TO WATCH
Life in Thailand’s seething capital is never predictable but since the military coup of May 2014 changes are afoot. Ambitious infrastructure and economic-development plans by the military-backed government include a campaign to reorganise everything from street-food sellers to motorbike taxis.
Meanwhile creative momentum is driving growth of cool bars, offbeat street markets, cafés and galleries. Both elements converge in the revitalisation and restoration of the city’s oldest parts around Chinatown and the central Chao Phraya river.