Myanmar’s democratic anniversary: what is there to celebrate?

Myanmar’s democratic anniversary: what is there to celebrate?

The NLD government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has been struggling to overcome its lack of political and administrative experience, Trevor Wilson reports.

It is just over a year since Myanmar’s historic 8 November 2015 democratic election, although only nine months since the National League of Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, formally assumed power on 30 March 2016.

Remarkably, the political transition in Myanmar was entirely peaceful, and the Army gave up its authoritarian control over the government for the first time in more than 50 years, retaining just three seats in the cabinet and one-quarter of the parliamentary seats. This reflected a delicately balanced power-sharing experiment in accordance with Myanmar’s problematic, but stabilising, 2008 constitution.

During 2016, however, conditions in Myanmar have been far from peaceful, with domestic insurgencies continuing unabated, communal violence erupting again between Buddhists and Muslims in the northwest, and an internal peace process with ethnic groups progressing only very slowly.

During these 12 months, the NLD majority government in which Aung San Suu Kyi serves as state counsellor—which some explain as equivalent of prime minister, and foreign minister—struggled to overcome its lack of administrative and political experience. Yet the NLD government continued practising consultative and inclusive processes as best it could.

With the NLD dealing directly with domestic and foreign stakeholders as the legitimate government for the first time, Suu Kyi’s pivotal role and almost every aspect of government policy-making has become increasingly apparent. While adhering to a broad political manifesto adopted before the elections in 2015, the NLD has also had to develop more detailed and more concrete policies across the range of government programs and a wide array of non-government activities.

Popular expectations

Most challenging of all has been the unrealistically high level of popular expectations of the new ‘democratic’ government held by its many committed supporters at home and by the international community for whom Suu Kyi has become an ‘icon’.

The new government has shrewdly acted swiftly on a number of issues which are symbolically important and which have sent a clear message to its supporters and others—issues such as political prisoners, numerous cases of people being held in detention without being charged, and expatriates who were being prevented from returning to Myanmar. In most cases, there has not necessarily been any great urgency to introduce new policies, especially where circumstances in Myanmar have not suddenly changed or deteriorated. However, expectations exist among workers who are being mistreated by unscrupulous employers, among those poor landowners who are victims of land grabs, and among young people seeking rewarding employment or reasonable career opportunities. These are people hoping for relief from a government with genuinely people-oriented policies.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s full participation in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, begun under President Thein Sein with some Australian assistance, is still in progress.

Suu Kyi’s most significant political initiative has been to launch a domestic peace process with all ethnic groups, emulating the model of the Panglong Conference convened by her late father, Aung San, in 1947. While she has drawn on the expertise of advisers who worked on President Thein Sein’s national ceasefire agreement between 2011 and 2015, the new initiative has suffered from lack of clear government direction and promises to be a drawn-out exercise with an excess of political opportunism by ethnic leaders not yet fully committed to achieving a peace settlement acceptable to all groups.

As foreign minister, Aung San Suu Kyi has reportedly stamped her mark on foreign policy, visiting Bangkok, Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington. But these were always the priority aspects of Myanmar foreign policy (although, obviously military regime generals did not visit Washington). There is no new element in Myanmar foreign policy under an NLD government. Like her military predecessors, Suu Kyi seeks assistance and input from friendly governments and international agencies in much the same way as the generals did.

Economic management

In its management of the economy, the NLD government has yet to be fully tried. Its major achievement has been to introduce a new foreign investment law in October 2016, which superseded previous investment laws, levelling the playing field between domestic and foreign investment, while targeting special sectors and regions. In this case, the government drew on the expertise of the bureaucracy, yet demonstrated Aung San Suu Kyi’s endorsement via a meeting between her and business leaders.

Another important set of new economic policies is contained in the Financial Institutions Law, finally passed on 25 January 2016, as a legacy of the Thein Sein government, although its implementation is yet to be tested. Myanmar’s stock exchange was launched in December 2015, as another step in the modernisation of the economy, but is also yet to be fully effective. Yet international agencies, such as the Asian Development Bank, continue to praise Myanmar’s economic potential under the NLD.

A major NLD contribution to resetting Myanmar’s economic framework has been securing the removal of US economic sanctions achieved during Aung San Suu Kyi’s September 2016 visit to Washington. The effects of the removal of sanctions (and restoring Myanmar’s GSP tariff status) may not be felt for some time, but they will certainly help improve business confidence.

It is hardly surprising that the most awkward issue for the NLD government has been the treatment of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya

In other areas of economic management, the NLD government’s achievements have, not surprisingly, been less impressive. Major problematic resource projects, such as the copper mine at Letpadaung in Central Myanmar and the Myitsone hydroelectric scheme on the upper Irrawaddy River, both with majority Chinese interests, are still not moving forward with popular support. The unpopularity of these projects has prompted some rethinking by the Chinese interests, although China has not been prepared to back down, while the NLD government has opted for a gradual response, hoping to find some more satisfactory middle ground.

Among domestic issues, the most intractable for the new NLD government has perhaps been associated with consolidating freedom of the press. As some journalists continue to experience intimidation from the authorities under old laws, regularly used by military regimes as pretexts to block antigovernment criticism, the NLD government’s new press council has persisted in its efforts to find solutions and a better working space for both journalists and politicians, in the process demonstrating how difficult it will be to lock in certain reforms.

It is hardly surprising that the most awkward issue for the NLD government has been the treatment of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya. On an issue where Myanmar popular opinion remains sharply polarised, the NLD’s decision to adopt a cautious, non-provocative approach has allowed extreme attitudes and actions to spread, and acts of violence to worsen. International opinion has become more hostile and criticism of Myanmar’s handling of the situation does not have much impact, even from a special Rakhine Commission headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It remains to be seen whether greater restraint on the part of the communities directly involved can help in the short-term. International attitudes are unlikely to sway Myanmar public opinion.

What is becoming clearer is that such deeply felt and sensitive domestic issues require responses and solutions that will take time to develop and refine. Whether Myanmar’s current leadership and the parties concerned can persist with the necessary tolerance, patience and imagination will be the ultimate test.

Featured image
US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Aung San Suu Kyi during her visit to Washington in September 2016. The removal of US economic sanctions against Myanmar was achieved during the visit. Photo: Flickr

Trevor Wilson is a visiting fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.

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