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Honeymoon over, Suu Kyi faces fresh challenges

Last Thursday marked the first anniversary of a historic event in Myanmar’s oft-troubled contemporary history: A peaceful handover of power from the ‘‘civilianised’’ administration of the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) to the newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

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Last Thursday marked the first anniversary of a historic event in Myanmar’s oft-troubled contemporary history: A peaceful handover of power from the ‘‘civilianised’’ administration of the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) to the newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

Today marks another first: The appointment of Ms Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, confirming her status as de facto leader of the country.

In its first year, the NLD government has made positive strides in many areas: From ensuring political stability and cordial civil-military relations to tackling long-engrained corrupt practices and repealing repressive legislation such as the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, which the military junta used to criminalise freedom of expression.

But these have been marred somewhat by the continued fighting between ethnic armed groups and government forces in northern Myanmar, the reversal of an uneasy peace in Rakhine in the wake of militant attacks on border security posts and the shocking murder of prominent NLD legal adviser U Ko Ni. Many have also been left frustrated by the slow pace of the government policy machinery, particularly in the economic sphere.

Much of the discontent is in getting the economy back on track.

Economic reforms lost momentum in the latter part of the USDP administration, as investors adopted a ‘‘wait and see’’ approach before the elections.

After the NLD took over, there was eager anticipation of a new economic policy. This was announced in end-July last year as a broad framework, but the continued lack of concrete implementation plans and regular updates on economic conditions and monetary policy showed up gaps in the government’s strategic communications capacity.

The slowing global economic climate and the impact of severe flooding in the country added to the loss of momentum. Consequently, the World Bank has revised its 2017 growth forecast for Myanmar downward by 1.5 points to 6.9 per cent.

Nevertheless, Myanmar’s Department of Investment and Company Administration has reported that the stock of approved foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased from US$59.1 billion (S$82.7 billion) to US$67.2 billion following the NLD’s election in late 2015. In fact, Singapore, the second largest investor in Myanmar to date, increased its FDI commitments by US$3.9 billion during 2016.

In his inaugural speech on March 30 last year, President Htin Kyaw highlighted three key priorities: Nationwide peace and ethnic reconciliation, prosperity for the people, and constitutional change. But the peace dialogue with armed ethnic groups continues to be hampered by trust deficit at various levels.

The first Union Peace Conference, convened in August 2015, was to be followed by a second conference in February this year but the date has been rescheduled.

Central-regional tensions have also showed up in Rakhine and Mon states. Local communities in Mon state protested against the planned naming of a bridge after General Aung San, Ms Suu Kyi’s father and the country’s independence leader, instead preferring a local name. The issue cost the NLD a seat in the recent by-elections.

The crackdown on Rohingya communities in Rakhine, resulting from armed attacks in October last year on border police posts, was in response to a nascent Muslim insurgency funded externally. Myanmar has come under the international spotlight over the issue. But calls by the international community for the government to address the looming humanitarian crisis have gained little traction in the country. At the same time, deep-seated racial biases in Myanmar have created mistrust towards international reporting on the issue.

The Rakhine situation has undermined Myanmar’s efforts in taking on a more active role in regional and international affairs. Clearly, there has been a mismatch in domestic and international expectations on dealing with this decades-long dilemma.

The government’s dissociation from the recent United Nations Human Rights Council resolution calling for an international fact-finding mission indicates the extent of this mismatch.

On the part of Ms Suu Kyi, she is clearly aware of the need to listen to the people. In a televised statement on March 30 marking the NLD’s first year in government, she made some 70 references to their aspirations as she promised to “keep trying” to lead a government for the people.

She highlighted that the government’s new rallying cry would be “Together with the People”. On the eve of by-elections where the NLD would be contesting 19 vacant parliamentary seats, of which seven were in state/regional parliaments, her message resonated among supporters and detractors alike.

The NLD performed better than expected, winning nine of the 19 seats; eight in the combined houses of the Parliament, and one in the regional Parliament of Shan state.

Myanmar today illustrates the imperfect reality of democratisation. The ‘‘honeymoon’’ for the new government is definitely over.

Uncertainties and challenges continue, but the populace at large remains willing to give the NLD time and space to adjust its policies and deliver its promise of change.

The adjustment process may well take up to the government’s mid-term mark. But even with the constraints of the 2008 Constitution that protects the military, the NLD’s supermajority allows it to push for difficult political and economic changes, and manage domestic and international expectations. On both fronts, quiet capacity-building support and advice have shown to be more effective than megaphone interventions.

Ms Suu Kyi’s vision for Myanmar calls for “changing system and mindset”. This applies across government, bureaucracy and the people.

Her public speeches seek to inspire audiences with rich references to ethics, dhamma principles, and the different responsibilities of the government and the people in moving for change.

This evokes the moral vision of Mahatma Gandhi in India’s independence movement. Gandhi’s non-violent principle was emulated by the NLD during its years in opposition.

Myanmar’s current situation now calls for a Nehruvian approach to establishing the country as a secular and stable democracy with an increasing presence and projection in regional affairs. The renewed mandate from the recent by-elections provides the opportunity to do so. The by-election results indicate a wider political space for public discourse on governance issues. Indeed, Ms Suu Kyi’s March 30 speech welcomed critical comments on work done thus far, to ensure that the government remains accountable to the people. The growing plurality of voices in Myanmar, including that of the media, will certainly contribute to the feedback loop.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Moe Thuzar is co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Ye Htut is Visiting Senior Fellow at the institute and a former Information Minister of Myanmar.

 

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