BANGKOK, May 21 (Reporting ASEAN) – As Myanmar’s government approaches its first 100 days in power, its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, finds her hands full dealing with a maze of difficult legacy issues while managing sky-high expectations in the country.
Suu Kyi’s next steps are being keenly watched for signs of the direction she is setting for the resource-rich country of 51.5 million people, after her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory in November 2015.
“Myanmar has come a spectacularly long way but it is not out of the woods,” said Ake Tangsupvattana, dean of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, at a forum held this week on “Myanmar’s New Era: Problems and Prospects” in the Thai capital.
Until more recent years, Myanmar was often labelled the ‘sick guy’ of the region and regarded as an international pariah. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, failed to recognise the results of the 1990 democratic election that NLD won and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years, in the process making her a global democracy icon.
Reforms began in 2011, after the military installed a civilian government led by retired general Thein Sein. However, for many, the true litmus test for greater liberties was in the 2015 elections, when the army recognised the mandate of a people who had overwhelmingly voted for change.
While seeing the immense potential for change given the NLD’s clear mandate for change, experts also see some worrisome signs ahead in Myanmar’s political scene.
Some have said the Suu Kyi-led government could be heading for a “democratic dictatorship” after the newly-elected parliament created the role of state counsellor for her, a position that effectively gives her power “above the president” – figurehead leader and longtime ally Htin Kyaw. Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from holding the top office as her sons are British nationals.
Despite opposition from military members of parliament, who branded the move unconstitutional and boycotted the vote, the bill was passed easily due to the NLD’s majority in both the upper and lower houses of the legislature.
“One of the early worrying signs is that there is a tendency to re-concentrate power right at the top”, which is a throwback to the Tatmadaw’s political and governance culture when it ruled the country, warned Richard Horsey, Myanmar analyst for the International Crisis Group at the May 16 forum.
Suu Kyi holds two portfolios, foreign affairs and state counsellor’s office, after relinquishing two others – education and energy and electric power – she previously held.
Arguing for the need for some checks and balances, Gwen Robinson, senior fellow at Thailand’s Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), added: “It’s quite important that there should be some focus on rebuilding a viable opposition because what we have is a one-party state in effect.”
Speakers at the ISIS forum expressed concern about the efficacy of the new government given the suitability, experience and competencies of Cabinet members, who they said had been chosen mainly for their loyalty to Suu Kyi and not their experience and skills.
The learning curve for governance is steep for the NLD, a party created primarily as opposition to the-then military regime and for promoting human rights. Already, it has attracted unwanted attention from media reports detailing the fake PhDs of two ministers in key economic portfolios.
“It’s clear that it’s a cabinet of loyalty, not a cabinet of talents. These are people who have been picked primarily for their loyalty to the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, rather than an attempt to bring in all the technocratic experience that would be available,” reasoned Horsey.
TIES WITH THE MILITARY
The Suu Kyi government also needs to tread very carefully is its ties with the Tatmadaw, which ruled Myanmar for more than 50 years before slowly easing its role five years ago. The army retains three security portfolios and a quarter of all seats in Parliament under the Constitution.
Myanmar’s Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing allayed fears of an unhappy military when he spoke at a news conference in the capital Naypyitaw on May 13. “We don’t have any reason to reject the leadership of the elected civilian government.”
But the Tatmadaw’s clout remains strong and its co-operation is paramount to make progress on sensitive issues around Rakhine state, intercommunal relations and the spluttering peace process with the country’s armed ethnic groups.
“It seems that Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to build an alliance with the military. She needs that for governing but if she goes too far, this is the Burma government banding up with the Burma military,” Harn Yawngwhe, executive director of the Euro Burma Office and facilitator in the peace process warned at the forum.
Another political time bomb for Suu Kyi is Burman nationalism. In late April, ultra-nationalist monks and protesters demonstrated outside the US Embassy in Yangon over the use of the term ‘Rohingya’ by the embassy in a letter of condolence for 21 people who had drowned off the Rakhine coast.
Suu Kyi received widespread flak after her spokesperson told the media not to use the term to describe the country’s stateless Muslim minority and refer to them as ‘Bengalis’ instead, referencing them as interlopers from Bangladesh as Myanmar does not recognise them as citizens.
“The Burman nationalists are agitating. The nationalists are testing right now the new government – they are testing its nationalist credentials,” said Horsey. Ethnic Burmans, who make up 68 percent of the population, are Buddhists.
GETTING THE ECONOMY RIGHT
The bright spot in Myanmar is its economy, which grew by 8 percent in 2016, making it one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Foreign direct investment reached a record high of nearly $9 billion last year, despite ongoing sanctions against Myanmar.
“There is a lot of goodwill and optimism that broadly, the (government’s) instincts are right and the goals are right,” said Robinson. Singapore tops the list of investors, followed by China, Hong Kong and the Netherlands.
At the same time, they (the new government) have to avoid disparity that you see in newly emerging frontier economies. “When you have new wealth coming in, new money, it goes to very few people,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Thailand’s ISIS.
MEMORIES AND LEGACY
How Myanmar shapes its foreign policy, including the priority it gives to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is also being closely watched.
“She is not one who is going to sit and be quiet. She is not going to be a potted plant at these (ASEAN) meetings. She will lead us in many ways,” said Thitinan.
Because Suu Kyi recalls that ASEAN countries were less than fully supportive of her in the past due to the organisation’s policy of constructive engagement, her government could be less keen on ASEAN engagement, he advised. “ASEAN will have a difficult year with the new Myanmar.”
Given that Suu Kyi rose to power at 70, Chulalongkorn University’s Puangthong Pawakapan said, “Aung San Suu Kyi has sacrificed herself fighting for democracy in Myanmar for two decades. Now her next sacrifice will be whether she will be able to take a back seat.” Suu Kyi would do well to focus on grooming the next generation of leaders, she added.
It’s early days yet for the ‘new’ Myanmar, which is attempting to catch up with its neighbours and peers in terms of development, governance and prosperity.
But its biggest contribution to the world waits to be determined. Said Thitinan: “If this democracy doesn’t work in Myanmar, it will send all kinds of wrong signals to many other states that democracy just doesn’t work.” (Edited by Johanna Son – END/Reporting ASEAN)