2018 will be make or break for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - News - LARRY JA­GAN news­room@mm­times.com

NOVEM­BER marked the sec­ond an­niver­sary of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s elec­toral land­slide at the 2015 polls. It also marked the start of her third year in power. This com­ing year is go­ing to be a “make or break” year for her and her party, the Na­tional League for Democ­racy (NLD). The eu­pho­ria that greeted her vic­tory has sub­sided and been re­placed by dis­ap­point­ment, dis­il­lu­sion­ment and frus­tra­tion. It is also the year the NLD must cast a se­ri­ous eye to­ward to the next elec­tions in three years time.

For the past two years the govern­ment has ap­peared rud­der­less, lack­ing a co­her­ent strat­egy and fail­ing to de­liver what the NLD se­nior pa­tron, Tin Oo, de­scribed im­me­di­ately af­ter the elec­tion as the “democ­racy div­i­dend”. The govern­ment is be­sieged by end­less prob­lems: a stag­nant econ­omy, a stalling peace process and es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence in the coun­try’s strife-torn western re­gion of Rakhine. Most of th­ese is­sues, the civil­ian leader and her min­is­ters seem slow to recog­nise and in­ca­pable of solv­ing.

The govern­ment’s ap­par­ent help­less­ness is fur­ther com­pounded by a grow­ing vo­cif­er­ous na­tion­al­ist move­ment – led by xeno­pho­bic and chau­vin­ist monks – work­ers’ strikes and grow­ing so­cial un­rest. To make mat­ters worse, the State Coun­sel­lor – the key govern­ment po­si­tion Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took in the govern­ment – runs the ad­min­is­tra­tion in a top-down fash­ion, with a small “in­ner cabi­net” and a hand­ful of for­eign ex­perts to ad­vise her.

From the start of the Nld-ad­min­is­tra­tion, at the end of March 2016, the govern­ment faced an ar­ray of prob­lems left them by the out-go­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion of the for­mer gen­eral, Pres­i­dent Thein Sein. Th­ese in­cluded a re­luc­tant han­dover, a vir­tu­ally bank­rupt ex­che­quer and a per­ilous re­la­tion­ship with the army – which in ef­fect was a “coali­tion part­ner” in govern­ment.

The coun­try is racked by in­creas­ing di­vi­sion, re­sent­ment and mis­trust among most of the coun­try’s eth­nic mi­nori­ties, and an in­sur­mount­able break­down in com­mu­nal re­la­tions in Rakhine, which has led to more than half a mil­lion state­less Ro­hingya Mus­lims flee­ing across the bor­der to Bangladesh, cre­at­ing the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, in the wake of the mil­i­tary’s vi­o­lent crack­down there, that the UN be­lieves is akin to “eth­nic cleans­ing”. The Myan­mar govern­ment is un­doubt­edly fac­ing a night­mare sit­u­a­tion, with the es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence in Rakhine threat­en­ing to throw the coun­try’s democ­racy back into the dark ages.

Na­tion­al­ist strain awak­ens The prob­lems in Rakhine have awo­ken a strong na­tion­al­ist strain in Myan­mar’s Ba­mar so­ci­ety – the dom­i­nant eth­nic group in Myan­mar, mak­ing up more than 70 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. But this sen­ti­ment is some­thing of a two-edged sword as far as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is con­cerned. Cer­tainly there have been demon­stra­tions sup­port­ing her re­cently – mainly in Yan­gon and Man­dalay – but other ral­lies have been voic­ing their sup­port for the Myan­mar mil­i­tary or Tat­madaw.

But even in the NLD’S heart­lands – Yan­gon and Man­dalay – and among those who were some of her most vi­brant sup­port­ers – the busi­ness com­mu­nity, in­tel­lec­tu­als, artists and pro­fes­sion­als – dis­il­lu­sion­ment is set­ting in. For the ur­ban elite, the coun­try seems di­rec­tion­less, amid an acute pol­icy vac­uum. “There’s no poli­cies, plans or strat­egy,” said Kyaw Kyaw Hlaing, a prom­i­nent Myan­mar busi­ness­man and po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor.

As a re­sult, for much of the past two years, there has been an in­tense in­er­tia, with the busi­ness com­mu­nity in par­tic­u­lar, frus­trated by the govern­ment’s con­tin­ued de­lays in an­nounc­ing its de­tailed eco­nomic pol­icy and strat­egy. “We need to see clear signs that the govern­ment un­der­stands the im­por­tance of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment,” KK Hlaing as he is known, added. “What we need is peace [re­fer­ring to the peace process] and de­vel­op­ment,” he said force­fully.

One ma­jor prob­lem that has dogged Daw Aung San Suu Kyi since her over­whelm­ing elec­toral vic­tory in Novem­ber 2015 was the eu­pho­ria and ex­pec­ta­tions that it cre­ated. “Ex­pec­ta­tions were too high, partly be­cause the ex­tent of the vic­tory sur­passed even the best pre­dic­tions,” said Zeya Thu a po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor with The Voice mag­a­zine in Yan­gon. And while the hoped for change has not even­tu­ated, no one wants a re­turn to au­thor­i­tar­ian rule – not even the army it­self, he added.

When the new NLD govern­ment as­sumed of­fice at the end of March last year their backs were up against the wall – with the mil­i­tary and the for­mer min­is­ters in the Union Sol­i­dar­ity and De­vel­op­ment Party (USDP) ex­pect­ing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to fail. “I give her six months, a year at the out­side,” said sev­eral min­is­ters in the pre­vi­ous regime. And their ob­struc­tion­ist ap­proach to the han­dover of power did not help. “We didn’t know whether we would be al­lowed [by the mil­i­tary] to take power right up un­til the day be­fore the new pres­i­dent was sworn in,” a govern­ment in­sider told me at the time.

Govern­ment ma­chine keeps mov­ing

Now af­ter two years the govern­ment is still firmly in place, although there is in­creas­ing talk of a pos­si­ble mil­i­tary coup or ad­min­is­tra­tive seizure of power by the army chief, as al­lowed in the pro-mil­i­tary con­sti­tu­tion of 2008. Nev­er­the­less on the sur­face there seems lit­tle to show for the last two years of angst and ef­fort. But that is a su­per­fi­cial assess­ment of what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her govern­ment has achieved.

De­spite the limited re­sources at their dis­posal, when the NLD took of­fice, the ma­chin­ery of govern­ment has kept mov­ing. It has been a strug­gle for the govern­ment to keep the coun­try sol­vent – de­spite some sub­stan­tial aid pack­ages from for­eign donors, the ADB, IMF and World Bank – made all the more dif­fi­cult by the enor­mous drop in for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment.

In the last few months of his regime, Thein Sein’s ad­min­is­tra­tion’s spend­ing vir­tu­ally bankrupted the govern­ment, min­is­ters over­spent the bud­get by three fold, es­pe­cially as a re­sult of the govern­ment’s un­seemly spend­ing spree in March. The bud­get deficit rose as­tro­nom­i­cally to 4.6 per­cent of GDP (from 1pc).

Now that the govern­ment has suc­cess­fully staved off the dan­ger of na­tional in­sol­vency, and re­versed the bud­get deficit, it is time to launch the de­tailed plans that are in the pipe­line to boost eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. Plans are afoot to re­form the tax sys­tem, press on with the lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the bank­ing sys­tem – in­clud­ing al­low­ing for­eign eq­uity par­tic­i­pa­tion in lo­cal banks – strengthen the in­sur­ance sec­tor, also al­low­ing for­eign com­pa­nies to en­ter. This, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment in­sid­ers, is al­ready in the works.

But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her govern­ment re­alise that this alone will not be enough, es­pe­cially to at­tract in­creased for­eign in­vest­ment. The govern­ment’s plans and strat­egy are based on rapid in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment and the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the coun­try.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi re­cently an­nounced the govern­ment’s main aim was now “peace and elec­tri­fi­ca­tion” – which means pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity through­out the coun­try by 2020, the new en­ergy min­is­ter Win Khaing said re­cently.

So the govern­ment, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in par­tic­u­lar, has suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated the last two years, lay­ing the foun­da­tions for re­form, sta­bil­ity and a tran­si­tion to a stronger democ­racy. While ex­pec­ta­tions have cer­tainly been tem­pered, the govern­ment is now go­ing to have to de­liver more sub­stan­tial re­sults in the next 12 months if it’s to be in any po­si­tion to win the next elec­tions. In the mean­time, the Rakhine cri­sis threat­ens to de­rail the NLD’S good in­ten­tions and desta­bilise the coun­try.

– Bangkok Post build­ings. The crass in­stal­la­tion of an ATM on the plat­form was per­haps a sign of things to come.

A Myan­mar friend of mine has said to me that she would have been happy and proud to in­tro­duce for­eign vis­i­tors to Sh­wedagon for the cost of a vol­un­tary do­na­tion. I con­cur with that and find that the im­po­si­tion of an in­creased en­trance fee – pur­pose and des­ti­na­tion un­known – should at the very least be ei­ther openly jus­ti­fied or re­con­sid­ered. The time seems un­for­tu­nately past when the re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance was para­mount and com­mer­cial in­ter­ests a dis­tant sec­ond.

Ed­i­tor’s note: The Myan­mar Times wel­comes let­ters from read­ers who in­clude a name and phone num­ber or email ad­dress where they can be con­tacted to ver­ify iden­tity. All let­ters may be edited for clar­ity, length and to avoid li­bel.

Now that the govern­ment has staved off na­tional in­sol­vency, it is time to launch plans to boost eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

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