2018 will be make or break for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
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 The euphoria that greeted her victory has subsided and been replaced by disappointment, disillusionment and frustration.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.