Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Government in Myanmar has reached its first anniversary.
This month marks the first anniversary of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government coming to power. The euphoria that greeted her National League for Democracy’s overwhelming electoral victory in November 2015 has waned substantially, but the grassroots support for the government has not dissipated – at least not yet.
“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 changed 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 former rulers in the Union Solidarity Development party expecting the Lady – as she is commonly referred to here – 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 hand-over 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.
The transition period – the six months between November and March – was fraught, with the out-going team deliberately preventing government officials from handing over files and policy papers to the NLD team. They even banned top government civil servants from talking to members of the incoming transition team. In the middle of March hundreds of boxes of files and documents were suddenly released, giving the NLD no time to read them and try to prepare policies for the new government. Some files and information have still not been released, a government insider told me recently.
Twelve months on, the government is still there. But there seems little to show for the last year of angst and effort. But that is a superficial assessment of what 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. And 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 after the government’s unseemly spending spree in March. The budget deficit rose astronomically to 4.6% of GDP (from 1%). They blew out the current account. And left the new government with a crippling liability – a hastily arranged and agreed loan from China for $ US 300 million at 4.5% interest: with the exchange rate falling over the last year the value of this loan has appreciated enormously.
So to keep the government on track alone was a herculean task. But at the same time Aung San Suu Kyi had a strategic vision for the future, unlike her predecessors. She was concerned to make the institutions of government transparent and stable. Much time was spent behind the scenes on public service reform. Though this was something initiated by the previous government, the NLD plans are much more extensive and far reaching. Already hundreds of new civil servants have been recruited from amongst the university graduates to fill lower management positions. This ‘new blood’ will move up the bureaucracy bringing a fresh mindset and a muchneeded problem solving approach to government administration.
“The top layers of the bureaucracy are the problem,” said Hanthar Myint a leading member of the NLD, and head of the party’s economic committee. When Aung San Suu Kyi first took office she opted to pursue a policy of stability and continuity for the sake of the country. “The Lady knows the problems in the public service and the bottle necks in the bureaucracy, but decided not to challenge them too soon,” Hanthar Myint explained to me months after the NLD government took office.
But “letting sleeping dogs lie” maybe about to end. The top brass in the public service are likely to be axed in the coming year – many will be allowed to retire and others made redundant. “A major shake-up is in the pipeline for these guys,” said a senior member of the
government on condition of anonymity. “But everything will be done according to the law,” he stressed – there will be no arbitrary dismissals.
One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s top priorities since taking office has been how to organize the government while building trust. “She is very strategic; placing trusted people in key positions,” said Tin Maung Than, an academic, working on public service reform and advising the Mandalay Chief Minister, Dr Zaw Myint Maung. “National unity is the new banner. It’s a divided society so stressing human rights and democracy will only heighten disunity and lead to greater instability,” he added. So much of the Lady’s efforts and strategy have been intended to lay the foundations for stability that will help ensure that future democratic change will be grounded and irreversible.
The biggest problem facing the government, when Aung San Suu Kyi took office was the army. The military’s attitude to civilian, pro-democracy leaders was clear – they would defend the constitution to the end. So for the time being the NLD had to put constitutional change on the back burner. This was made clear to the Lady in meetings with the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing before she took office, and the party – with a few notable exceptions – have adhered to this policy.
But with the military continuing to play a major role in running the country, Aung San Suu Kyi had to find a way to work with them. The military controls three ministries – home affairs, defense and border affairs – and through that controls much of the country’s grassroots government administration – this is the responsibility of the Government Administration Department (GAD), which is under the interior ministry. The military MPs, who make up 25 percent of the parliament, are a constant reminder to the NLD, that the army is watching the government closely. Because the NLD’s victory was so overwhelming, the army is effectively the main opposition in parliament.
With the tense relations between the country’s top two leaders – the civilian and military commanders -- at the start of the new government a year ago, building trust between them was a key issue. While their relationship since then has been far from smooth, they have developed a working relationship. They may not like each, and they may not fully trust each other, but they understand that they need each other, said a former senior military officer. Although areas of tension remain – the peace process, security operations in Rakhine and foreign relations, especially with China and the US – there seems to be a functioning relationship between them now, that was not the case a year ago. “Cohabitation between Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing is the only way to move the country forward,” said Zeya Thu of Voice magazine.
The biggest domestic criticism leveled at Aung San Suu Kyi and her government has been the failure to push economic development and reforms. Businessmen are increasingly frustrated by the government’s apparent lack of concern about the economy and failure to offer direction. “We have been waiting a year for some signs that the government appreciate the importance of the business sector, are listening to our concerns, and have policies, plans and a strategy,” said K.K. Hlaing, a prominent Myanmar businessman and political commentator.
Recently during celebrations to mark international women’s day, Aung San Suu Kyi appealed for patience – as one year in office is a short time. Under the circumstances, it is in fact too brief a period for the government to boast great successes, as the Lady’s primary concern was to lay the foundations for sustainable development and democratization. “The government is committed to economic reform,” Sean Turnell an Australian academic and advisor to the finance ministry told NABR. “That means liberalization, a free market, open trade and good governance.”
The foundations for this and detailed policies are in the pipeline and likely to be announced in the next few months. “We desperately need to hear the government’s detailed economic policy, its failure to announce it has limited economic activity in the last twelve months,” said Sy Win a prominent Myanmar businessman. “But nevertheless the future is very bright.”
At the start of the second year of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, there are mixed feelings about the achievements of the past twelve months. What is certain is that the foundations were laid for an economic take off in the coming year. “Foreign investment and economic development will boom in the next six months,” the finance minister Kyaw Win assured businessmen recently. More transparency and accountability have been established.
“There’s been a remarkable decline in corruption, as a result of the Lady’s lead,” said Luc de Waegh, senior advisor with Roland Berger in Myanmar. But while expectations may have been tempered, the government is going to have to deliver more substantial and concrete results in the next twelve months. The bye-elections in April will be the first test of the government’s continued popularity. Although there only 19 seats being contested, the result will have an impact on the NLD, said a senior member of the party and a businessman, Ye Min Oo. “Whatever the result, it will send signals that the party leadership will not be able to ignore.”
First Anniversary of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Government
Above left: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi before the 2015 elections. Above: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with ethnic leaders at the Panglong peace summit in February 2017.