This article, written by Ei Ei Toe Lwin, appears in print on the Myanmar Times in January 4, 2018.
Among the many countries struggling for democracy, some succeed, some fail, while others slide back after a few measures of success.
Myanmar is one of these countries, which recently gained democracy through peaceful reforms and elections but now appears to be sliding back to its old draconian ways.
After more than 20-year military rule, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government finally took office in end of March 2016, and it is now into its second year (to be exact one year and eight months).
But the praises, hopes and supports for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD when they were struggling for democracy against the military rule have started to turn into disappointments and criticisms.
Major negative points for the new government include slowing of the economy, having no progress in its peace efforts, narrower freedom of speech and failure to implement election promises.
Experts on Myanmar affairs cited the key reforms the NLD have to start implementing, as follows:
The cabinet and centralisation
Since taking office in April 2016, the NLD-led government reduced the number of ministries and minimized the appointment of deputy ministers, which gained the support of the people as it helped to reduce government’s expenditure. However, the arrangement did not last for long.
The government established new ministries, like the State Counsellor’s Office Ministry, Union Government Ministry and International Cooperation Ministry, and has started to appoint deputy ministers for some ministries. Currently, there are 22 ministers and 14 deputy ministers at 24 different ministries.
There hasn’t been any strong protest against the government yet but questions have been raised on the performance of the ministries, especially two ministers responsible for economy – Minister for Planning and Finance and Minister for Commerce.
Political analysts are also sceptical over the recent reshuffle, whether it will guarantee development.
The main culprit, they argue, is “too much centralisation” and the most responsible person would be Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself.
“The most serious mistakes do not lie with the ministers. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is shouldering many tasks without being able to manage it,” U Kyaw Win, an expert in Myanmar affairs, said.
“She needs to delegate. To be frank, centralisation is too much. Therefore, reshuffling ministers may not make a difference,” he added.
At present Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the minister for both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President Office Ministry, and her roles include chair, vice chair and member in 16 committees covering peace, Rakhine issues, economy, rule of law, citizenship and international relations.
Why is she involved in so many tasks?
“I don’t think she actually likes centralisation. There are two possible reasons – she doesn’t trust her men or she doesn’t have qualified candidates or both,” U Kyaw Win said.
Another analyst said the government should give clear instructions and guidance to the ministries.
U Khin Zaw Win, founder director of think-tank Tampadipa Institute, said it is necessary to give full authority to chief ministers, despite questions on whether state and regional ministers were given full authority to govern their states even under the 2008 Constitution.
“The military government had controlled the power for 50 years. It is just to obey orders. If that system is continued in the democracy era, there is no hope,” he said.
To reduce centralisation, the right-man- right-place policy should be practiced without discrimination and only then can development be seen in key sectors, including the economy, U Khin Zaw Win added.
U Kyaw Win, on the other hand, noted that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should learn to work with officials from the previous military government.
“She may not want to use people from the previous government. As I assumed she thinks she can handle the government only with the men who are loyalty to her. After two years, she needs to realise it doesn’t work,” U Kyaw Win said.
Peace and amending constitution
Peace and amending the constitution were the main election pledges of NLD, with peace as the foremost priority.
But despite two sessions of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, new ethnic armed groups could not be persuaded to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
Peace may be the most promising element in 2018. But NCA will not become an all inclusive agreement. Although it is possible to see some United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) members joining the NCA, experts could only see a half-completed peace process.
“NLD seems to target 2020 election with peace as its theme. The 21st Century Panglong Conference may be held several times this year. Then they may push the amendments of the constitution by submitting acquired agreements to the Hluttaw. But all inclusiveness will be difficult,” said U Min Zin, executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy (Myanmar).
Myanmar ethnic armed conflict expert Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner observed the current path to political dialogue after signing NCA doesn’t work for peace.
“Although Mon and Karenni may sign NCA, how can peace be gained without the 80 percent that represents the ethnic armed groups,” he raised a question.
For effective result, political dialogue should go first then followed by signing of the NCA, he advised.
The 2008 Constitution
The NLD strongly protested against the 2008 Constitution drafted by the military generals during the opposition rule. After 2012 by-election, the NLD failed to amend Section 436 of the constitution in cooperation with 88 Generation students.
But when it took power after the 2015 election, there was no attempt to amend the constitution, although Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to make amendment via peace channels.
U Kyaw Win, who participated as a political expert in the first round of 21st Panglong Conference, advised that ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw should be allowed to negotiate for the relatively easy amendments while the government stays neutral.
He also noted that amendments should start in resource allocation and mandate of Pyidaungsu Hluttaw to decide when there is disagreement between Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw and appointment of Chief Ministers by President.
For constitutional amendment, firm peace must be built first with NCA-signatories rather than focusing on all inclusiveness, he said.
“Then, they can approach the Tatmadaw, say, to reduce 25pc seats to 20pc or three ministers to two,” he added.
The biggest blow to NLD government in 2017 is the northern Rakhine State conflict which will continue as a major issue in 2018.
The Myanmar government should handle it very carefully as international strong criticisms are escalating. The businessmen are worried about how the government could prevent possible economic sanctions in 2018.
“A blind denial from Nay Pyi Taw for international accusations will not work,” said international relations researcher U Khin Zaw Win.
The Rakhine conflict has reversed the relationship between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the western nations and expanded the role of China both in peace and Rakhine affairs of Myanmar.
Such situations will still firmly exist in 2018. Despite recognition of China’s role, political observers suggested Myanmar’s relationship with the western world should be reinstated.
Another issue related to Rakhine conflict is demographic changes. Post-Cyclone Nargis migration has increased, fuelled by the mid-2012 outbreak of violence in the area.
The government was asked not to issue household certificate to non-Mon families in Mon State and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was requested by Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) leader N’ Ban La to settle the problem of Rakhine people entering into Hpakant in Kachin State, U Min Zin said.
Lack of education to accept diversity among the races, to face the changes and having insufficient awareness via media, trigger anxieties and conflicts, he warned.
“Incidents happen very fast. The ability to change the people’s mind is low. We are afraid of new neighbours, new words or new foods. If something happens, it can lead to violence. It is the worst in Rakhine State,” U Min Zin commented.
Role of Tatmadaw and civil-military relationship
The escalating Rakhine conflict and unending pocket wars are signs of increased Tatmadaw’s role in 2018.
“Unless conflicts are controlled, the role of Tatmadaw can’t be ignored,” U Khin Zaw Win said.
The current government pays too much attention over the constitutional veto granted to the Tatmadaw rather than functional veto of Tatmadaw, which means the inevitable role of the Tatmadaw in conflict, said U Min Zin, who contributes articles about Myanmar political situation to the US based magazine, Foreign Policy.
According to 2008 Constitution, the Tatmadaw has 25pc of legislation power and the authority for three ministries- Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs.
“If conflicts based on religion and race happen in addition to Kachin and Rakhine conflicts, the functional power of Tatmadaw will become more important,” U Min Zin said.
U Min Zin said it is important for the government and the Tatmadaw to have a good relationship in order to reduce conflict.
But he noted that a good relationship needs to go beyond just shaking hands in public. The Government need not be afraid of the Tatmadaw but should build a working relationship with the organization
For the stability in the transition, there should be a political pact between the Tatmadaw and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But, such a thing doesn’t still exist.
Analysts noted that political change will be slow to come without the consent of the Tatmadaw.
“To be frank, there is no problem as long as the government does not try to confront the Tatmadaw,” U Kyaw Win said.
He said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi knows too well this reality, as evidenced by the way she and her civilian government is responding to the Rakhine crisis. It can be gleaned in the way she used words when she answered accusations of human rights violations against the military in Rakhine conflict.
“Whether you like it or not, any political change will be difficult without the consent of the Tatmadaw. This is bitter truth. Daw Aung Suu Kyi understands it. I think by far there is no mistake in relationship with the Tatmadaw,” U Kyaw Win said.
To reduce the role of the Tatmadaw, it is important for peace to go one step forward with agreements, he pointed out.
“If an agreement to do what at which stage can be reached, the change can peacefully happen however long it takes,” U Kyaw Win said.
Democratic transformation and human rights prospect
The answer to the question on how far the NLD government has succeeded in implementing democratic transformation can be summed up in a single word: ‘unsatisfactory.’
Although Daw Aung Suu Kyi had said before that even the presence of only one political prisoner is too much, the number hasn’t declined since her taking office.
According to the list from political prisoner freedom committee, there are still 46 political prisoners in jail and 49 are facing trials. And it is indisputable that media freedom has become narrower under NLD government.
The NLD government has been wasting time focusing on popular topics like building Bogyoke statue and naming Bogyoke Aung San bridge, U Min Zin said.
Another possible issue in 2018 is leadership problem. There is no plan for such a situation when something happens to the leader in person-oriented Myanmar politics. There is a question on how to deal with leadership vacuum in case of fall of political influence or deterioration of health.
“Uncertainty caused by a leadership vacuum may create a big issue. Such leadership vacuum cannot be ruled out in 2018,” U Min Zin forecast.
The problem is too much dependence on the leader. Myanmar politics is like following the captain of a ship rather than the compass, U Min Zin said.
“It is like that the people on a boat are asking to follow the captain rather than the compass. In the long run, it is very difficult to predict the strategy when faced with severe weather,” said U Min Zin.
U Min Zin urges the people to continually monitor the performance of the government and the people they voted into office.
“People need to assume that they are masters, they must decide, they must watch and check and balance,” he said.
For the NLD leaders, the pillars of democracy will not fall as long as it has the support of the people.
“It is true that our party is weak in administration experience. We admit it,” Monywa Aung Shin, an NLD central executive committee member, said. “But it is not true that we can’t rule as we don’t have experience. We will try to be better.”
He said the current democratic pillars may still be weak but it is strong enough to hold the country until stronger pillars could replace them in time. He added the strength of the current government lies in sound leadership and public support.