Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘A Hundred Days, a Thousand Questions: Government Faces Challenges on All Fronts’

By The Irrawaddy 16 July 2016

Aung Zaw: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we will discuss positive and negative trends, and successes and failures, of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, just over a hundred days since it took office. Ko Khine Win from the Sandhi Governance Institute and political columnist Ko Ye Naing Moe are joining me for the discussion. I’m Aung Zaw, the chief editor of The Irrawaddy.

People voted for the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November election, electing the first civilian government in Burma since 1962. The new government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Htin Kyaw still enjoys public support [as much support as the NLD party enjoyed in the past.]  Soon after it took power, the government articulated the idea of a 100-day plan. We know that it is impossible to quickly solve all the problems of a country that has deteriorated in political, economic and social aspects for more than five decades. But, Ko Khine Win, what policies has the NLD adopted at this point? Which are positive and which are not?

Khine Win: What I see is that the new government has focused on a deregulation drive, rather than on policies. It has tried to pick low-hanging fruit, as some people put it. That is, it has tried to make some quick fixes for the convenience of the people. According to an official of the National Planning Ministry, the 100-day plan had a focus on easing some regulations imposed by the previous governments, in the interests of the people.

AZ: Ko Ye Naing Moe, the government has released almost all political prisoners, started to return some confiscated land, and taken measures to promote the rule of law. Do you think people feel safe and secure under the new government? Do they believe it can protect them?

Ye Naing Moe: I have talked to people on the street about their expectations of the first civilian government elected in over 50 years. People do not expect that their incomes will increase immediately. Or that there will be job opportunities overnight. But they do have trust. This is the first time that they trust a government in more than 50 years. Anyway, though the civilian government has not yet given a great performance, the majority of non-ethnic Bamar people believe that it is at least heading in a good direction.

AZ: Do you think there is greater public cooperation with this government compared to previous ones?

KW: Yes, I think there is. People tend to show greater discipline. I don’t mean that the previous governments did not properly enforce discipline. My view is that people have greater trust in, and respect for, the government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This is proven, for example, by the anti-betel chewing campaign in Rangoon Division. I don’t agree that this campaign should be a priority. But if the previous government had issued a statement against betel-chewing, people would have responded strongly [pushed back] on it, I think. But now public cooperation is high. This shows that people believe that the NLD government prioritizes things constructively. Earlier too, the NLD government took some steps that satisfied people, including me. These included slashing the number of ministries, to reduce the burden on society. That was a bold move. At the same time, there are still shortcomings.

AZ: It is also interesting to look at the role of administrators [the General Administration Department] under the new government. In the [relatively distant] past, bureaucrats were capable and efficient people who played very important roles administering the country. But after dictators seized power in 1962, their henchmen—who knew nothing except how to say ‘Yes’—were appointed to govern the administrative mechanism. This damaged the system of administration and governance. Since the incumbent administrators were appointed by previous governments, there are suggestions that they might be uncooperative. There might be conflicts between them and the new government. What do you think, Ko Khine Win?

KW: Some administrators serve as secretaries of divisional and state governments, so they play an important role. There is public concern because they are staff members of the Home Affairs Ministry, and most are military officials. But at the township and district levels, administrators mainly play the role of coordinators. On security aspects, they need to know everything [in their respective administrative areas].  Therefore it seems that they have a finger in every pie. In fact, the cooperation of civil servants at the lower level plays a major part [in running the administration]. But this does not mean that [senior] administrators do not play a part. I have heard that in some places they ignore instructions from the upper level [of government].

AZ: In some divisions and states…

KW: At the same time, there are cases in which civil servants [at the lower level] work hard but the upper levels place them under undue pressure.

YNM: My view on administrators is that they played an important role in the past. And they still do. In the colonial period and after independence, during the government of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, they were called township administration officers and deputy commissioners and so on. The difference is that they were civilians then. The system was militarized after 1962, as Ko Aung Zaw said. So, the way of thinking is different. People take orders in a hierarchical system. For the new government, the General Administration Department is a tough thing to handle.

AZ: Political pundits and observers point out that the military still maintain its grip on three key ministries (Home, Defence, Border Affairs) and holds 25 percent of seats in the parliaments, while there has been no progress regarding constitutional reform. They say that there may be more tensions between the government led by U Htin Kyaw and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military. What is your view of their relations; in other words, of civilian-military relations?

YNM: The number-one priority of the NLD government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is internal peace and national reconciliation; to end the civil war. Their engagement with the military will decide the success or failure of that goal. Since the new government takes this into consideration in each of its moves, it tries to avoid confrontation with the military even on other issues. It seems that the government does not want to touch other difficult matters before it can work out an agreement with the military over a ceasefire and national reconciliation. Their 100-day plan does not deal with constitutional reform, which was one of the objectives of their party explicitly articulated in the campaign season.

AZ: Now they say that the Constitution will only be amended after peace is achieved.

YNM: I think that is so.

AZ: The priority of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is peace and national reconciliation. She is planning to hold the 21st Century Panglong Conference. She wants to invite non-signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), including the AA (Arakan Army), the Kokang Group (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) and the TNLA (Ta’ang National Liberation Army), groups the military objects to. Yet it seems that the military is taking a moderate approach regarding that proposal. Some argue that our country will never enjoy peace and stability if it does not achieve it during the time of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What do you think of that view? And do you think ethnic groups will respond to her peace offer?

KW: There are higher expectations. Ethnic peoples have greater trust in and greater expectations of the NLD government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi than any previous governments. At the same time, there are mountains of doubts. But anyway, they have more trust in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government than in any other, I think. So, it is likely that the AA, TNLA and Kokang Group may accept her offer. Whether the goals can be achieved depends solely on the military, how much they are willing to cooperate. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will continue to hold the top position in the military. So, what is the military’s stance? So far, the military compromises only within the framework of the 2008 Constitution. There would need to be some changes to the Constitution for a complete agreement to be reached. So, it depends on how much the military is willing to compromise. Daw Aung Suu Kyi understands this situation, I think.

AZ: The 100-day plan lacks clarity on economic policy. Foreign investors and local businessmen are very disappointed that the NLD government has not clearly articulated this policy. People are saying that the government is very weak in this regard. What are your views?

KW: My view is that there are difficulties and challenges for the NLD government in adopting a clear and coherent economic policy. There are many groups in a society. Their interests are different. The NLD government needs to adjust to all those interests. They can’t only give attention to the demands of the business community. As Ko Aung Zaw has pointed out, it is important to create jobs for the people. To create jobs, the government needs to cooperate closely with businessmen. Meanwhile, people have a general dislike of businessmen, especially cronies, because of their [negative] reputation.

AZ: The NLD government is an anti-corruption government, which is good. But some people ask if the government is anti-business, or not pro-business. Is that question valid?

YNM: It is a little harsh to criticize the NLD as an anti-business government.  But it needs to be bold and decisive regarding economic policy. I don’t have a clear sense of their policy.

In our country, many people have traditional beliefs. For example, the political system used to be influenced by communism, and therefore there is a tendency to shy away from doing business with the international community. And people tend to have rather negative views of investments and projects. It seems that our country has ‘resource nationalism’.

The question is, how we can achieve job opportunities? In Rangoon, the number of taxis now is frighteningly high. Because of a lack of job opportunities, people choose to drive taxis as the easiest way to earn an income for their families. The government needs to explain how it will create job opportunities, what this country will produce to make money, how it will boost the tourism industry, and how it will provide vocational training and create related jobs. But it hasn’t done this, and that is a shortcoming.

AZ: Thank you for your contributions!

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.