Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, our Irrawaddy news crew will discuss likely scenarios in important areas like politics and the economy of Myanmar in 2018. Our discussion will focus on which stage the democratic transition of our country has reached and whether there will be any progress, and whether the economy can pick up. The year 2018 started with problems and confusion around the world. We’ll discuss whether Myanmar will be able to overcome its own troubles. Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ko Ye Ni and English edition senior reporter Ma Nyein Nyein join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
We can say the problems of 2017 have continued into 2018. In my opinion, Myanmar was in deep trouble in 2017. But then taking a look at the world, we’ll have to wait and see how deep the divides will become in the US under President Trump. He is just a businessman. Taking a look at the UK, Brexit—the looming withdrawal of the UK from the EU—has created uncertainties. There are countries that may secede from the UK. Taking a look at Eastern Europe, there is a rise in nationalism, and there is a resultant increase in discrimination. Our country Myanmar is not different, not exceptional. So, let’s discuss the possible scenarios for our country in 2018. It seems that the democratic transition of our country has reached an impasse apart from other problems such as the peace process, national reconciliation between the government and the Tatmadaw, the rise of ultra-nationalism and pressing issues like Rakhine and the capacity of the government.
Ye Ni: Global politics does have an impact on national politics. As you said, old democracies and leading countries like the US and European countries have suffered setbacks, China has begun to play a bigger role on the international stage with its greater political, economic and military powers. In Southeast Asia, not only our country but all other countries have suffered setbacks in terms of democratization. As the economic reforms instituted by the Communist Party of China—we can call it state capitalism—have gathered tremendous momentum, this makes other countries wonder if they should follow suit, and consequently most of the Asean countries are inclined to (follow in that direction).
Talking of our country, after we experienced the Rakhine issue, Western countries put pressure on us and downgraded ties. Meanwhile, China extended help to us. Though the Myanmar people disliked China in the past, it now seems that they have to rely on China. The root cause of this is the Rohingya [Bengali] crisis. Around 600,000 refugees fled after the Tatmadaw carried out counter-insurgency operations in response to the attacks of ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] in August. The international community including the UN has labelled it as ethnic cleansing and this pressure will have an impact on political, economic, and social reforms in Myanmar this year. I’m afraid this impact will continue until the next election [in 2020].
KZM: This problem is quite big. This is the most pressing issue for the government. Ma Nyein Nyein, the peace process was initiated under U Thein Sein’s government and continues under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s. But it seems that the greater the effort that is put into the peace process, the harder it becomes to achieve peace. We heard that the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] signatories have decided not to attend the UPDJC [Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee] meeting. And it is unlikely that there will be new NCA signatories. What will happen to the peace process in 2018?
Nyein Nyein: As you’ve said, the issues of 2017 will continue in 2018. The year 2018 started with hurdles to the peace effort. It started with the UPDJC meetings being suspended for an indefinite period. Eight NCA signatories were set to meet on Jan. 11 to discuss this. It was mainly because the Tatmadaw stopped preliminary public consultations for national-level political dialogues organized by the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) in Shan State in December. Public consultations were halted in three or four towns in a period of about one week. So, the RCSS released a statement on Jan. 8 saying that it would not hold national-level dialogues. This is because there are different views about NCA implementation.
Terminology has always been a source of problems in the peace process. An ethnic leader told me that our country is always faced with terminological crises. Two sides define the same word differently. So, negotiations to reach an understanding over terminology never end. The NCA signatories have experienced the same problem. Although (the process for) how the NCA would be implemented is described in the accord, the NCA signatories were never clear about it. The understanding of the NCA by the Tatmadaw, the government and ethnic signatories is different from one another. So, it is difficult to reach a tripartite agreement. And there are non-signatory groups, while the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) is still negotiating. They have made eight demands, and said that they would sign the agreement if all those eight demands were fulfilled. Those negotiations have stalled. There is also the belief that consensus can be reached only when there are talks between the top leaders. So, negotiations have gone nowhere. Therefore, the tripartite talks between the Tatmadaw, government and ethnic groups, either NCA signatories or non-signatories, still have a very long way to go.
KZM: Talking of tripartite talks, the government, the Tatmadaw and the ethnic groups should be equal partners in negotiations. If the ethnic groups quit, peace will never be achieved. Similarly, if the Tatmadaw objects, the process will stall. So, it is important that the government should have a clear policy to handle this. But frankly speaking, we haven’t seen such a policy so far.
YN: Under the military governments, democracy activists and ethnic groups demanded tripartite talks. And the same demand is being made now. So, optimistically, it is not bad the peace process hasn’t gone backward even if it hasn’t made progress. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that 2017 would be the year of peace.
KMZ: 2018 will also be the year of peace. Unless peace is achieved, every new year will be the year of peace.
YN: Yes, it will be the year of peace until 2019 and beyond, perhaps.
KZM: It is not an easy issue. There were clashes even before independence. It is 70 years now since independence. The legacy of divide-and-rule and colonialism continues to seriously affect the country. Let’s discuss the economy of the country. You have mentioned China’s economic influence. In early 2017, the [commerce] minister compared the economy to a jet plane about to take off. But in December, he admitted that the economy hadn’t pick up as expected. If the economy doesn’t improve, the daily lives of people will be hard. Ko Ye Ni, do you see any good prospects for the country in 2018?
YN: Like the political issues, economic reforms are a long-term process. There are things that have yet to be done. Though the business community and the majority of the people perceive the overall economic landscape as in a downward trend, I personally think the NLD government has managed to implement economic reforms to a certain extent. It has made reforms to clarify the budget, and public financing.
KZM: It has to resolve the entanglements first.
YN: Yes, for example, in her proposal to Parliament, lawmaker Daw Thet Thet Khaing said that some departments have opened their own accounts and do not put their revenues into the state budget. The NLD government has to solve those problems. Last year, as you said, businesspeople were not positive about the economic landscape of the country. The business survey report, jointly released late last year by the UMFCCI (Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry) and (consulting firm) Roland Berger, based on the views of over 500 businesspeople, indicated that investor confidence in Myanmar’s business landscape had significantly declined in 2017 because of a lack of clear economic policy. This shows that the NLD government is under increased pressure to accelerate the economic reforms. It does not have much time left, only two years—2018 and 2019—before the election in 2020. I think, rather than the Rohingya issue and the peace process, economic reform is something for which the NLD government can receive credit in the next two years. So I think it should focus its efforts on it.
KZM: There are a lot of things to discuss. Anyway, to resolve the political, peace, and ethnic issues and the Rakhine problem, everything depends on national reconciliation. The military government ruled for around 50 years, and the new government has ministries controlled by the Tatmadaw. And the military also holds seats in the parliament. So, it seems everything including peace depends on national reconciliation. Ma Nyein Nyein, do you think there are good prospects for national reconciliation? Because the government leaders and Tatmadaw leaders always need to get on; otherwise there is a problem.
NN: Outwardly, the NLD government seems to be trying very hard for national reconciliation. The public perception is that the NLD is trying to get on with the Tatmadaw, but in reality we heard that the Tatmadaw and NLD don’t see eye to eye. The Tatmadaw clings to the 2008 Constitution and doesn’t allow it to be touched. But, when the NLD government took office, it overstepped the boundaries of the 2008 Constitution and established the State Counselor’s Office. Since then, we heard that the relationship between the Tatmadaw and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has stagnated. This has had an impact on the peace process. If there is no coordination between them, either bilateral or tripartite talks will not happen. The NLD government alone can’t make this happen. The government thus may appear biased toward the Tatmadaw; (in contrast) I haven’t heard people say that it is biased towards the ethnic groups. Since it has taken the negotiator role, only when all three sides try together will national reconciliation be possible.
KZM: The problem is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not the de facto leader. Her authority doesn’t reach that level. It’s the same for the president. It is just three years until the 2020 election. The most important thing now is structural reform, and the NLD has a lot to do, such as national reconciliation, constitutional reforms and managing an economic recovery. Do you think it will be able to push forward a democratic transition?
YN: The message from the Tatmadaw so far is that it will not agree to changes in the 2008 Constitution. So the NLD government should take a realistic approach and think about how to accelerate political, economic and social reforms without changing the 2008 Constitution. Considering its capabilities in terms of finance, human capital, expertise and experience over the past two years, I don’t have high expectations for the new government.
KZM: Another thing is our country with a population of 54 million people is beset with problems, troubles and the legacy of colonial rule. Laws enacted in 1920 are still in force. In fact, they are really out of date. Ko Ye Ni, Ma Nyein Nyein, thanks a lot for your contributions. I think our people will be able to overcome (the challenges in) 2018 as they have great resilience. They showed it when the country was hit by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Similarly, they have to address the problems with a similar level of resilience in 2018. Thank you all!