RANGOON — Ethnic conflict, national reconciliation, rampant corruption, runaway inflation and a judicial system under the thumb of entrenched interests.
All these challenges and more will face the next government, which will be sworn in next March and almost certainly steered by Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), after that party’s landslide sector.
Though people remain hopeful of what the next year may bring, many believe the sheer scale of political and economic problems will be too great for the next government to address all at once.
For Dr. Soe Tun, the joint secretary of the Myanmar Rice Federation, a radical overhaul of the country’s economic policies has reached the point of critical urgency.
“Everybody here wants to see good changes in every sector,” he told The Irrawaddy.
With 70 percent of Burma’s population living in rural areas, Soe Tun said that any improvement to local livelihoods must be underpinned by reforms to the country’s agricultural sector. He said he approved of the NLD’s agricultural policy, which gives farmers full freedom over crop production, reforms credit policies, and strives to improve market access for smaller landowners.
“The policy sounds great,” he said. “But I wonder who will implement the policy and to what extent. Given what happened in the past, we Burmese are weak in implementing policies that look good on paper. I hope the new government will be able to make it happen.”
Dr Than Min Htut, a township medical officer from Pindaya in Southern Shan State, said the government needed to prioritize a health insurance scheme for the country to lift the dismal standards of Burma’s healthcare and hospitals.
“Burma is 190th in the WHO’s health system ranking, due to the lack of health insurance system here,” he said. “If we have such a system, the situation will improve quite a lot. That’s what I hope for from the new government.”
Than Min Htut said that the current government’s allocation of US$757 million for the health system in the 2015-16 fiscal year—a 6.8 percent increase from the previous year—had done little to improve patient outcomes.
“The increase in the health budget is to build more hospitals and clinics, but with no more human resources for us,” he said. “The survey on budget spending shows the budget mostly benefited construction companies close to the authorities.”
For May Sabe Phyu, a human rights activist and co-founder of the Kachin Peace Network, any fruits of political and economic reform are unlikely to reach Burma’s periphery unless there is a lasting peace deal between the government and ethnic armed groups.
“I believe that without internal peace, nothing else can be achieved,” she said.
Since the Thein Sein government took power in 2011, her native Kachin State has seen intermittent fighting between government’s troops and the Kachin Independence Army, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands of others from their homes. Fresh clashes also broke out in early October between the military and insurgents in northern Shan State.
The NLD has pledged that internal peace and the formation of a federal democratic union will be its first priority in government. So far Suu Kyi has sought meetings with Thein Sein and military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, but has yet to meet with ethnic organizations.
“I wonder if we ethnic people are included in the national reconciliation she is looking for,” May Sabe Phyu asked.
“Take the fighting in Kachin and Shan States. The army does not seem willing to negotiate with ethnic groups. What if the NLD can’t prevent the army’s attack on ethnics? Given the current situation, we do not dare openly expect for change. Perhaps we have suffered for too a long time.”
Dr Khin Zaw Win, the director of Tampadipa Institute think tank, said it would be very difficult for the NLD to meet all the expectations vested in it by the people of Burma.
“They have put all of their hopes in them,” he said. “The NLD can’t alone solve all of these problems. They may need to form a grand coalition with the opposition, ethnic parties and some technocrats to take care of these issues. They have to make the most of their five-year term as best as they can,” he said.
Win Htein, an NLD spokesman and member of the party’s central executive committee, said his party was aware of the public’s expectations but declined to comment further, pointing to the ‘sensitivity of the current situation’ during the political transition.
“If we say something wrong now, the other side will misunderstand us. So far we haven’t got meetings with U Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing,” he told The Irrawaddy. “Only after the meetings can we guess what lies ahead.”