One Year On, Has the NLD Failed to Live up to Expectations?

By The Irrawaddy 29 March 2017

RANGOON—When the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government was sworn in on March 30 last year, Burma was elated.

Families crowded in front of televisions to witness the live broadcast of the historic event. People hosted street parties in cities, towns, and villages across the country to celebrate the new NLD government. Congratulatory banners for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Htin Kyaw were hung between buildings.

What lay beneath the people’s jubilation was a hope to see their lives improve. They had been longing for a clean, corruption-free government. They were sick of fighting between ethnic armed groups and the military in border areas.

In a nutshell, the people wanted Burma to develop.

Today, the reality is that many of the issues facing the current administration—which, admittedly, in large are the legacy of Burma’s previous governments—are testing the NLD’s political mettle. The new government has received mixed reviews.

Although the government succeeded in having US sanctions lifted and inked international business concessions, the economy remains fragile.

Ongoing conflicts waged by the Burma Army against ethnic armed groups in the country’s north, and accusations of human rights abuses against the Rohingya in the west, serve as grim reminders of the limits Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has on reining in Burma’s powerful military.

One day shy of the first anniversary of taking office, the NLD government is receiving varied reactions on their progress. Yet some say they still believe things will be better in years to come, despite recent failures.

Nang Seng Lao of the Tai Youth Network, a nationwide Shan youth organization, said she was disappointed with the NLD government’s failure to prevent frequent fighting in Shan State, which has caused civilian deaths and displacement.

“I understand it takes time to solve some issues, but the government should have prioritized cases that damage people’s lives,” said the central executive member of the network.

Before the NLD took office, Nang Seng Lao said she had fully believed the government would stand with the people, as it was elected by the people.

“What I’m sure of is that people in Shan State suffered under the previous government. They are suffering now as well. But I have to say we are hopeful, as this is the people’s government,” she said.

Despite vowing to improve adherence to the rule of law, the government is yet to impress people with tangible results in this regard.

U Pe Than, an Arakan National Party lawmaker, said the government has failed the people on this issue, pointing to both the assassination NLD legal adviser U Ko Ni at Yangon International Airport in January and a rise in rape cases.

The director of Legal Clinic Myanmar Daw Hla Hla Yi, however, claimed that the NLD government has given more space to civil society organizations and lawmakers to raise questions and discuss the judiciary, despite the government’s inability to fully implement rule of law and justice.

“There are many things the government can’t make happen in the space of one year,” she said. “But they still need to make sure that law enforcement actors are free of corruption to implement rule of law.”

When people turned up at polling stations in November 2015, 77 percent of them cast their votes for the NLD. They said they believed in the party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and held high hopes for change.

After more than one year, the party has maintained popular support strong enough to rebuild a country impoverished by a decades-long military dictatorship, said U Aung Moe Zaw of the Democratic Party for Myanmar New Society.

But the chairman said the country’s leadership is failing to use this support wisely.

“We have seen no improvements in peace, people’s daily lives, nor any attempts to amend the 2008 Constitution [drafted by the military regime and widely criticized as undemocratic],” he said.

“They need to check themselves seriously. If not, the people’s support will be drained in the future,” he added.

Despite the lifting of US sanctions last year, foreign investment in the country has not increased; rather it is set to drop by some 30 per cent in the fiscal year ending March 31, according to the World Bank. Economic growth will slow to 6.5 percent during the same period, the World Bank predicts.

Dr. Maung Maung Lay, the vice chairman of The Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said businesspeople are treading very carefully as administrative mechanisms as well as management of the government are still not in good shape in spite of the government’s reforms and collaborations with private businessmen.

“It’s a long road to make things right as we haven’t had proper systems in place for three or four decades,” he said, adding that some of the government’s actions could be seen as askew with democratic norms.

“It will take time to overcome this. But I have to say there will be agreement [between the government and business community] gradually,” he added.

For all the public disappointment expressed, NLD secretariat member U Win Htein remains optimistic.

“I think Burma will be out of poverty within a year,” he said during an interview with Radio Free Asia last week, reasoning that the US sanction lift will lead to direct trade with the United States and EU countries.

The World Bank, however, said that Burma’s national poverty rate was 37.5 percent in 2014. The latest available figures mark urban poverty at a “surprisingly high” 34 percent.

Ending poverty is extremely difficult, with even wealthy countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom recording poverty rates in the region of 15 percent.

He claimed that “having a pure civilian government” was a significant change and boasted that during its first term, the NLD government has proved itself to the least corrupted government Burma has seen.

This is supported by the fact that so far no senior government official has been charged with corruption under the NLD.

U Win Htein also admitted that implementation of some government actions was hampered by permanent secretaries and top officials appointed by the previous government, who remain resistant to change. “They do what we want in our presence but do something different when we turn our back.’

“They are like old horses trained by previous people. We are the new jockeys riding old horses, trying very hard to take them in the direction we want. It’s annoying,” he explained.

He said the NLD government has been patient with them, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t want to kick them out as they had contributed something good to the country—to some extent—in the past.

“We are trying to take the situation under control without causing a frenzy,” he said.

(Htet Naing Zaw, Zue Zue, and Myo Pa Pa San contributed to the report)