Peace, Charter Reform Take Back Seat as Myanmar President Stresses Social Issues 

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 18 April 2018

YANGON—Myanmar’s new president on Tuesday unveiled his reform agenda for the country, generating cautious optimism with a plan that places an emphasis on boosting living standards and addressing other popular discontents, while downplaying broader political problems such as the country’s moribund peace process and the sensitive issue of amending the Constitution.

In his greetings to the country on Myanmar’s traditional New Year’s Day,  U Win Myint set out his government’s 11-point reform plan. The points include providing affordable housing for civil servants, creating an independent and impartial judiciary, returning confiscated land to its rightful owners, boosting access to credit for small businesses, combating the illegal drug trade, tackling corruption and others.

The president’s New Year’s resolutions come amid criticism of the government, which is led by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, over its failure to jump-start development despite having been in power for more than two years.

Yangon-based political commentator Yan Myo Thein said the president’s priorities represent the realities the country is currently facing.

Notably absent from the policy plan, the commentator said, were the “how-to’s” on Myanmar’s two most challenging issues: striking a peace deal with the country’s ethnic armed groups and amending the Constitution, which currently mandates a significant military presence in Parliament.

The NLD enshrined the search for peace with the armed groups and constitutional amendment in its electoral manifesto. Since coming to power in 2016, the NLD-led government has, at the direction of Daw Aung San Su Kyi, embarked on peace talks with the Army and the ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the Parliament has led the push for fixes to the charter. But two years on, there have been few tangible results on either front.

The lack of any mention of peace or constitutional reform in the president’s speech prompted speculation that the president, the State Counselor and Parliament have decided to divide responsibilities.

Yan Myo Thein said that U Win Myint seems to be fully in charge of administration and national development, with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi likely to be handling the peace process and Parliament working on constitutional amendments.

“Given that she initiated the 21st-Century Panglong Union Peace Conference, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to continue to take a leading role in the country’s peace process,” he said.

On the constitutional changes, the commentator said, dialogue is needed among the key stakeholders including civilians, military and ethnic groups, as the efforts made by Parliament in the past two years have come to nothing.

“Achieving a political agreement between them could overcome the constitutional crisis we now face [while the charter is amended through the parliamentary channel],” he said.

Asked about the president’s focus on land rights, Dr Thaung Tun, one of Myanmar’s leading advocates for farmers’ rights and fair land-use policiessaid he had no doubt that the president had good intentions and the political will to address the pressing issue. The country’s agriculture sector provides jobs to 70 percent of the population, he pointed out.

The president said he would work for the return of farmland confiscated illegally and to ensure that compensation is paid. Regarding confiscated farmland that had not yet been earmarked for return, he vowed an expeditious review of all such land by the various review committees in consultation with state and regional governments, so that all released land could be returned to its original owners.

“But it’s important that he approaches it with the correct strategy,” warned the Peace and Justice Network director.

According to the now-defunct Parliamentary Land Investigation Committee, the military, government and private companies confiscated more than 500,000 acres of land between the 1980s and the early 2000s. 

In 2016, just months after taking office, the NLD-led government formed the Central Committee for Rescrutinizing Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands, chaired by Vice President U Henry van Thio, to investigate land-grab cases.

While it has secured the return of several thousand acres, the committee’s powers are limited. It is purely an investigative body and does not set policy or make decisions. Additionally, some officials accused of involvement in land grabs have served on the committee, Dr. Thaung Tun said.

“It would be more helpful if the president enacted an emergency bill on the land rights issue while granting a mandate [to take action] to lawmakers, local elders and farmers,” he said, explaining that decentralization could also help solve the problem, as it can’t be taken for granted that the “people upstairs” know everything that’s happening on the ground.

President U Win Myint also said his government would “implement reforms without hurting stability”, starting “at the base level which is closest to the people, with whom sovereignty ultimately rests.”

Yan Myo Thein said that if the president is truly interested in bottom-up reform, he needs to listen to voices expressed in the media and social media, and to consult CSOs, in order to learn what is really happening and needed on the ground.

“It’s important that he make an effort to hear those voices,” Yan Myo Thein said. “If he is content to accept rosy information fed to him by his subordinates, he will not achieve the goals he has set.”