YANGON — Two years ago, on Nov. 8, 2015, a majority of Myanmar voters gave the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi a mandate to form a new government, amid much speculation over what changes the party would bring to the country after nearly six decades of rule by the military and its proxy party.
That mandate saw an NLD-dominated Parliament convene on Feb. 1, 2016, and the country’s first NLD-led government sworn in on March 30 of the same year.
The NLD got off to a good start, releasing hundreds of political prisoners — including detained student activists — downsizing ministries, scrapping oppressive laws that had long been used by military rulers to jail political dissidents, amending other controversial laws and issuing guidelines limiting the gifts civil servants may receive.
Well-known human rights activist U Aung Myo Min from the rights group Equality Myanmar said the legal amendments introduced during the period were mostly satisfactory.
“In the legislature, we have seen lawmakers become more active, with more discussions on how to change repressive laws and enact new laws in Parliament,” the activist said.
Parliament revoked the 1975 State Protection Law and the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act — which were widely used to jail individual political dissidents under successive military administrations.
It also abolished provisions of the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law requiring citizens to report overnight guests to authorities. The measures had been used to hunt down political activists.
Parliament is also working to revise the 1993 Child Law and to enact a long-awaited bill that would take steps to protect women against violence.
Ko Htin Kyaw Aye, a research director at Open Myanmar Initiative, a think-tank and research center monitoring Parliament, told The Irrawaddy last month, “The NLD’s political objective seems to be to increase citizens’ rights in general.” The researcher cited the party’s enactment of a new law protecting citizens’ privacy and security, and an amendment to the telecoms law enacted in response to calls from the media and rights groups.
Ma Mie Mie, a former political prisoner and member of student activist group 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, credited the executive branch with achieving some improvements in health care. The NLD has increased health spending since taking office.
On her government’s first anniversary, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi cited this significant progress in the public health care sector, adding that the international community had acknowledged it.
She said significant progress had been made in the fight against three diseases: tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. Myanmar, once ranked near the bottom in terms of global efforts to fight against the three diseases, is now near the top, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said.
The Global Fund established to fight the three diseases has commended Myanmar’s achievements in this area and pledged US$500 million to fund the effort for the next three years.
During the government’s first year, the State Counselor said that the aspect of the administration’s track record she was most proud of was the fact that her ministers were free of corruption.
The country’s de facto leader has repeatedly spoken out publicly against corruption and called for the public to submit complaints against corrupt government officials, ensuring the confidentiality of all submissions.
However, former Yangon Regional lawmaker Dr. Nyo Nyo Thin has accused the government of failing to effectively tackle corruption, with graft reportedly still rampant in the lower levels of the administration.
“Despite their vow to tackle bribery, the new government has yet to replace members of the anti-corruption commission whose terms expired along with that of the ex-president,” Dr. Nyo Nyo Thin said.
Political commentator Dr. Yan Myo Thein added that the NLD-led government had failed to improve the economy during the past more than one-and-a-half years.
U Ye Min Oo, a member of the NLD’s economic committee, responded that the economy had been in decline since 2014. Between 2015 and 2016, as the election was held and the new government assumed power, investors and business owners adopted a wait-and-see approach, he said.
In 2016 and 2017, the new government was preoccupied with downsizing the number of ministries from 36 to 21, and couldn’t focus much on economic development, and thus the economy continued to deteriorate, he said.
He added that the unexpected escalation of unrest in Rakhine State, where the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched organized attacks against military targets on Aug. 25, had some economic consequences as well.
While the crisis hasn’t had a direct impact on businesses, as the area affected by the conflict was limited, it had influenced international opinion and that had consequences for investment flows into the country, he said.
“[The economic decline] didn’t just start under the NLD. It has been going on for years. Commodity prices didn’t fall; they increased every year. But we need to manage the increases to support income generation for businesses in the country,” U Ye Min Oo said.
At the same time, he acknowledged the need to strengthen the rule of law in the country, saying that economic development required the support of a robust legal system.
“The rule of law needs to be the same for all, including for those who have a duty to maintain it, and action needs to be taken against those who break it. But I have seen an inconsistent approach to this issue among those [in positions of authority].”
NLD Yangon Regional lawmaker Ma Kyi Pyar lamented there had been no significant improvement in the judicial system.
She said the Rakhine crisis had also slowed the government’s work in other sectors. She stressed that the country “is still in a period of struggle,” noting how cabinet ministers had to cope with an old bureaucracy inherited from former governments while trying to strictly follow the new government’s policies.
“If you asked me whether I am satisfied, I am and the nation is too. Because the party that [the people] wished to see win, won,” U Ye Min Oo said.
He said people enjoyed more freedom under the civilian government than during the years of military rule, which could be seen in both the mainstream media and social media, where people are not afraid to criticize government officials.
Several people interviewed by The Irrawaddy shared the view that the Constitution remained a major barrier to developing the country’s democracy.
Dr. Nyo Nyo Thin said the NLD-led government had failed to deliver on election promises to the people, including amendments to the Constitution.
Political analyst U Maung Maung Soe concurred: “I don’t see much to be satisfied with — only the fact that a civilian government took power,” he said.
“It is good to see a civilian government after the junta had ruled for so long. But in reality, the military remains a powerful influence under the 2008 Constitution.”
Constitutional reform is no easy task for the NLD, as the military — the country’s most powerful institution — sees its main duty as safeguarding the charter, which guarantees that it maintains an important leadership role.
Constitutionally, 25 percent of seats in all national and regional parliaments are reserved for the military. It also holds three key ministerial portfolios — Defense, Home and Border Affairs — and appoints a vice president.
Prior to the election the NLD pushed to amend the undemocratic, military-drafted Constitution through a nationwide signature campaign that collected more than 5 million signatures. In Parliament, it has proposed changes to the constitutional article that gives the military veto power over proposed amendments to the charter and to the article barring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.
Both of these efforts have been thwarted by the military. Nonetheless, the NLD has vowed to reform the Constitution before the current government’s term expires in 2020.
Myanmar still has many hurdles to overcome to achieve full-fledged democracy, U Maung Maung Soe said, adding that without constitutional amendments to bring the charter in line with democratic norms, it will be hard to move forward to the democratic federal union the NLD promised to establish.