As the first year of its tenure has come to a close, many continue to question whether Burma’s elected civilian-led government has managed to accomplish its aims, or if in this regard, it has failed.
One certain thing we have witnessed is that the government led by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still struggling to bring about peace, national reconciliation and create a democratic federal Union, as well as increase economic growth and development in the country, which has been left in disarray after more than 50 years of military dictatorship.
I think that the most valuable thing that the majority of Burmese people can still appreciate within this government—in comparison to former administrations—is that its ministers are still “corruption-free” one year on.
Under the previous quasi-civilian regime led by ex-general U Thein Sein, a persistent fear was whether the reform process—led by former military men—could potentially reverse at any given time.
That nightmare vanished along with U Thein Sein’s administration after the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office on March 30, 2016. Since then, the NLD’s successes and failures have been explored concerning its capacity, policies, leadership style, inevitable legacies, and the continued existence of dark elements in the country.
Burma is still suffering from many of the problems inherited from the past. A 70-year civil war continues. The military—the country’s most powerful institution—still calls the shots on conflict with ethnic armed groups.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said: “They [the military] are free to go in and fight. And of course that is in the Constitution. Military matters are to be left to the army. That’s why we are trying to change the Constitution. Amending the Constitution is one of our aims.”
One of the biggest challenges for the NLD government is still the 2008 charter drafted by the previous military regime, which guarantees the political power of the military in the government with three key ministerial positions—defense, home and border affairs—and 25 percent of all legislative seats reserved for military appointees.
That’s why one of the NLD’s main aims is to adopt a Constitution which “ensures that all the people of our country can live together in tranquility and security,” according to its 2015 election manifesto.
The NLD faces resistance on multiple fronts to their vision of change. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, is always in a position to fight the NLD’s attempts to amend the current Constitution or adopt a new one. After all, the military’s main stated duty is to safeguard the Constitution, according to Chapter 1, the Basic Principles of the Union. This also states that the country’s “consistent objectives” include “enabling the Defence Services to be able to participate in the National political leadership role of the State.”
Regarding the peace process—a priority of the NLD government—the military’s offensives were disruptive, as the State Counselor told the BBC. But the current Constitution prevents the NLD from reining in the army at all.
The NLD government has still not managed to convince the military leadership to collaborate with the government regarding armed conflict that has intensified since their administration came to power.
There is also a certain persistence of unofficial or unlawful resistance to the NLD, which could be classified as “dark elements” likely comprised of radical groups or members of old establishments.
Among them are those who assassinated NLD legal adviser U Ko Ni in broad daylight outside Yangon International Airport in January. U Ko Ni was strongly advocating for the amendment of the Constitution or the adoption of a new one. Most of those suspected of involvement in his murder are ex-military officials. Some critics think that the killing is a setback to the NLD government; others see it as an act of sabotage by those who have disdain for the NLD’s political vision.
The State Counselor’s policy to prioritize national reconciliation with the military and the old establishment has arguably incapacitated her government. When the NLD formed its government, it allowed high-ranking officials from the previous regime, like directors and permanent secretaries of the ministries, to retain their positions. Most of them are ex-military officials, and there have been reports that some have blocked mechanisms that the new government hopes to implement.
Another particularly tragic legacy is the crisis surrounding the Rohingya in Arakan State. The problem dates back decades, and consecutive governments, including the administration headed by U Thein Sein, turned a blind eye to reports of abuse, rather than identifying solutions and responses. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has faced international criticism for failing to take action against government security forces for human rights abuses against the Rohingya. If Burma’s security personnel committed the atrocities which rights groups have accused them of, her government must punish them according to the law.
These are some of the most difficult obstacles that need to be overcome in order to bring radical change to the country.
Yet these aforementioned challenges do not stand in the way of the NLD government improving the education, economic and legal sectors, if the political will is there. There are many areas where the government, as well as the NLD-dominated parliaments, can potentially make positive changes.
Here’s one political misstep which could serve as an important lesson for the NLD—call it a bridge lesson.
The result of the by-election held on April 1 indicated how the ruling party’s popularity had declined in ethnic constituencies. This differed from results of previous elections in 1990, 2012 and 2015 in which the NLD contested. In those elections, the NLD won by a landslide nationwide, including in most ethnic constituencies.
Out of 18 constituencies—out of 19 available seats—where the NLD contested in this year’s by-elections, it won only nine seats, two of which were in ethnic constituencies in Shan and Chin states. In the remaining nine seats in ethnic constituencies, the NLD was defeated.
In Shan State, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy—which was an NLD ally in the 1990 election—won six seats. The victory of Arakanese politician U Aye Maung in Arakan State’s Ann Township was not surprising, as the NLD won a minority of seats in the state in the 2015 election.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was formed by the military and defeated by the NLD in the 2015 general elections, won two seats—one each in Mon and Shan states.
The victory of the USDP in Chaungzon Township in Mon State was likely a result of the NLD’s missteps in ignoring local people’s desires. The NLD took advantage of its position in the Union Parliament to name a bridge in the township after the late Burmese independence icon Gen Aung San, while many of local Mon people wanted it to be called the Salween Bridge (Chaungzon), referring to the river that it spans and the area in which it is located. The NLD was later defeated in this constituency, where it had won in the 2015 general elections.
The NLD leadership believed that resistance against the government’s move to name the bridge after Aung San was organized by its opponents and radical Buddhist monks. But even though it was true that the resistance was politically motivated by NLD opposition, the leadership should have understood that many locals viewed the NLD’s tactics in naming the bridge as coercive measures. Thousands of ethnic Mon protested against the NLD’s bringing of the issue to the national Parliament, rather than allowing it to be addressed locally. They argued that the NLD did not honor the autonomy of ethnic people even on the matter of naming a bridge.
The defeat of the NLD in Chaungzon is therefore a great lesson for the NLD nationally, even though it is not a national issue.
Camaraderie vs. Alienation
Many of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s long-term supporters, including veteran activists from the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and ethnic forces, feel that she, her party and her government have intentionally or unintentionally politically alienated them.
Some have described being marginalized, rather than treated with the camaraderie they had expected from an NLD-led administration. That’s one of the failures of the NLD and its government’s stance regarding some of its key allies: one year on, she should have much greater support nationwide. Better relations with ethnic leaders, for example, would help in efforts toward achieving peace, as well. It is not wrong to treat friends as friends.
On March 30, on the day marking the first anniversary of the NLD government’s time in office, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in her State of the Union speech that she had changed her party’s slogan from “Time for Change” to “Together with the People.”
But the incident surrounding Chaungzon Bridge obviously contrasts with the message “together with the people,” as does the alienation she employs as part of her leadership style.
The State Counselor admitted in her speech that some of her ministers have been inactive and some are not in the right positions. Regarding these cases, the government will make necessary changes, she added.
As she said, one year is not a long period of time for a government to do its work. But it is now time for the NLD administration to fix their political missteps, unpopular policies and controversial leadership style. It is time for a reshuffle of the cabinet. The State Counselor must axe incapable ministers and high-ranking officials and replace them with those who can make her government more competent.
The remaining four years of its tenure is not much time for a government to overhaul a country caught in such a great mess. The NLD’s term from 2016 to 2021 is a time in which to build a foundation from which those in power can confront the unwanted legacies of military rule, and establish laws and regulations to forge a solid path for a new country.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition.