Burma’s 100 Days

By The Irrawaddy 11 July 2016

Following decades of military rule, Burma elected its first civilian government, led by President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, in a landslide election in November. But everyone knows who is actually calling the shots in the country’s awkward political strucutre. It is Suu Kyi who is above the president.

Over the past three months, Suu Kyi’s grip on power has become more visible and public support has remained strong, despite activists questioning her authoritarian style, selection of unqualified cabinet ministers and sluggish performance.

Pundits have started looking critically at the new government’s policies, performance and implementation process. In spite of high hopes, political momentum is stagnating as people begin to grasp the extent of the challenges lying ahead.

The government set national reconciliation and peace in the war-torn country as one of its top priorities. Suu Kyi’s main focus thus far has been on preparations for the upcoming national peace conference scheduled for late August.

The upcoming event has been branded the “21st Century Panglong Conference,” in homage to the Panglong Agreement of 1947—signed by Suu Kyi’s father Aung San and leaders from Shan, Kachin and Chin minority groups on the eve of Burma’s independence and regarded for its sprit of inclusivity and ethnic cooperation. Independence hero Gen Aung San, of the ethnic Burman majority, was highly respected and admired by some of the ethnic minority groups at the time.

The original agreement envisaged “full autonomy in internal administration” for Burma’s ethnic minority “frontier” regions. Like her father, few have questioned Suu Kyi’s sincerity regarding her promise to build a federal union in an ethnically diverse country.

She has peace, and her own legacy, on her mind throughout the current term. She is here to carry on the unfinished mission started by her father and the good news is that this administration faces less distrust than the previous one.

However, fighting continues on the ground in northern Burma. China—one of the key players and biggest investors in Burma—in particular has played a dubious role in the country’s ongoing civil war, as it supports several armed groups, including the powerful United Wa State Army in Shan State.

Ethnic armed groups that refused to sign last year’s nationwide ceasefire agreement with the previous government have expressed interest in participating in the peace conference but doubts of an inclusive ceasefire agreement remain.

The participation of three ethnic armed groups in particular—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army—remains an open question, although official invitations have been extended to them. Burma’s powerful army is still reluctant to open the door to them—as they are all engaged in active hostilities with the Burma Army—but has recently shown signs of flexibility in regards to their inclusion.

Aside from Suu Kyi, the military will be a key player in negotiations with ethnic minority groups. The question is: how are they going to play alongside Suu Kyi?

This is the first time Burma has seen an elected civilian government since 1962. But it lacks full control. The military-drafted 2008 Constitution is still in place and 25 percent of parliamentary seats remain reserved for military appointees, giving them veto power over constitutional amendments. The armed forces also maintain control of three important ministries: home affairs, defense and border affairs.

Critics say the new government is unprepared and performance has so far been mixed. Alarmingly, there is still no clarity regarding the new administration’s economic policy, causing frustration among businessmen and investors, both local and foreign.

Thanks to reforms initiated under former President Thein Sein, the country continues to enjoy relative freedom and democracy, although peace and prosperity have yet to be achieved and some radical religious groups remain active.

Burmese citizens wish the new administration considerable success in its first term: achieving peace and prosperity and growing to be an active player in the region.