Days of Discontent

By The Irrawaddy 30 March 2017

RANGOON — Burma’s first civilian government since 1962 is facing growing discontent at home and abroad. One year has passed since the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led administration was sworn in and serious soul searching by its leaders is urgently needed.

That is, if government leaders are actually willing to listen to the people who pinned all their hopes on them and elected them to office.

The country’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her cabinet ministers need to seriously tackle the country’s ills and work to repair past mistakes and blunders. If not, they will face tougher opposition as Burma’s people become disillusioned.

Under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, the conflict in Burma’s North has intensified and confidence and trust between the State Counselor and ethnic leaders has greatly eroded. She has alienated ethnic groups and, as a result, the peace process is on the verge of derailment. When taking office, she claimed achieving peace was a priority of her government.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s relations with the Burma Army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing are strained and her perceived lack of action to fix the country’s sluggish economy has increased widespread dissatisfaction.

Understandably, people are disappointed. But that doesn’t mean the public are unsympathetic. Many people understand that the new civilian government has faced daunting challenges as it inherited a country that languished under decades of repressive and corrupt military dictatorship.

Many NLD supporters have expressed concerns about the current state of affairs in good faith. They want this government to succeed and to move the country forward, as does the international community.

Once considered a darling of the West for her relentless pursuit of democratic reform in Burma, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi now faces an almost daily onslaught from international media.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s international image suffered a heavy blow when the UN reported evidence of crimes against humanity committed against Rohingya Muslims in northern Arakan State.

Burma’s democracy hero has appeared powerless to stop government security forces committing atrocities. Meanwhile, many people in Burma do not accept the Rohingya as one of Burma’s ethnic groups, insisting that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and referring to them as “Bengali.”

The government’s lack of a clear economic policy and the appointment of loyal but ineffective cabinet ministers have caused concern among the business community inside and outside of Burma. Ministers have been accused of lacking experience and having no vision to push their ministries in a productive direction.

Burma is located between two giant neighbors, China and India, and it has great potential to move forward. But the economy is slowing and there is little action to intervene from those supposedly running the country.

Worryingly, under the democratically elected government, arrests and detention of critics, journalists, and activists have continued as both the military and the civilian government increasingly turn to the draconian Article 66(d) of Burma’s Telecommunications Act.

Government leaders have been accused of being media shy and even lacking respect for the media. They forget that it was local and independent media that played a major role in 2015’s historic elections.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her “puppet” president U Htin Kyaw, and other senior government leaders have failed to hold one press conference in the first year of taking office.

Pundits have been questioning what has gone wrong with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and its policies: Was the NLD unprepared or did its leaders lose their vision and become complacent?

There is growing criticism the State Counselor acts haughtily and views herself as above others—including both political opposition members and important allies. She has burned a number of bridges and caused allies to flee.

Perhaps, as the daughter of Gen Aung San—independence hero, politician, and founding father of Burma’s armed forces—she feels entitled to solve the country’s issues and assumes everybody will follow her.

But this is not the case. She is not Gen Aung San and she has no control over the armed forces. There is a structural problem with Burma’s government—the military continues to control the key ministries of defense, home, and border affairs, as well as 25 percent of seats in all parliaments and the all-powerful General Administration Department.

In the eyes of some businesspeople and politicians, the NLD is operating a caretaker government with little executive power.

Members of the public, particularly everyday people such as farmers and workers, have not witnessed significant change in the first year of the new government.

It is time to stop living under the illusion that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government will match expectations and bring about miraculous, concrete, change. It is time instead to ask the government to act decisively, and it is time to hold it accountable for its mistakes.

If the government has the will to listen, it will review its year of shabby governance, shake up its cabinet, and change its direction.

Living in blind hope for what the State Counselor and her government can achieve must stop here.