The now governing National League for Democracy (NLD), in conjunction with the powerful Myanmar army which controls three key cabinet posts and has a lock on constitutional change, has faced a series of problems inherited from the failure of previous governments to resolve the country’s myriad, and seemingly irresolvable, problems. The NLD has been hampered not only by a bureaucracy which is staffed at senior levels by former army officers, but also by the lack of government experience on the part of any of its members. Born as a protest against military rule, the party never articulated a programme, other than a nebulous call for ‘democracy’, or a strategy for the implementation of reforms.
The ability of the government to function effectively is further hampered by the rather imperious and increasingly remote and isolated position of the de facto leader of the country, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now 72 years old. Rarely seen at meetings which are not scripted in advance, giving no press conferences, and avoiding public events where she could face criticism both domestically and internationally, she has become rather like the former dictator, General Ne Win, dependent on a small circle of advisors. Many of these served in former military governments and the modus operandi of the government looks much like of previous regimes. Appointing a committee of ministers, deputy ministers and other officials, chaired by Suu Kyi, is seen as the solution to problems such as those of the refugees from northern Rakhine State to the neighbouring province of Chittagong in Bangladesh. Reports on progress are read and then the committee adjourns and each of the ministries continues to function with little coordination among them.
The ability of the government to function effectively is further hampered by the rather imperious and increasingly remote and isolated position of the de facto leader of the country…
While there is talk of new leadership coming to the fore in the NLD, there is little evidence of this. The new president, 66-year old U Win Myint, is unlikely to question decisions made by Suu Kyi and until she retires or otherwise passes from the scene, the party will be very much one dominated by one person. Whether it can survive without her remains in doubt. Within the government, the party has very little role as many ministers and other senior appointments have come from apolitical technocratic or business backgrounds and even legislation is reviewed in advance of it being considered by the legislature by a committee lead by the unelected former number three in the pre-2011 military junta, U Shwe Mann.
Given its weak and inexperienced nature, the NLD is in no position to challenge the army’s power. Similarly, as long as the NLD does nothing to undermine the military’s financial and security interests, it is unlikely to want to return to running the government in its own name. A modus vivendi has been established between the army and the civilian administration which is in the continuing interest of both sides.
The uncertainty that the new administration has demonstrated, coupled with negative publicity and criticism abroad, has not encouraged major foreign investment in the past two years. While the economy continues to grow from a very low base, the pace is nothing like that of other developing South East Asian countries at Myanmar’s stage of growth. Reforms have been slow, and the ease of doing business is still one of the worst in the region. Reforms in other areas, such as freedom of the press and workers’ and peasants’ rights, for which the previous Thein Sein government was praised, have halted and in some ways been reversed. As the military remains in control of the Home Ministry as well as Border Affairs and Defence, there is little the elected parts of the government can do about this failing wholesale judicial reform.
The peace process between the government and the myriad ethnic armed groups which have been in conflict with the army for decades has made little progress over the past two years.
Conflict has occurred not only in northern Rakhine State but also along the Chinese border in the north of the country. While the Rakhine issues appear to separate from the larger and longer armed conflict elsewhere in the country, all of the conflicts are multifaceted and interrelated. Also, there are conflicts between the various armed ethnic groups as well as alliances, temporary and more permanent, between them. Since 2012 and the breakdown of the ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the government army over the failure of the KIA to come under government control as border guards and the denial of the right of its civilian wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, to stand in elections, fighting has been most intense along the Chinese border.
Unlike the previously most troubled border, that of Thailand, or the relatively peaceful Indian border, the conflict on the Chinese border generates a belief in Myanmar that China is once more pursuing duplicitous policies toward Myanmar, facilitating smuggling and aiding ethnic armed groups but publicly supporting the government while exploiting the country’s natural resources, particularly timber and natural gas. Whatever the role of outside interests in keeping alive Myanmar’s ethnic strife, as long as the ethnic armed groups refuse to demobilise, disarm and reintegrate into civil society, the minimal position of the army in the peace process, failing their military defeat, the low level conflict will continue interminably.
* This post has been published as part of a series of papers that were presented at the LSE Southeast Asia Forum (SEAF) in May 2018. This annual event provides a unique opportunity to engage with Southeast Asia’s most critical issues, network with renowned experts and participate in high-level debate. For more information, please click here.
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.