Myanmar’s first genuinely democratically elected government in more than half a century is barely a year old but a growing sense of disappointment is already apparent even among the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s most avid supporters.
In a February 26 speech at a memorial ceremony for the party’s fallen top lawyer, Ko Ni, de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi must have sensed the letdown as she appealed to those gathered for patience. At the event, Suu Kyi underlined that her elected government was formed after decades of military rule and that change would take time. “Ten months or a year is not much,” she said. “This is just a short period.”
With her peace process stuck, her political and economic reforms stalled, and international criticism mounting against military rights abuses in ethnic areas across the country, how much time does Suu Kyi and her NLD really have to put their democratic agenda back on track?
Domestically, Suu Kyi has been roundly criticized for mishandling a peace process with the country’s many ethnic armed groups which the previous military-dominated, quasi-civilian government initiated in 2011. Rather than a new approach, Suu Kyi has so far done little more than urge armed groups to sign an elaborate – and many say confusing – ceasefire agreement drawn up under the supervision of the previous military-dominated regime.
Internationally, her perceived as callous attitude towards the suffering of the Muslim Rohingya minority in western Myanmar has come under severe scrutiny, as United Nations investigators and human rights organizations have documented serious human rights violations committed by the Myanmar army in the remote area. Nor is the economy doing particularly well, with foreign investment commitments down and poverty as widespread as ever.
To be sure, popular expectations were unrealistically high when voters danced in the streets of the main city Yangon on November 8, 2015 as it became apparent the NLD had scored a landslide victory in Myanmar’s first democratic election in decades. Many citizens literally expected miracles of governance when Suu Kyi and the NLD were installed in power after decades of military misrule.
The political reality, however, has been more prosaic. That is in large part because the three most important ministries in government are still controlled by the military, which appoints the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs. The home ministry, in turn, maintains control over the powerful General Administration Department, which appoints civil servants at all levels of government across the country.
“She should have brought in an entirely new team here in Naypyidaw,” said a government insider speaking on condition of anonymity from the secluded national capital. “Instead, she has kept the old bureaucracy, including the permanent secretaries in the ministries. And they are competent in running a rigid military-controlled system, not a government that’s accountable to the public.”
The same insider says it has been “a slow slog against the power of the cronies,” reference to the military-aligned businessmen that still dominate nearly all aspects of the economy. Nor has the NLD promoted policies to lure in badly needed foreign capital. In comparison, when Vietnam liberalized its economy to foreign investment in the 1990s, one of the first decisions it took was to allow foreign banks to establish operations that facilitates bricks and mortar investments like factories, offices and hotels.
In Myanmar, foreign banks have been awarded licenses but are highly restricted in the transactions they can handle. As such, the financial sector remains in the hands of a group of mostly military-connected businessmen. It is unclear if the foreign banking restrictions are deliberate or oversight, as the restrictions have helped to stall several environmentally and politically sensitive large-scale mining projects and hydro-electric power schemes.
The main issue hobbling Suu Kyi and the NLD, however, is the imbalance of power between the elected government and autonomous military, analysts say. “What we have seen is not a transformation to democracy or even a process leading to democracy but the emergence of a hybrid system where the government is in charge of day-to-day duties and the military hold effective power over the administration,” says a local political scientist who requested anonymity.
Rather than a functioning relationship, as it has been described in some international media, there is still a large degree of mutual suspicion. According to the Naypyidaw insider, the military knows that Suu Kyi could, if deemed necessary, mobilize tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people to the streets, a scenario the military clearly aims to avoid. At the same time, Suu Kyi and her NLD government know that they have to work with the military if they want even their modest reforms to be implemented.
While many feel she should push back more firmly against the military, Suu Kyi apparently senses she must tread carefully to maintain balance and stability. NLD lawyer Ko Ni was the only prominent party member who took a more assertive approach — and he was murdered in broad daylight outside Yangon’s international airport. The NLD’s president’s office released a statement that said a retired lieutenant colonel, still at large, was suspected of paying for the assassination.
Under the current 2008 constitution, which was drafted under military auspices and approved in a farcical referendum, more than 75% of all parliamentarians must vote in favor of any charter changes. With the military directly appointing 25% of all lawmakers, any proposed amendments that aimed to trim the military’s power or interests are thus unlikely to ever pass.
Ko Ni, however, had argued in private discussions that there is no provision in the 2008 constitution that says it cannot be abolished outright by a simple majority vote in parliament, a loophole the military’s drafters apparently overlooked. It is widely known that Ko Ni was quietly working on a new progressive constitution that could have been quickly adopted in such a scenario when he was shot and killed.
With Suu Kyi’s government hamstrung by parliament and the bureaucracy to implement reforms — and with support for the NLD on the wane among the country’s many ethnic minorities who still face deprivation and conflict under her democratic rule — the military appears to be preparing for a political comeback at the next general election scheduled for 2020.
Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will by then have retired and is apparently already angling to run for the presidency or vice presidency under the military’s United Solidarity and Development Party’s (USDP) banner. Even though Min Aung Hlaing’s military has been subject to widespread criticism of rights abuses, he has managed to engage the international community and is viewed by many as more open and approachable than previous commanders.
Suu Kyi can not be held solely responsible for her government’s inability to quickly forge a prosperous new Myanmar. The military, over which she wields no power, has successfully torpedoed her peace drive through renewed offensives against ethnic armed groups and stifled reforms through its hold on the bureaucracy. That resistance has undercut Suu Kyi’s popular support and could boost the USDP’s, or any other military-backed political party’s, prospects at the next polls.
If those tactics are sustained and Suu Kyi fails to achieve the democratic reform, economic progress and national unity many voters expected of her elected NLD government, it is possible that her long awaited rule will be a fleeting, ineffectual interlude in a country that’s politics have been dominated by soldiers for more than half a century.