Myanmar suffered a kind of paralysis in 2017. Bureaucracies ground to a crawl; the economy teetered; forward momentum on democratization ceased.
When the Rohingya crisis exploded in August, all the worst tendencies and choices of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government were exacerbated and intensified, a trend expected to carry over into 2018.
This year will likely see a reduction in the intensity of the Rohingya crisis, though it will remain firmly in the global consciousness after last year’s mass exodus of over 600,000 refugees.
Attention will be drawn to the crisis whenever nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) publish reports, inter-communal violence erupts, diplomatic incidents occur or insurgent attacks are perpetrated, as was the case on Friday when Rohingya fighters ambushed a military truck in western Rakhine state.
This will continue to take up the attention of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, a problem given how centralized government has become during her tenure.
Put simply, she has turned her State Counselor’s Office into something of a bottleneck and the pressures of the Rohingya crisis have disproportionately taken up her government’s bandwidth.
This has meant less focus on pressing and sometimes solvable problems the country currently faces, issues that deserve more of the civilian government’s focus and commitment.
This starts with the economy, a policy area where the NLD was never strong in the first place. In July 2016, fully eight months after winning the national election, the party released its economic plan. It was a resounding two pages long.
Businesspeople complain there is still a lack of attention to economic policymaking. Inbound investment slowed in 2017 as international investors waited many long months for the passage of the Myanmar Companies Act, which was in part supposed to increase and ease foreign part-ownership of local ventures.
They’ll have to wait longer: after passage into law in December, it was almost immediately announced that implementation of the law would probably take until August 2018. This delays a potential crucial infusion of capital, significantly as domestic banks are struggling with bad loans and a lack of direction from the central bank.
One specific growth sector, tourism, is being massively damaged by the Rakhine crisis as travelers shy away, though problems in the sector were emerging beforehand. Tourism should be an economic area with low entry-costs where small-scale entrepreneurs can reap benefits.
Instead, onerous rules on hosting foreigners – designed to protect hotel-owning cronies from competition by small guesthouses or services such as Airbnb – have been reintroduced and strongly enforced. The sector is less egalitarian that it should be because of government policies.
There are powerful vested interests at work and navigating them would challenge any government. But a shrinking tourism pie will exacerbate these issues.
Myanmar’s statistics on tourism can be unreliable, but reports from perhaps Myanmar’s biggest tourist draw, Bagan, in the months after the crisis flared suggest that hotel occupancy was only around 30%. This was during a time of year when numbers should have been increasing towards the December high season.
Not only has there been a short-term drop-off after the outburst of violence in August, bookings for higher-end tourism – usually planned further in advance – appear down too. This year will be a difficult for luxury tour operators as well as smaller businesses that depend on tourist revenues.
Peace prospects also appear to have worsened. Suu Kyi has opted to invest substantial political capital into a process which she has little leverage over the main actors, the military, or Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed groups.
She plans a third iteration of her “21st Century Panglong Peace Conference” for later this month, but the second conference, held in May 2017, struggled due to a fracturing of negotiating blocs.
The meeting came amid ongoing fighting in Kachin and Shan states between the “Northern Alliance” of ethnic armed groups that have refused to sign a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” and the Tatmadaw.
Yet as the world’s attention has been drawn to Rakhine state, fighting in Shan and particularly Kachin areas has intensified. There, increased shelling and use of aircraft by the Tatmadaw has been reported in recent months.
It is not unreasonable to conclude that as global attention and Naypyidaw’s civilian government is drawn to the abysmal situation in Rakhine, the military is taking advantage to more aggressively pursue its aims against other ethnic armed groups.
Finally, the government’s lack of focus on consolidating Myanmar’s fledgling democracy has been troubling, particularly in terms of protecting a free press. Here, too, the Rakhine issue is exacerbating pre-existing tendencies.
On December 12th, two Reuters journalists were arrested and face potential charges under Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They face potential 14-year prison terms if charged and convicted under the law. This wasn’t the only example of authorities using conflict situations to pressure the media.
In June, journalists were arrested and charged under the Unlawful Associations Act for attending a drug-burning ceremony with an ethnic armed group in Shan state. In November, two foreign journalists and two local staff were arrested for using a drone near the parliament building in Naypyidaw while making a documentary film. They were released on December 29th.
With much of the Myanmar public in favor of the military’s counterinsurgency “clearance operations” that have targeted the Rohingya, many netizens are susceptible to arguments on social media that critical journalists harm the national interest
Other journalists have been pressured under Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act, a vague and broad provision that has been used to silence online criticism and debate with the threat of prison terms. Complaints under the law have surged under the NLD-led government.
With much of the Myanmar public in favor of the military’s counterinsurgency “clearance operations” that have targeted the Rohingya, many netizens are susceptible to arguments on social media that critical journalists harm the national interest. Civilian leaders have done little to counter this notion, creating an ever-more hostile environment for the media.
Suu Kyi needs to delegate and empower other political leaders to tackle some of these crucial issues while her attention is focused on the Rakhine situation and peace process. For as long as the Rohingya situation lasts, Myanmar’s civilian leadership will continue to be consumed by the crisis.
And the mistakes they are already prone to make will likely be worsened by a lack of attention, resources and experience.
Andray Abrahamian is a fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and author of the upcoming book “North Korea and Myanmar, Divergent Paths.”