Aung San Suu Kyi: New Beginnings, Old Challenges

Focus By Trevor Wilson

People voted in November 2015, they knew what they were voting for. Going into the elections, the NLD made clear what principles it stood for and how it thought government approache should change

It is barely six months since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) formally assumed power in Myanmar on 30th March, 2016. This means it is a bit early to be passing judgement on the NLD Government, even if it had taken power in a less spectacular way than by winning the November 2015 national elections in a landslide. Any government taking power for the first time in its history and in the history of the country, by means of a sweeping election victory, would need longer to get serious reforms under way, no matter how well (or how poorly) it was prepared for such a victory. Nevertheless, expectations of the NLD Government – inside and outside the country – are so high that interested observers will ask how things are going, whether the answers can be definitive or not.

The Democratic Peaceful Political Transition: Continuity and Discontinuity

Myanmar’s achievement in securing a convincing, legitimising and liberalising political transition through a thoroughly peaceful democratic process, which was deemed to be generally free and fair by all concerned, should not be under-estimated. For those watching closely, the process and the results were no real surprise at all. However, credit is due to Myanmar’s political leaders, including the powerful Army, who made a prior commitment to accept the election outcome knowing that it portended the start of transformational changes that would ultimately be for the good of the country and its people. In the end, the election was remarkable for occurring without violence, without intimidation, and without serious corruption. Underlying the political compact between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, was the 2008 Constitution, drafted under the military regime but accepted by all sides as an acceptable and familiar, if flawed, political framework to provide the necessary reassurance for just such a change of government.

When Myanmar’s people voted in November 2015, they knew what they were voting for. Going into the elections, the NLD made clear what principles it stood for and how it thought government approache should change, but in most areas it deliberately did not set out detailed policies or a specific program of action. Since taking over government, it has taken a number of initiatives where it could do so through administrative action, to give effect to its policies. It released many protesters being held in detention in a punitive if vaguely legal manner; it also pardoned a smaller number of political prisoners; and it also reduced a number of political activists still on a ‘black list’ preventing their return to Myanmar. These were quick administrative actions it could take as a political demonstration of the government’s determination to keep promises to its supporters. They were carried out decisively and without any detectable dissent.

While the election victory effectively swept aside most of the former political class of the Thein Sein government, the NLD chose basically to retain most of the bureaucracy, even some high-level individuals who continued to work on the peace process. These decisions may have surprised some NLD members, but they reassured many bureaucrats some of whom came out more openly in support of the NLD. However, it also had the important benefit of retaining corporate knowledge and experience of some of the more complex issues, which the NLD was not necessarily well versed in itself.

The National Peace Agreement

Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly committed to achieving a national peace agreement as a top priority for her government, arguing that everything else ultimately depends on the achievement of genuine peace. Since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has never really experienced total peace – it has had no single ‘peace agreement’ that was agreed by all ethnic groups; and even the October 2015 ‘National Ceasefire Agreement’ was not accepted by some major ethnic groups still engaged in insurgency (like the Kachin Independence Army), or major disagreement (like the United Wa State Army). Hence, it is understandable, and indeed extremely logical, for Suu Kyi to state that a national peace agreement under which all parties are prepared to lay down their arms and to accept the authority of the national government, is an absolute priority for her government. Even if this is a symbolic goal, once achieved it should contribute greatly to increased political confidence across the country and enhance the legitimacy of the national government. No one in Myanmar has questioned her assertion, although some of the ethnic groups have doubts about how it might be accomplished.

Failure to achieve a national peace agreement would be a major political setback for the NLD Government; however, it will not necessarily be a political disaster as long as the areas of serious ongoing disagreement can be contained. Since no other central government in Myanmar has been able to achieve such an agreement, and most Myanmar governments have been able to make considerable progress in other areas, failure should be manageable. But it would represent a significant disappointment in the aspirations Suu Kyi has set, and in a worst case scenario could lead to the early disintegration of her democratic regime. In view of the very differing circumstances of Myanmar’s different ethnic groups, some agreed framework of principles that would apply to all groups will eventually be needed. Some kind of Federalism could provide an answer, but so far there has been insufficient thinking on how federalism might be adapted to suit Myanmar, and the different types of federalism that might be explored. In most countries where modified federal systems have been successful, it has taken many years, or even decades, to achieve a unanimous understanding. How to embed some kind of federal system in Myanmar on a sustainable basis would probably be the same.

As a first step towards forging a genuine peace accord, Aung San Suu Kyi called for a Second Panglong Conference, following on the one convened by her father in 1947 before his assassination. The first Panglong Conference in 1947 was a limited political success, as it did not include all relevant ethnic groups, and not surprisingly it proved not very relevant to the creation of a single Burmese state. Interestingly, the NLD government has co-opted a number of the key individuals, who worked on these issues during the Thein Sein Government (2011–15).This should strengthen the credibility of the peace process, as it should ensure that issues previously traversed should not be wastefully revisited. However, the NLD Government is now saying that the 31 August conference might be the start of a rolling program of conferences. It should also imply that all ethnic groups must be able to participate in the ongoing program, if not the Second Conference, as that was the only way that the special interests of each group could be embraced. This required both a sense of realism about what could be achieved at the conference, and a strong sense of pragmatism about the extent of specific benefits for different groups that can be accommodated. This might inevitably mean some compromises have to be made by all parties.

In the early stages, preparations for the Second Panglong Conference had been consuming all parties. There can be no doubt about the level of attention the issues are receiving, even if it appears that much of the work is retracing work undertaken at the time of the Thein Sein government, if not before then. Much of that work probably needs revalidating to enhance its legitimacy, and certainly the final peace accord needs to be much more inclusive than the October 2015 ‘Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement’. The record of Myanmar’s ethnic groups in being able to surmount less important difference between them is not encouraging, and it is too soon to know whether having an NLD government in office will make any difference on this. So it might be unrealistic to expect too much from the Second Conference itself given the daunting challenges it faces and the active insurgencies that have not yet been concluded. Nevertheless, the peace agreement negotiation process will continue beyond this meeting.

Myanmar’s Foreign Policy Direction: The Importance of Independence

Given the intense international interest in Myanmar’s political experiment, it is understandable that early action has been taken by the NLD Government to confirm Myanmar’s broad foreign policy direction. As Foreign Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi is extremely conscious of the assurances Myanmar needs to convey to its international and regional friends and neighbours. As it has often done, China wasted no time in demonstrating its desire to resume its close relationship with Myanmar: within a week of the NLD assuming office, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Naypyitaw. Both sides want to forge a steady relationship without unexpected issues emerging. China needs the NLD Government’s support for its strategic commitment to oil and gas supplies from Myanmar; reliable supplies of jade and timber from Myanmar are also important for China. Dams in Myanmar are useful for China, but probably not essential. So if the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River has to be cancelled, so be it, as long as China’s ‘honour’ can be preserved. China can only offer certain limited support for Myanmar’s national peace agreement, and that should be in China’s interests to provide, but China has a potentially important influence to bear of ethnic groups along the border with China (the Wa, the Kokang, as well as the Kachin).

On the whole, intervention in these matters by other countries, including the United States, is probably not helpful. There is no real need for such intervention, even if Myanmar’s environmental and natural resources policies have to be attuned to China’s interests. Ultimately, Myanmar is likely to resist any undue Chinese interference in its own affairs, perhaps more so under an NLD Government. But China should be dissuaded from seeking to pursue separate relationships in Myanmar, with the Myanmar army or anyone else. The onus is on China to demonstrate that all its dealings with Myanmar are consistent with Myanmar’s national interests and are not intended to disadvantage the interests of other countries in Myanmar.

Myanmar Economic Policy: The Need for Reasonable Reassurance

One area where the NLD government is beginning to be criticised is economic policy. While the NLD issued a short ‘economic strategy’ before the elections, it did not contain any specific commitments. Meanwhile, some critics warned that inflation was being allowed to reach 12 percent, that investor confidence was lacking, and that economic directions of government policy were still unclear. NLD economic advisor, Professor Sean Turnell, claimed that Myanmar’s economy was in ‘poor state’ but was just “about to turn the corner towards home”.1 In areas such as foreign investment, China will naturally have a keen interest in Myanmar’s policies. Turning previous Myanmar policy on foreign direct investment on its head is probably not a good idea, given that it was the subject of protracted and intensive debate in Myanmar’s parliament as well as elsewhere. It would probably be reassuring to investors if the new NLD government announced it intended to preserve the broad parameters of current policy, including the important decision making mechanisms of the Investment Committee, which seem to be the direction they are heading. But some reassuring measures by the Myanmar Government are needed a soon as possible.

The government published a quite detailed industrial development paper on 24 July 2016, reportedly almost identical to one prepared just before the transfer of power in March 2016.2 However, so far there has been no discussion of the policies and proposals contained in this paper.

International credit agencies are following developments in Myanmar very closely, and they are not likely to be influenced by generalised assurances from the Myanmar Government or its leader. Myanmar can ill afford a more negative risk assessment at this point.

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