The government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) is half-way through its five-year term and there is a big question on whether the NLD and its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are on the right track amidst a humanitarian crisis in northern Rakhine, the moribund peace process, the sluggish economy and what some perceive as failure to uphold free speech and the rule of law.
Political analysts say the NLD government needs to take stock of its goals and the issues it is facing as well as the practical policy changes necessary to address these.
It’s true the NLD government came to power in March 2016, with one hand tied behind its back as the Tatmadaw (military) still retains considerable influence and power in government, having full control of security-related ministries and 25 percent of parliament seats.
Changes under the NLD
Considering the situation, the NLD government made a good start with an amnesty for political prisoners.
The NLD-controlled parliament was able to amend or abolish the 1975 State Protection Law, 1950 Emergency Provisions Act and Telecommunications Law which had been used to oppress activists.
The Ward and Village Tract Administration Law was amended to make it more responsive to the needs of the people.
The legislation protecting the privacy and security of citizens, the elderly, local businesses and foreign investments were also enacted.
The government also made strides in its anti-corruption drive over the past two years, thanks to the unrelenting efforts of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
Former Information Minister U Ye Htut told the Myanmar Times that the abuse of power declined significantly and public trust in ACC has increased.
Unfortunately the expectations of the people, who elected the first civilian government after over half a century of dictatorship, have not been met entirely.
Voters thought that after catapulting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party into power, political, economic and social reforms would proceed smoothly. This has not been so.
One of the most severe criticisms against the government has been its failure to amend the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which it had promised to do since the NLD entered the electoral arena in 2012.
The NLD was also taken to task for its failure to protect and promote the welfare of workers, improve the lives of the farmers, increase job opportunities and ensure the free flow of information.
“During the past two years, the government has moved from focusing only on peace, to addressing issues like corruption and drugs. But many feel that its performance still remains wanting,” said Daw Su Mon Thazin Aung, assistant director of Institute for Strategic Policy-Myanmar.
In her paper “Managing Change: Executive Policymaking in Myanmar” released last May, international policy think-tank Asia Foundation pointed out that despite the challenges it is facing, better policy making is not impossible.
The report, which was co-written by Matthew Arnold, concluded with recommendations on how policymaking can be strengthened to better support reforms while waiting for changes in the 2008 constitution.
It noted that the government should not be too dependent on the goodwill generated by the popularity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and needs to count on “‘expert reformers’ in such people as vice presidents and veteran ministers who will negotiate the government’s strategic goals”.
U Myat Ko Ko, managing director of the Yangon Political Institute, said one problem the NLD faces is the fact that the people do not know what is the agreement between the NLD and the Tatmadaw on what change can be implemented.
He said although there is desire to change on the part of the civilian government, the change is not happening.
“The public do not know about terms. They do not know anything about the agreement on up to what extent or how long the reform period is and what the Tatmadaw will allow to change in specific sectors. Leaders agreed quietly without letting people know,” he said.
But there are some indications that change is taking place in the cabinet. At the end of last year, the General Administration Department under the Ministry of Home Affairs, which used to be under the Tatmadaw, was moved under the administration of the Ministry of the Office of the Union Government, which is under the NLD.
By putting this department – which is the closest to the grassroots and plays the main role in implementing regional development tasks – under the administration of the Ministry of the Office of the Union Government raised the hope of increasing the efficiency of government operations.
This is one of the key changes that will be closely monitored this year.
“We’ll see how much this change will actually work and improve public service,” said Daw Su Mon Thazin Aung.
There has been an increased anticipation that the government can accelerate the implementation of development projects this year following the transfer of the General Administration Department
Peace, constitution and Tatmadaw
The Tatmadaw is expected to make moves in the political sector by entering into the path of the much-delayed peace process and quiet amendment of 2008 Constitution this year, political analysts predict.
This is evident by the declaration of a four-month unilateral ceasefire in five commands – the Northern Command, the Northeastern, the Eastern and Central Eastern commands, and the Triangle Command.
In its declaration, the Tatmadaw said the purpose of the ceasefire is to hold further discussions with both the NCA-signatory armed ethnic groups and non-NCA signatory ethnic armed organisations. It has formed a delegation led by Lieutenant General Yar Pyae.
Some think the unilateral ceasefire, created a window for development and peace and is a potentially positive development for peace.
“I think it is a good move but it will be difficult. I see that they will fight in some places and stop fighting in other places. Many things are left to be discussed,” said Tar Pone Kyaw, spokesperson of TNLA ( Ta’ang National Liberation Army).
U Ye Htut, a former information minister, is hopeful that the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire declaration is aimed at encouraging more participation in the peace process.
“Perhaps they ceased military operations for that reason. There will be significant improvement in peacemaking if the armed ethnic groups cooperate on the process with an optimistic outlook,” he said. “If they continue to demand impossible things, put more pressure and launch more attacks with the view that Tamadaw is weakened, the country would remain far from securing peace.”
But U Myat Ko Ko said the main flaw in the peace talks is the lack of leadership on the government side who can make decisions, which confuses the armed ethnic groups.
He said a recent statement from Senior General Min Aung Hlaing that when conflict breaks out between the government and ethnic armed groups, the Tatmadaw’s involvement is purely as public service personnel, indicating that it is just following what the civilian government ordered.
“The Tamadaw stated what they had to and have put all the responsibility on the government. If peace is the common cause, who is missing in achieving it?” said U Myat Ko Ko.
In terms of amending the 2008 Constitution, the Senior General said during the third anniversary of the signing of the NCA that the Tatmadaw is amenable to it if it is necessary to achieve peace.
It will be hard to agree to amend the Constitution if they are only attempting to divert the course of NCA and fulfill their own interests, he said.
Amendments such as giving authority to the respective states and regions for issues concerning peace and handing the authority to Hluttaw to elect chief ministers for the states and regions rather than the president nominating them, are likely to happen.
“It would be wise to assume that, to some extent, there will be certain amendments concerning federal states. Despite that, the Senior General warned them not to demand what is not relevant. What he implies by “what is not relevant’’ is something like demanding the purge the 25 percent of military men appointed in the Hluttaw.” said U Myat Ko Ko.
Dr Myo Nyunt, spokesman of the NLD, said that what seems to be its little action to amend the constitution is not an indication it has given up.
“In politics, you can’t do whatever you want but have to do best with whatever you have. Five million people has signed and requested to amend Section 436 of 2008 Constitution,” he said. Although we are not doing much in the past, it can’t be said that we have given up on it,” he said.
He assured that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has not given up on this goal.
“I think she has sacrificed her reputation and everything for reconciliation with the intent of amending the Constitution,” said Dr Myo Nyunt. “The day Tatmadaw understood that we are trying to be more cooperative with them without any ulterior motives for the country and our people, domestic peace, law enforcement, constitutional amendment; everything will happen.”
Rakhine conflict and human rights
The refugee crisis in northern Rakhine State has been a huge pressure over Myanmar government and Tatmadaw.
The local and international community has differing opinions over the human rights and national security issues related to the repatriation of the more than 700,000 refugees now cramped in Bangladesh border.
The state counsellor has had honours and awards stripped because of the crisis. Western countries sanctioned Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other Tatmadaw senior officers over alleged massive human rights abuses in northern Rakhine.
This issue is likely to persist throughout this year. Although government has cooperated with Bangladesh, UN and regional countries, related to the repatriation of the refugees, it could not agree to the demand of giving full citizenship rights to them, until their identities have been verified under the current laws.
Daw Cheery Zahau, a local human rights activist, said the right to citizenship has been severely restricted not only among the Muslims from northern Rakhine but also among other ethnic groups in the country, noting that some ethnic people are facing difficulties in acquiring National Registration Cards (NRC), which are proof of citizenship.
“Right to citizenship has been strictly restricted so it hurts even ethnics groups. The citizenship law needs to be reviewed. If so, international pressures will be reduced. But why does the government restrict the law all the time? It is like invitation to international pressure. It needs to be handled subtly,” she said.
Freedom of expression
Athan, a local free speech rights group noted that for the past two and a half years under the NLD government, the state of freedom of expression in the country has deteriorated.
In its report released a week ago, Athan said that in 2018, there were 14 court cases under the much assailed section 505 (b), 53 court cases of the Telecommunications Law, 36 court cases under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and 9 court cases against journalists.
It noted that the situation is not likely to improve this year as the government has not taken any move to repeal the above laws, which are considered tools to suppress free speech.
Seizing the moment
One can expect little in terms of improvement in the state of free speech in the country as well as in the handling of the Rakhine crisis. There are no indications the government will make move to amend or abolish laws perceived to curtail free speech; neither is there an indication the government will agree to granting citizenship rights to the people from northern Rakhine State.
But The recent moves of the Tatmadaw to declare unilateral ceasefire and to transfer the control of the General Administration Department have greatly increased the prospects for peace and for more efficient way of delivering basic services to the people, analysts said.
If the NLD play their cards right, this could boost their political stock in the run-up to the 2020 general elections, especially since peace and delivery of basic services are gut issues that people have been longing for. This could give the party much needed boost in the 2020 elections.
Source The Myanmar Times