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Myanmar's Lady of the
Lake, sans paddle

A lack of clear vision and policy has becalmed the new Myanmar government – and the country – as ultra-nationalist Buddhist ire against Muslims adds further stress on the social fabric.

Yangon, August 2016

Communal violence incited by ultra-nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha has destroyed Rohingya homes and villages in Rakhine

Communal violence incited by the ultra-nationalist Buddhist hardliner group Ma Ba Tha has taken lives and destroyed entire Rohingya villages in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

SINCE Aung San Suu Kyi took over the government in April this year - after that storybook release from her Inle Lake house arrest and the surge of optimism that accompanied it - little has changed and serious policy dividends have yet to be discerned. This, despite the high promise that followed the National League for Democracy’s overwhelming electoral victory last November. The Lady – as she is known here – is concentrating on securing stability, rather than boosting economic development, though that may only be a temporary priority. This has effectively left the government in suspended animation. In the meantime ministers are struggling with their portfolios, desperately trying to come up with innovative ideas, while waiting for instructions from her.

The country is directionless, amidst an acute policy vacuum. “There is no policy, plan or strategy,” says K K Hlaing, a prominent Myanmar businessman and political commentator. As a result there is intense palpable inertia in the government administration, with the business community in particular, frustrated by the government’s repeated delays in announcing the new economic policy. When that direction was finally unveiled at the end of July, it left many business people disappointed. Poly goals were too general and failed to give details of how the new government was going to boost economic growth and liberalize the economy.

Larry Jagan

Larry Jagan

The Lady has been successfully courting the military, and seems to have forged a bond with the army commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The state counsellor has realized that for her to have a successful term in office, she needs to have the military on side

It mirrored the party’s manifesto, published ahead of the November 2015 elections, and was almost indistinguishable from the Thein Sein government's five-year plan, published around the end of 2012. “The difference is we’ll implement it, unlike the previous government,” the party’s economic czar, Hanthar Myint told me. But the problem is the lack of capacity. It is one of the reasons for the delayed announcement, according to Sean Turnell of Macquarie University, an expert on Myanmar and economic advisor to the NLD government.

In the meantime the 'state counsellor', the key position Aung San Suu Kyi created for herself in April, which effectively makes her the equivalent of a prime minister – is distracted by the peace process and some critical social issues – including the situation in Rakhine and the Buddhist nationalist movement, Ma Ba Tha – which are the only areas were there seems to be any movement. Nevertheless these concerns are critical for her to maintain control of the government, and ensure the peace and stability that will allow her to implement many of her party’s policies. “But she should not neglect the economy,” says the prominent businessmen, K K Hlaing. “If business grows the country grows,” he added” Otherwise there is a danger of social and economic unrest, which would certainly threaten the country’s stability.

But it is not all gloom and doom, as the Lady has been successfully courting the military, and seems to have forged a bond with the army commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. For the state counsellor has realized that for her to have a successful term in office – the next elections are in 2020 – she needs to have the military on side. This is beginning to happen, as both Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing understand they need each other. So at least for the time being they are developing a working relationship. And most importantly, for the peace process to produce tangible results, the government and the military need to be on the same page: and currently the signs now are that this is the case.  

But government administration remains paralyzed, with no clear policy positions emerging in most sectors, with most ministers and bureaucrats waiting to be told what to do. “The public servants are sitting at their desks doing nothing – while waiting for instructions from above,” Hanthar Myint – on the NLD central executive committee and a member of the president’s economic coordinating committee told me.

In fact there are mixed messages coming from various ministries, with everything on hold. For instance the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) – which approves foreign investment projects and joint ventures – only met for the first time a few weeks ago. Direct foreign investment – a significant part of the government’s economic strategy – has slowed to a trickle, according to government officials. But there have been concrete reasons for this hiatus, as businessmen – especially foreign investors – are increasingly alienated while they wait for clues of government policy and a clear indication of the government’s priorities. There are exceptions of course with Asian entrepreneurs, especially from Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, anxious to increase their toehold in the country.

“The government is rudderless,” said a Myanmar businessman who deals directly with several ministers, on condition of anonymity. “It’s like a ship without a helmsman.” There is no leadership and the state counsellor is pre-occupied with the peace process, according to many ministers and government officials, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Everyone is concentrating on the peace process: even the deputy minister for immigration told a visiting diplomat that everything else has stopped, while the ministry concentrates on the peace process. “It's the only thing on the state councillor’s agenda," said a senior official close to the head of government.

There are also growing concerns about the fate of democracy, under this new civilian government – the first elected government since the 1960's – from civil society and the media. “A form of democratic authoritarianism is replacing the old military rule,” said Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner, commentator and head of the Tampadipa Institute. A populist tyranny of the majority has replaced direct military rule, even some reforms under the quasi-civilian regime of President Thein Sein are being eroded. Parliament is no longer an instrument of oversight and monitoring of government policy and conduct. The valuable “checks and balances” institution it is intended to be, has given way to supporting executive decisions.

In the last parliament, the executive was pitted against parliament because of the Lower House speaker, Shwe Mann and the opposition leader’s use of the parliament to checkmate the government. With the massive NLD majority in parliament, it has become a tool of government. MPs are told not to ask questions that might embarrass the government – in fact the party central committee checks all the proposed parliamentary questions from MPs. They have been told their job is to support the NLD government. This procedure has also been implemented in the regional and state parliaments. In the Yangon regional parliament the speaker vets every speech and intervention from the MPs and edits what they are allowed to say. MPs are growing frustrated at this, but no one dares challenge the party leadership. This style of “one-party” rule does not augur well for the future.

All the ministers are in their sixties and seventies – many with government experience in the bureaucracy in the past. This means they are likely to be cautious and careful in their policy approaches and attitude towards the pace of change

Part of the problem, according to many Myanmar academics and businesspeople is the cabinet. “This cabinet lacks credibility,” said Nay Zin Latt, a former political advisor to President Thein Sein, and founder of the National Development Party – that did not win any seats in the November elections. “It’s a team of nobodies, idea-less and docile,” he added. Most observers believe most of these ministers are only temporary, meant to pacify the bureaucracy. After some four months in office, a major cabinet reshuffle seems to be in the pipeline.

According to party insiders, the selection of the ministers was part of a deliberate strategy. All the ministers are in their sixties and seventies – many with government experience in the bureaucracy in the past. This means they are likely to be cautious and careful in their policy approaches and attitude towards the pace of change. Stability for the moment appears to be the new NLD government’s watchword.

“Ministers must have a passion for the country, passion for the people, and initiate dramatic change,” said K.K. Hlaing owner of Smart company. “This lot are too worried about doing something wrong, being reprimanded or sacked,” he added. Many Myanmar academics, businessmen and social activists fear the new government has chosen stability over development.
Since the cabinet, as sworn in by the Lady, has continued to be careful not to upset the bureaucrats, the former parliamentary speaker, Shwe Mann – who was the third most important general in the regime before the 2010 elections – has been a key advisor to the Lady and counselled her early on to be careful not to pick unnecessary fights or to antagonize the bureaucracy. She has followed that advice stringently. Aung San Suu Kyi warned her MPs not to criticize the country’s public servants and told senior party officials to be patient and to not to put pressure on them to change just yet.

Originally the permanent secretaries – the top public servant in each ministry and appointed by the previous government some 18 months ago – were seen by the NLD as essential for the continuity of management and policy, something the central executive committee member Hanthar Myint confided to me after the elections.

But uncertainty dominates all the ranks in the public service. It is even more unsettling for the top ranks of the ministries – director generals and directors. The ministers are unable to provide leadership leaving much to the permanent secretaries. In most ministries this has resulted in inactivity and confusion. There is no incentive to perform even the perfunctory tasks of the job. As a result there are also bottlenecks in the system. A senior official in the agriculture ministry recently apply summed up the situation: "before top government officials were ruled by fear, now we’re ruled by frustration."

Another fault line emerging is in relation to the regional and state governments. Chief ministers – with a few exceptions like Yangon and Mandalay – are being ridiculed for incompetence. “Many are inefficient,” confided Nyan Win a senior NLD official and member of the Central Executive Committee. Policy contradictions and lack of explanation is leading to growing frustration within the business community. In Yangon the ban on high-rise buildings is causing concern, but more importantly it seems all building permits have been blocked – “they are not accepting any requests,” said one hotelier whose application for building works and an extension was recently rejected. There is a lack of explanation and no apparent avenue of recourse.

There is also growing friction between chief ministers and the national executive, and between them and the local NLD executives. This has led to total inertia in many areas, except Arakan, Mandalay and Yangon. Many of the chief ministers have been foisted onto the regions and states, without any solid support base in the community, according to some disgruntled senior party executives. This has led to severe political problems, especially in Pegu and Tanintharyi regions.

Another key issue re-emerging is corruption: not amongst ministers, but bureaucrats and chief ministers. "Things haven't changed," said one Myanmar businessman. “Corruption is endemic,” complains K K Hlaing. “Corruption is evident in every sector and every region. The higher the position, the greater the corruption,” he muses. But most Myanmar businessmen believe that Aung San Suu Kyi’s uncompromising stand on corruption has set an example for all her ministers – one, which is strictly adhered to. But the cases of corruption that are coming to light also seem to be in the states and regions. 

The policy vacuum and bureaucratic inertia in Myanmar is unsettling as many fear social and economic unrest, worker strikes and protests. So far this has been contained, though the potential for an unexpected flare up remains. “Creating jobs is the government’s top priority,” according to the senior NLD party official involved in mapping out the government’s economic policies, Hanthar Myint. “We must find employment to absorb the vast numbers of unemployed and underemployed,” he said. It is indeed the key thrust of the government’s recently announced economic policy – though there was an acute lack of concrete details as to how that was to be achieved. 

The Buddhist ruling body has said that Ma Ba Tha had no official Buddhist status – and the Sangha may even disband it altogether in the near future. This has been greeted with approval by many Myanmar citizens, and is seen as a significant win for the NLD

For some years there has been a festering battle between the NLD and the Buddhist nationalist movement – Ma Ba Tha, or the committee for the protection of national race and religion. The former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party used them as a battering ram against the NLD – particularly the Lady – accusing her of being pro-Muslim. The NLD struggled with this issue last year – and took every step to avoid any direct confrontation with the movement – particularly the firebrand monk, Ashin Wirathu. The NLD went as far as to ban the selection of Muslim candidates in last year’s election for fear of inflaming religious tensions, according to a senior NLD leader, on condition of anonymity.    

The NLD’s massive electoral victory was a shock and rebuff to the movement, which thought it had captured the minds of the Buddhists at least – which make up the vast majority of the country. But recently, Ashin Wirathu seemed to be making a cautious comeback, holding several high-profile rallies in Yangon and Mandalay – his home base. But the party decided to take on Ma Ba Tha calling for it to be disbanded because it had no religious authority. In this battle, the party seems to be winning. The Buddhist ruling body has ruled that it was never sanctioned or agreed to – in an important ruling it said that Ma Ba Tha had no official Buddhist status – and the Sangha may even disband it altogether in the near future. This has been greeted with approval by many Myanmar citizens, and has been a significant win for the NLD, and reduces the influence of the group.

In the meantime Ma Ba Tha has promised to stop protesting – largely about the government's attempt to the reform the language used to describe Muslims. They ordered the use of "Muslims in Rakhine" to replace Bengalis or Rohingyas. Although it did not please many, it angered the Buddhist nationalists who initiated protests. This has now stopped, and the risk of social unrest on this issue averted for a short while, although Ashin Wirathu has promised to continue his campaign to preserve Buddhist religion, language and culture. The current setback for the nationalist firebrand has freed the NLD to push ahead with some of its reform agenda. 

On the positive side, recent meetings between ethnic armed group leaders with Aung San Suu Kyi has increased the likelihood that following the 21st Panglong Conference at the end of August, a renewed peace process could bring an end of hostilities in ethnic areas – especially in Kachin and Shan state – and provide an impetus to political dialogue which envisages making Myanmar a federal state.

This is still somewhat precarious, but it has revealed that the relationship between the NLD and the military has improved since the 'tug-of-war' immediately after the election. Aung San Suu Kyi as held several secret meetings with the army commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing – largely on the peace process and constitutional change. Several public meetings between the two at the Defence College in Naypyidaw and again at Martyrs’ Day – the anniversary of General Aung San – also highlights a growing warmth between the two – which augurs well for the future.

The Lady though remains silent on the persecution of the Muslims – especially the Rohingya’s – irritating the international community, and human rights groups in Myanmar. She has set up a special committee to look at ways to forge national reconciliation in Rakhine state. It has rarely met so far, but seems to be the vehicle she hopes will find solutions to Rakhine’s communal problems. But there is increasing frustration and disappointment at the government’s failure to find a solution.

So far the NLD government has not fulfilled its high expectations on winning the elections. Be patient, is the senior government officials glib mantra. After all it's only four months since they took office. Everyone is waiting for the government to announce its plan of action – which is expected to be the key result of the first “100 days” of government. This will include detailed plans for the future.

“We should be ‘cautiously optimistic',” the comedian and political activist Zaganar insists. What is clear is that while the middle classes – academics, businessmen and professionals – maybe disappointed and frustrated – the mass of the population, which voted the NLD into power, remains hopeful and supportive. But for how long will they be patient: “We have a year to meet their expectations,” the senior NLD leader and patron, Tin U told me shortly after the elections results.

Larry Jagan is a freelance journalist and Southeast Asia analyst based in Bangkok for over 12 years. He writes regularly for Asia Times, the Bangkok Post and the Daily Star (Dhaka). He contributes to Al Jazeera TV, Radio Free Asia and Radio and TV Hong Kong. He was formerly Regional News and Current Affairs Editor for Asia and the Pacific at the BBC World Service for more than ten years and the BBC’s Burma correspondent.

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Jonathan (1 August, 2016) – UK
It will be a shame if Aung San Suu Kyi squanders this golden opportunity to reform and unite Burma. There's too much riding on it.
Peter Ho (1 August, 2016) – Singapore
I had expected the government to get moving very fast. Judging by this report, almost nothing is happening. I think the peace process is important. But the economy must come first. If there is progress I believe the communal issues will basically move to the background or disappear altogether. Many country's have shown that wealth creation is the basis for a solid country.
Ashley Petersen (1 August, 2016) – USA
I have always had great admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi. Her's was a heroic struggle. Maybe she just needs time to bring different people together. After all the country has been run by the military for years. Give her some room and some time.
Htway (1 August, 2016) – India
Interesting article. It is a worry that 'democracy' is taking a back seat to 'autocratic' decision making in Myanmar. Maybe this is what the situation needs to ensure stability.
Jane Bledsoe (1 August, 2016) – United Kingdom
The 'Lady' has been far too quiet on the Rohingya issue. It is a shocking state of affairs to put it mildly. If policy priorities are not being set either, I worry about the future of this beautiful country.

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