“Myanmar Forum 2016: Key Takeaways”, by Moe Thuzar

Commentary 2016/20, 10 June 2016

The Myanmar Forum 2016 in Singapore on 20 May 2016, convened by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and University of Michigan’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, highlighted important issues for those following developments in Myanmar.  Changes in Myanmar under the “civilianised” administration of the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) now continue under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which received a resounding mandate in the November 2015 elections. Hope and expectations are driving the current change trajectory.  The Forum examined the imperatives for the NLD government’s attention in the initial months of the administration, the interests that drive the need to transform and the individuals and institutions that influence the process.

Imperatives:  Economic reforms started under the USDP administration, but were perceived to drift in the later years of its term. The NLD government will need to get the economy back on track, to attract investments from the region and the world.  Mastering the mechanics of policy-making is crucial. Internal and external developments require responses and adjustments, and highlight the continuing need to bridge the gaps in capacity and in communal understanding which were exacerbated by legacy issues of the past.   One of these legacies is to restore trust at various levels, especially with regard to the military’s role and reach in the country’s political and social life and in the expectations for ceasefire negotiations with former ethnic armed groups.

Interests:  The NLD’s change agenda is constrained by old mindsets of conducting business and bureaucratic inertia in some sectors. High-level ministerial committees have been appointed in several areas to lead – and be accountable for – the process of reform.  The NLD government has also enunciated a 100-day programme, signalling recognition of the need for clear plans and programmes to implement changes. The new government will have to prove that conditions in Myanmar are conducive to doing business, with reduced red-tape and willingness to engage with investors. Easing of financial sanctions on Myanmar banks will also give a boost to the country’s financial sector to catch up with international standards and practices.

Individuals and Institutions:  The personalisation of politics illustrates the overwhelming trust placed in the ability of the NLD government – itself personified by the iconic Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – to lead the country.  In today’s Myanmar, leadership matters in implementing the different priorities, and in managing the unavoidable trade-offs arising from competing interests. Institutions such as the newly-elected parliament are important in repealing and revising outdated laws, and in enacting new laws relevant to the country’s current needs.

Despite the challenges of overcoming the legacy of past authoritarian rule, there are also many opportunities for an administration determined to deliver its promise to a populace equally determined to support these efforts.  The NLD government is alive to the risks as well as opportunities.  In the early days of this administration, discussion of the different drivers of change will help the government develop policies to gain more traction in the longer term. Because the NLD is in for the long-run, the inevitable ups and downs of the work in progress will need to be viewed more in the context of a marathon rather than a 100-yard dash.

The summary report of the Myanmar Forum 2016 discussions can be accessed here.

Ms Moe Thuzar is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.