“Three Realities Facing Myanmar’s New Dawn”, by Moe Thuzar

Commentary 2016/5, 5 April 2016.1. Five years ago, on 30 March 2011, Mr Thein Sein took off his general’s uniform and became the first head of a “civilianized” government. Since then, Myanmar has continuously opened up. Following the 2015 elections, Thein Sein has been succeeded by Mr Htin Kyaw, the first civilian president with no military background since 1961.  In his inaugural speech, President Htin Kyaw listed the following priorities for the NLD government:   peace (the end of internal conflicts), national reconciliation, and a federal democracy, for the betterment of peoples’ lives, under a new Constitution with “democratic standards”.

2. On 1 April 2016, Myanmar took a step closer to the democracy ideals to which people in the country have aspired for decades. In these early moments of the new dawn, analysts – local and foreign, within Myanmar and outside – are highlighting the importance of continuing the peace process and managing inter-ethnic tensions; getting the reforms back on track, especially in growing the economy in sectors directly affecting the people;  and the delicate art of balancing great power interests. Here are three realities that underpin the prognoses:
    • Reforms instituted by the USDP and the military made this transition possible. But the generals have also drawn red lines. One is the amendment of the 2008 Constitution towards civilian control of the military. This may not happen any time soon because of too many entrenched interests. The USDP itself, now cast in the role of opposition, may also constitute itself in a watchdog role on the NLD’s moves. Thus, the USDP and the military’s influence, is still a reality and not a thing of the past.  Amidst high expectations by a populace that have pinned their hopes for the future on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, the new government will lead and tread cautiously.
    • The new government will have to address the weak administrative capacity of Myanmar’s civil service.  Inured under decades of authoritarian rule, work ethics and organizational efficiency are uneven. Low motivation and low incentives have led to an entrenchment of the patronage system. Corrupt practices abound, particularly in the lucrative extractive industries. Myanmar’s EITI status and the need for responsible business practices hang in the balance. Thus, it is little wonder that in engaging with the international community on a wide range of priorities, Daw Suu would take charge of foreign affairs, and assume a coordinating role as Minister in the President’s Office. This indicates that the NLD is aware of the link between politics and economics, the role of economic diplomacy, and the need to plan for a wider pool of skills and talent to move the economy forward.   Daw Suu will probably need the assistance of strong deputies in carrying out the day-to-day co-ordination under each portfolio, as well as in her senior advisory role bridging the executive and legislative.
    • The trust deficit between the USDP and NLD, as well as attitudes of various ethnic groups towards what they largely perceive as a Burman-centric establishment, poses a greater challenge. Even with its overwhelming popular mandate, the NLD’s biggest challenge will be in maintaining stability while moving ahead with the agenda of change in a freer and more open political climate.  Performance will be key for building trust, and the new government will need to show some tangible results within a relatively short time. But with more voices clamouring for priority attention, progress may be slower than expected. President Htin Kyaw has acknowledged that patience is necessary in moving forward with key objectives.  Even so, there are some divides that run deep enough to test patience and commitment.
3. These broad realities mean that Myanmar’s transition to a civilian government must a move towards more participatory and inclusive practices, and more effective administration.  The reforms started by the USDP administration under Thein Sein provide a good springboard for the NLD to deliver results to a public expressing changes for the better.
Ms Moe Thuzar is ISEAS Fellow at the Myanmar Country Studies Programme; email: moe@iseas.edu.sg
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.