In this webinar, four speakers with research expertise in these different aspects of Myanmar’s transition will share their thoughts on what comes next after the vote, for the country and the diverse communities within it.
MYANMAR STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
22 December 2020, Singapore – The ISEAS – Yusof Institute’s last webinar for 2020 focused on looking ahead to issues and concerns to be tackled by Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in its second five-year term starting 2021.
The incumbent NLD won the 2020 general elections with a second landslide, practically nationwide. Myanmar is now in what is popularly known as the “lame duck period” before a new cabinet is sworn in by the end-March 2021.
Building on their experience and knowledge of the NLD’s responses to political challenges, the ongoing transition, and socio-economic priorities over the 2016-2020 term, a panel of young professionals and researchers shared their thoughts on the post-election landscape in Myanmar, looking ahead to the 2021-2025 term.
Nyantha Maw Lin, Managing Partner of the Burgundy Hills Company, Phyu Yamin Myat, General Secretary of the Myanmar Microfinance Association, Amara Thiha, Senior Research Manager at the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, and Jap Ja Ngai Awng, PhD candidate at George Washington University researching ethnic politics in Myanmar, joined ISEAS Fellow Ms Moe Thuzar in conversation on the various expectations and aspirations that are now emerging amidst the ongoing Covid-19 uncertainties. Highlights of their conversation follow.
- With five years of experience, the NLD’s second term starting in 2021 differs from its 2016 debut as a government. In the NLD’s first term, a policy framework has emerged that paves the way for the ruling party to take the country forward economically in the years ahead.
- However, the Covid-19 pandemic will affect not only the economic reforms but also the key political processes, as the government will need to balance its policy priorities amidst the challenge of accessing and providing Covid-19 vaccination to the population. A Covid-19 vaccine for many in Myanmar are months if not a full year away.
- The policy framework for economic reforms is a good starting place, albeit with some room for improvement. For example, the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP) launched in 2018 will now be succeeded by the Myanmar Economic Recovery and Reform Plan (MERRP). The MERRP’s mid-term strategies continue the MSDP priorities, and also expand the shorter-term responses of Covid-19 Economic Relief Plan devised in April 2020 to tackle the immediate needs of the pandemic’s economic impact.
- The MERRP provisions will need to consider how best to assist communities at the bottom of the pyramid in Myanmar, whose lives and livelihoods have been the most adversely affected by the economic downturn. More urgent relief measures for these vulnerable populations are necessary, as the Covid-19 lockdowns have severely affected their financial situation. With no savings, and facing bleak income opportunities in the informal sector under extended lockdowns, more cash and in-kind contributions are required for communities facing a survival crisis situation. Poverty also renders these communities vulnerable to illegal migration and political exploitation.
- Turning the Covid-19 challenge into an opportunity requires consideration on how future plans and reform measures can include promoting and encouraging the use of digital technology across the nation (and strengthening the attendant infrastructure and regulatory measures for digitization), and also strengthening the role of the Ministry of Agriculture in encouraging new forms of commerce, trade and economic activity.
- Bringing together these operational measures under a cohesive policy framework will thus require developing a national vision and narrative, with key areas of attention or focus for the next five years. This would also help Myanmar prepare for the post-pandemic world.
- The interlinked nature of (domestic) politics and economic recovery require more dialogue among and with different communities in developing a unified effort on the kind of political economy that would work best for Myanmar. For example, economic recovery in important export sectors need to consider conflict issues along key border-area points.
- Thus, the cabinet line-up for the 2021-25 term should reflect this need for multi-stakeholder consultation and dialogue, including political stakeholders and the military.
- Dialogue is also important in continuing to engage the ethnic armed groups (EAOs) under the peace process. The 2020 election experience has shown EAOs in that the current first-past-the-post electoral system may not work for ethnic political parties which have insufficient resources to compete nationwide. This structural issue may impact on how the EAOs view the peace process and national reconciliation. Continuing with the nationwide ceasefire negotiations over 2021-25 will also require a rethink on what inclusion means for the EAOs.
- This rethink is also important for the EAOs and ethnic political parties, in terms of preparing for their political future. The vision for a nationwide ceasefire accord formulated in 2011-12 was clear enough on bringing ethnic armed groups to the political process; but the national reconciliation conversation that continued from 2016 onwards has not reached a consensus on what is expected from the peace process.
- Additionally, the 2015 and 2020 elections have both demonstrated amply that national parties have a strong appeal among the ethnic voters. Understanding the NLD’s success among ethnic communities is thus more than the consequences of a first-past-the-post system, as the election results indicated that on average, ethnic political parties representing their ethnic group garnered only about 50% of votes in their constituencies, and a significant portion of ethnic nationalities voted rationally and strategically for NLD (and the Union Solidarity Development Party) with tangible interests in mind.
- As the NLD, with the advantage of the incumbent, could also show what the party and government can and will do for their voters, ethnic political parties can no longer depend on their shared minority narrative. In fact, a survey of ethnic (mostly Chin and Kachin) voters in 2019 showed that more than 60% of those polled expressed satisfaction with the NLD (in the NLD’s fourth year as government since 2016).
- Ethnic voters who are satisfied with NLD will thus continue to support NLD. Beyond the “showy” headlines about Bamar-ethnic sensitivities, the ethnic nationalities recognise that administrative reforms have improved the situation in ethnic areas since NLD came into office. Though not perfect, the administrative reforms affect ethnic life most, and thus improved their view of the NLD.
- Still, the NLD government should to build on this election success to deepen connections at community level.
- This becomes particularly important in view of the military’s role in the country’s political-security situation. The military’s moves in Rakhine State to negotiate with the Arakan Army, and the military’s interest in the security landscape in northern Rakhine as well as in northern Shan States has both domestic and regional implications.
- The NLD’s desire to lead the nation as whole and the military’s increasing interest to present its own vision for reconciliation and transition indicate the possible emergence of competing visions for the country, which bears careful watching in the 2021-25 term.
- Thus, any new over-arching vision for Myanmar will need to include a new vision for the military’s future role (and reform).
In the general discussion that followed, panellists addressed questions related to the NLD government’s current approach in managing positive and negative effects of social media, boosting state capacity for Myanmar’s active participation in regional economic integration, the role of the military in engaging ethnic armed groups and the future of civil-military relations, including the projected political role of the current commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the NLD’s outreach to ethnic political parties post-election and future trust-building efforts.
The webinar ended with observations from the panellists revisiting the topic of developing a vision for a democratic Myanmar. People in Myanmar now had the opportunity (and challenge) to participate in voicing and finding a common ground for their different visions of a democratic Myanmar. Starting with those different visions by the diverse communities in Myanmar, the overall vision for a more equal multi-ethnic representative democratic Myanmar would require deepening democracy across the executive and legislative branches, and engendering a peaceful transition through constructive dialogue.