March 21, 2017 8:00 pm JST
Derek Mitchell

Myanmar's government -- time for course correction?

One year on, it is time for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to take stock

Myanmar military commander in chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing chat​s​ with ​ethnic representatives next to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw on Aug. 31. © Reuters

Myanmar at the end of March will mark the first anniversary of the historic ascension to power of the National League for Democracy under its leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Those who experienced the euphoria after the embattled opposition's landslide victory in November 2015 will never forget this unlikely culmination of more than a quarter of a century of struggle -- at the cost of many lives -- for democracy, peace and justice.

Nonetheless, on my departure from Yangon as U.S. ambassador earlier last year, I, like many others, could see serious difficulties ahead for the NLD. Opposing oppressive state power and running a government are two vastly different skills. My colleagues and I worried about the NLD's ability to fill ministerial positions with qualified personnel and manage an extensive government apparatus. After all, the party did not inherit a functioning government with a highly efficient bureaucracy, but a relatively low capacity structure that had operated in large part according to personal relationships among (mostly) military colleagues.

Economic underdevelopment, civil war, and degradation of virtually every institution save one -- the military -- over the past 50 years cannot be wiped away by a single election. Nor can legacies of social division, mistrust and corruption created in their wake. A democratic moment such as an election does not equate to creation of a national democratic mindset of cooperation, conciliation. Nor does it make it any easier to forge the compromise essential to lasting peace and unity in such a diverse country as Myanmar.

But the biggest question mark hangs over the role of the military, or Tatmadaw. The 2008 Constitution does not allow for civilian control over the military, and changes to the charter itself require military support, given its automatic allocation of 25% of parliamentary seats.

The Constitution also accords the military authority over the ministries of defense, border and home affairs. In practice, that means the Tatmadaw controls the police and the General Administration Department, which is charged with implementing policies and directives from the civilian leadership down to the grassroots level. Questions naturally arose over whether the NLD could ensure its directives would be implemented down the chain of command, and control military activity more broadly on issues related to peace, human rights, and other matters of national security.

All these constraints have indeed hamstrung the NLD over the past year. Even so, the NLD presumably knew the situation it would inherit. As the ruling party, it was the job of its leaders to come up with strategies to address these challenges effectively and navigate their way through the obstacles shrewdly to ensure the success of their tenure and meet the people's high expectations.

It is a reasonable question whether Aung San Suu Kyi as state counselor and the NLD have taken full advantage of the momentum of their historic landslide victory during their first year, regardless of the structural obstacles. Indeed the first year of one's tenure is usually the moment of one's greatest power, a unique window of opportunity to leverage an electoral mandate, set forth a vision, build political alliances, and establish the course of governance for the ensuing years.

I returned to Myanmar in February as part of a delegation from the United States Institute of Peace, to see for myself how the country was faring on this score after a year of NLD leadership. What I found from talking to elites and average citizens alike was a combination of disappointment and concern over the trajectory of the NLD's tenure. Few questioned the NLD's good intentions in combating corruption, promoting peace, and the like, but several questioned whether the party's governance style and process encouraged optimism about its future success.

Among the concerns they conveyed were: the appointment of ineffective ministers to key positions; lack of a clear economic policy, or apparent priority attention to economic issues; inefficient governance that requires all decisions, large and small, to go up to the state counselor for action; lack of respect for civil society and the media; continued arrests and imprisonment under legacy laws, such as Section 66D of the Telecommunications Act, that limit free speech; and lack of consistent public communication on policies that welcomes feedback, builds public support, and offers a compelling vision for the country's future.

Those involved in the peace process, including many ethnic nationality representatives, noted that the process has slowed, and complained that Aung San Suu Kyi had not invested enough herself in the kind of regular, quiet, personal diplomacy required to build trust with ethnic nationality populations and enhance prospects for a comprehensive national cease-fire and productive political dialogue process. They acknowledge the NLD has little to no authority over the military, but wonder why the state counselor does not at least speak out against recent expanded violence and human rights violations against civilian populations in Kachin and northern Shan states as a matter of principle.

It is well known that the international community has voiced similar concerns that the NLD government has not matched its words and actions to meet the urgency of continuing violence against the stateless Rohingya Muslim population in northern Rakhine State, despite recognizing the difficult political bind and terrible inheritance granted the NLD leadership by its predecessors.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD will no doubt take issue with many of these critical perspectives, note that their achievements in battling corruption, promoting rural development and other daunting challenges are being overlooked, and will counsel patience. Rakhine State and peace, for instance, are indeed extraordinarily complex and sensitive matters that have no easy or quick solution. Managing the delicate dynamics between a new civilian-led democratic government and a conservative military establishment is deeply challenging, if essential to the success of the democratic transition. And the hard task of governing will always invite critics.

Nonetheless, the NLD would do well to listen closely and consider seriously the concerns being expressed by friends in good faith. Nobody expects things to be fixed easily -- nor overnight. Clearly the constraints on the NLD are intense, the challenges monumental, and one's expectations must be tempered.

But it is the first rule of politics that governments must deliver, regardless of any obstacles or structural constraints. Violent spoilers may still exist within the system --the brazen assassination in late January of NLD lawyer and Muslim activist Ko Ni indeed sent a chill through the body politic, suggesting that the specter of violence and impunity remains alive and well and is working against reform in Myanmar. Such dark forces will only succeed if the NLD fails to take advantage of the opportunities to exhibit leadership that do exist and are under its control.

For instance, the NLD does not need others to build trust with and among ethnic nationality populations; streamline decision-making; reevaluate ministerial authorities and appointments; outline a detailed economic policy; use its absolute parliamentary majority to end regressive legacy laws and pass new progressive legislation; reach out to civil society as partners; develop a visionary strategy for dealing with Rakhine State that ensures security and equal rights for all populations; and offer a compelling vision of the principles on which an emerging new "democratic Myanmar" will be based.

The fact is Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD came to power with as much good will at home and abroad as any government could hope for. Millions throughout her country and around the world are invested and ready to assist Myanmar's difficult transition. It is now the NLD's task to build coalitions for success in a domestic climate that is fragile and tricky -- but nonetheless desperate for peace, development, and enlightened leadership.

The first anniversary of assuming power is a natural point at which a democratically elected government takes stock and considers course corrections as needed. Windows of opportunity can close quickly. As Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues enter their second year in office, they must not succumb to complacency or consider patience a substitute for the urgent adjustments that may be necessary to maintain their considerable advantage, and ensure the winds of change remain at their back in years to come.

Derek Mitchell was U.S. ambassador to Myanmar 2012-16, and now serves as senior advisor to the United States Institute of Peace and the Albright Stonebridge Group.

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