March 28, 2017 12:20 pm JST

Suu Kyi's lack of action feeding discontent in Myanmar

Ruling party in hot seat over ethnic strife, economic troubles ahead of by-elections

MOTOKAZU MATSUI, Nikkei staff writer

NLD supporters call on people to vote from a truck outside Yangon on Mar. 19. © AP

YANGON -- Myanmar's ruling party may face an uphill battle in upcoming by-elections on Saturday amid slowing economic growth and growing disillusionment among minorities who hoped for change under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

This will mark the first national election since Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy took power a year ago. Voters will fill 12 vacancies in the national parliament and seven in regional assemblies, many of which were created when lawmakers joined the cabinet last March. The NLD is pledging continued reforms and is showing well in urban areas.

But the party is expected to run into trouble in Shan State, which is heavily populated by ethnic minorities. A minority party outperformed the NLD there in the 2015 elections, even though the now-ruling party won 80% of all seats nationwide.

The government cannot control the situation, said Sai Nyunt Lwin, general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. The party aims to win two lower-house seats in the national parliament and five seats in the state assembly.

In western Rakhine State, the military is cracking down harshly on extremist members of the Rohingya Muslim minority. Allegations have emerged that national forces massacred Rohingya. Local parties standing in opposition to the NLD have the upper hand there.

Myanmar has struggled since its founding to strike peace between its Burman majority, who make up about 70% of the population, and its ethnic minorities. The military-led government under former President Thein Sein reached a cease-fire with eight of the country's roughly 20 armed minority groups. Suu Kyi, who officially holds the title of state counselor, initially also sought peace. She has since changed tack, and a political dialogue with such forces scheduled for February was postponed.

As part of the political opposition, Suu Kyi had criticized the armed forces for reaching a truce with some groups but not others, and called for a peace agreement with all armed rebels. But recently, she has defended the military's clashes with minority groups in a likely bid for political stability. She also convinced the U.S. to lift economic sanctions on military officials. Disappointment has grown among minorities, who had hoped for progress in the peace process under Suu Kyi.

The government faces economic troubles as well. Myanmar's growth has boosted imports, which in turn has added to its trade deficit and devalued the kyat. Rising import costs have lifted fuel and cooking oil prices by about 10% since last year. The Facebook page of the state counselor's office are filled with angry comments criticizing Suu Kyi for her frequent travels and demanding that she solve the inflation problem instead.

The World Bank in January said the Myanmar economy likely grew 6.5% in 2016, 1.3 points less than its previous forecast, due in part to a sluggish real estate sector. Foreign direct investment has also slowed on changes to energy policy, and is expected to fall for the first time in four years in the 12 months through March. Yet the government has failed to come up with any solutions.

Earlier this month, Ko Ko Gyi, the leader of the well-known activist group 88 Generation, announced plans to form a new party ahead of the 2020 general elections. The NLD ally may be trying to bring opponents of the ruling party into its fold.

Suu Kyi has helped Myanmar democratize, backed by strong popularity at home and abroad. But she can no longer count on much support from the U.S., her biggest supporter, as it pursues more nationalist and isolationist policies under President Donald Trump.

Despite facing greater international criticism over the Rohingya crisis, she continues to stand by the military. Rifts within the pro-democracy camp are growing as well. Her government could suffer an even greater blow if her opponents gain momentum in the upcoming elections.

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