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Myanmar's New Era?

Discord, not devotion, will help Aung San Suu Kyi succeed

Myanmar's leader is burdened by deferential politics

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

It is not surprising that at the end of the first year of the National League for Democracy government of Myanmar, led by State Counselor and party chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi, commentators have been quick to summarize the year negatively. After all, newspapers and blogs are more avidly read if they bring news of fresh disasters, not the mundane, nitty-gritty, of the hard slog of governing. However, in the case of Myanmar there are other causes for the several tales of woe that have emerged in recent days.

The first is that the NLD had no experience of governing before taking power five months after the 2015 elections. Moreover, the NLD is not a political party of the kind we normally think of. It had no articulate and developed set of policy alternatives and no carefully conceived strategies of implementation, nor did it have an ideological drive to give it momentum to govern. Rather, after being suppressed for two decades, it emerged as a disjointed organization with only one goal -- replacing the military government. This it has only partially achieved, thanks to the artful way the army structured the constitution to ensure that it maintained the ability to control the pace of political change.

Second is the lionized position of Suu Kyi. Long considered at home and abroad as an icon, a person worthy of veneration for the sacrifices she made during her long years of house arrest in the name of another current icon, the ideology of democracy, it is not surprising that she is now treated as someone who must be obeyed. Moreover, as daughter of Gen. Aung San, the founding father of modern Myanmar, she was known before her arrest as someone who was somewhat imperious in her relations with others -- a trait she shared with her mother. This has led to complaints that she tends to be dictatorial or not respectful toward some who are made to feel as if she is looking down on them. That is their perception -- not, no doubt, her intention -- but whatever the cause, it makes policy discussions in government difficult if not impossible. It is not helped, moreover, by her reluctance to meet with the press and explain her policies and her problems. Governing is in part about dialogue, and there has been remarkably little of that in the past year.

Third, many of the problems the NLD government inherited from its semi-military predecessors are massive -- defeating all attempts to resolve them by previous governments of Myanmar, going back to colonial times. Their roots are deep in the country's history and are perhaps ultimately unresolvable. They include issues like the conflict between Buddhism and Islam; inchoate demands for federalism by ethnic minorities, often armed and in semi-permanent civil strife with the army; and issues of citizenship claims by communities such as the so-called Rohingya Muslims, which combine ethnicity with religious assertions of rights. These all have to be managed if they cannot be resolved. No government up to now has done more than that. Why should it be expected that the NLD, even led by an icon, could resolve them in a year?

The NLD identified two priorities when it took power -- the peace process to resolve the country's nearly 70-year civil war between the central government and largely peripheral ethnic minorities; and economic growth. The NLD's decision to close the Myanmar Peace Center, established in Yangon by the previous government which managed the peace process to a partial success, and begin anew with another center in Naypyitaw eroded momentum. Moreover, the vagueness of the NLD's position on the form and direction of the process and lack of new initiatives or ideas to stimulate progress has apparently led to backsliding on all sides. Armed conflict in the north has not lessened but grown in recent months.

Command and control

As with the peace process, so with the economy -- which has faltered during the past year, It is tempting and easy for commentators, be they retired diplomats, disgruntled citizens, or tea shop philosophers, to put the blame on one person. Aung San Suu Kyi is accused of micromanaging and, if true, she needs strong people around her to begin to manage her and her limited time. As state counselor, a role which many now see as equivalent to prime minister -- as well as foreign minister, with all that post entails in terms of travel and time commitments -- she is pulled in many directions at once. With no previous experience at government, and in the later part of her life, it is asking a lot of her to do what her predecessors have failed to do.

Persons who seek or are thrust into positions of governmental leadership without years of political experience behind them often struggle to govern effectively. Witness the Trump White House. Almost every major initiative that the U.S. president has undertaken has been reversed by the courts or the congress. A president who knew his way around Washington, who had built alliances with members of his own party and the opposition over the years, who was adept at managing the media, who had the gift of the gab to reach out to folks, would not have faced so many failures so quickly. Similarly, Suu Kyi came to power from being idolized, but with no experience of party politics or government as we know it.

What else should have been expected of her?

Even if the NLD had a different leader, one more accessible to the media, and one with the political experience we normally expect of our leaders, he or she would face a fourth major obstacle to achieving the success that the NLD governments critics seek: the bureaucracy through which the government governs.

Myanmar has a bureaucracy, shaped by the previous military government and staffed by many former and some serving army officers, which is better at command and control than creativity and initiative. Indeed, creativity and initiative are positively discouraged. The slogan: Ma lou' ma pyo' ma sho' -- "don't do any work, don't take any actions, don't get fired," has been the guiding star for the bureaucracy for decades. Changing that mindset in just one year is an impossible task.

Dialogue and discussion, explanation and response, disagreement and discord, are at the heart of effective government. The military administrations that shaped Myanmar's current bureaucracy discouraged if not prohibited this process. Hence, the failure of the economy and the society to develop or for political life to flourish. Since 2011 Myanmar's civil servants have heard many speeches from foreign experts and attended many seminars about panaceas which have worked elsewhere, but that is not the same thing as dealing with Myanmar's actual inheritance which needs not only to be managed but to be changed.

Command and control held Myanmar together but initiative and discourse will be necessary to make it flourish. When the leader appears not to encourage initiative and discourse, ministers and their civil servants are not likely to advance ideas which might not find favor from above. "He who dares wins," in some contexts, is not a slogan of the brave but of the foolhardy. Who is willing to stand up and be the first iconoclast?

Robert H. Taylor is currently a visiting research scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University. His most recent book is General Ne Win: A Political Biography (Singapore ISEAS, 2015), to be published in Burmese in May.

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