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Embattled Suu Kyi crafts a 'fightback' strategy

Myanmar's de facto leader aims to counter criticism over Rohingya, reform delays

YANGON Stung by international criticism of military abuses in Rakhine State and by domestic complaints over the slow pace of reform, Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is crafting what could be termed a "fightback" strategy. Among the steps her administration is considering or already implementing are moves to improve conditions for the Muslim population in Rakhine and a package of economic reforms covering everything from tax and banking to liberalization of agriculture.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy government marks its first anniversary on April 1. Crucial tasks to be addressed ahead of this milestone include finalizing the national budget for fiscal 2017, which starts on April 1; implementing vital laws recently passed by parliament, including a new law governing both foreign and domestic investment; and preparing for a second round of nationwide peace talks with ethnic armed groups starting Feb. 28. There is also some discussion within the administration of a ministerial reshuffle.

FINE TUNING A cabinet revamp would reflect a recent review by Suu Kyi and her advisers of the performance of some ministers and senior administration personnel. Some foreign experts dealing with senior personnel have described the decision-making process as "chaotic," with too much power given to a series of committees -- mostly chaired by Suu Kyi herself -- made up largely of inexperienced ministers and, in some cases, outside experts.

Decisions often seem ill-conceived or arbitrary, at best, note observers. In a recent example, proposed laws governing foreigners in the country have dismayed the expatriate community and provoked protests from embassies and foreign businesses. At a forum in mid-February, foreign business associations said the onerous requirements and penalties of the laws would discourage overseas companies from setting up business. The government has given no clear explanation of the rationale behind the laws, although some officials said privately they were aimed largely at South Asian, Middle Eastern and Chinese nationals and reflected heightened concerns among security agencies about terrorism and foreign criminal elements.

After her government took power last April, Suu Kyi decided to merge numerous ministries, slash the size of the cabinet from nearly 40 members to about 22, and eliminate deputy minister positions. This initially created bureaucratic confusion and hampered decision-making throughout 2016. Deputy minister positions were later revived for some of the resulting mega-ministries.

Domestically, the biggest task for Suu Kyi is to oversee finalization of the 2017 budget, which according to early drafts will not differ significantly from the 2016 budget of President Thein Sein. Proposed increases will reflect the new government's desire to prioritize education, health and social services while holding the military budget at almost the same level as last year.

STINGING REBUKE In international terms, her most urgent challenge is to address escalating criticism of the government's human rights record. This sense of urgency has grown since the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a damning report in early February that concluded the government's actions in Rakhine State could amount to "crimes against humanity."

Under Myanmar's constitution, the civilian administration has no authority over the armed forces, or the Tatmadaw, and was thus powerless to curb the military's brutal response to the Oct. 9 attacks by Muslim militants on police border posts in Rakhine State. As enshrined in the constitution, the military holds three seats in the cabinet, a guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats and veto power over constitutional amendments. The charter also bars Suu Kyi from the presidency, although the post she created of state counselor has enabled her to position herself as de facto leader.

While the Tatmadaw has embraced the benefits of Myanmar's opening in recent years, building relationships with Western counterparts, it clearly feels it has made compromises -- including relinquishing some power -- in the new era of civilian-led government. The message from its sweeping and violent response in Rakhine State, and its campaign against armed groups in northern ethnic states, is that nobody can impinge on its core area of security operations.

The Myanmar military carries out operations around Maungdaw, in northern Rakhine State, in early 2017. (Photo by Hein Htet)

Even so, critics say that Suu Kyi, as de facto leader -- and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize -- must accept responsibility. The U.N.'s charge would put the government on a par with the worst rights violators and in the words of government spokesman Zaw Htay, is "extremely serious."

Suu Kyi was "deeply disturbed" by the report's findings, insiders say, and in December approved efforts to introduce reforms in Rakhine. Already, a quiet push in recent weeks has seen more than 250 stateless Muslims in Rakhine gain citizenship with more applications pending -- a move that will almost certainly be widely opposed by the country's majority Buddhist population. In small but significant steps, the government in January also approved measures to award pensions to Muslims who worked in the public sector and compensate Muslim volunteer teachers in community schools in Rakhine State. Funds are also being granted by the central government to renovate some 20 Muslim community schools with plans to upgrade other public facilities in Rakhine.

Many more efforts to win back the international community and shore up fraying domestic support are in the works. Some critics ask whether it could be too little, too late, but the view from the ground suggests that any initiatives that can rein in the powerful military, reform an ossified bureaucracy and a fledgling cabinet, and keep ethnic groups engaged in peace talks, are small triumphs in themselves. The real challenge is sustaining the momentum. The issue of Rakhine State remains the most difficult of reforms, reaching into the heart of the power configuration that enshrines the military's political power.

But Suu Kyi, who waited 27 years to lead her country, knows better than most that there are many ways to play -- and to win -- a long and daunting game.

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