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Myanmar’s year of high hopes

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Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attends a meeting event with Myanmar citizens residing in Japan in Tokyo, Japan (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

In Brief

2016 was supposed to be Myanmar’s year. After an overwhelming victory in the November 2015 election, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) would get to form a government, realising a democratic transition decades in the making.


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Although the military retained significant control and many intractable problems remained, domestic and international observers were hopeful that Aung San Suu Kyi’s widespread support could translate into progress in national reconciliation, economic development, political reform and a host of other areas.

Unfortunately that progress has not materialised. Since the relatively successful convening of the ‘21st Century Panglong Conference’ in October 2016, no additional groups have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and the situation on the ground has deteriorated. Sporadic fighting continued throughout 2016 between the military and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) in Kachin and Shan States, exacerbating an already-intolerable displacement crisis. A November attack on the military by a coalition of EAOs dubbed the ‘Northern alliance’ has upped the stakes, with the government negotiating team digging in its heels and reinforcing the military’s long-standing position that the only way to dialogue is by signing the NCA.

A 9 October series of attacks on security forces on the Rakhine State border with Bangladesh, allegedly carried out by Islamic militants, has reignited active conflict in that region of the country and resulted in a brutal clampdown by security forces since then.

While few would dispute Myanmar’s right to respond to the attacks, regular and credible reports of extrajudicial killing, rape and the burning of Rohingya villages have resulted in increased numbers of people attempting to flee the country. Many members of the international community have called for more transparency and restraint in the government’s response. Rejecting this call, the government has instead forcefully denied the allegations and pressured journalists seeking to cover the story.

Envisioned economic development has moved at a glacial pace, with perhaps the only bright spot being that the expected ‘free-for-all’ to extract Myanmar’s resources has not proceeded at the breakneck speed that many worried would simply exacerbate conflict. But deep concerns regarding persistent lack of oversight, transparency and consultation remain. The biggest news in this area was the controversial blanket lifting of sanctions by the United States on 7 October, which didn’t have the immediate effect that many had expected with conflict and instability continuing to dampen foreign direct investment.

The hoped-for vibrancy of an NLD-dominated parliament that included dozens of former political prisoners and grassroots activists has been actively stymied by NLD leadership. Freedom for members of parliament (MPs) to talk with the media has been restricted and opportunities for constructive debate in the legislature have been closed off. MPs are instructed to not ask tough questions that might make the government look bad.

Given this inauspicious start, what might we expect to see in Myanmar in 2017? While the biannual National Political Dialogue conferences will continue — and begin to move on to issues of substance — meaningful progress in that area will depend on establishing lasting peace on the ground in Shan and Kachin States, something that looks increasingly unlikely at the moment. The NLD is still likely to enjoy relatively strong public support in leading the negotiations, but continued convergence of its stance with the military’s hard-line position will likely further alienate non-signatory groups and indicates that eventual negotiations over federalism could be quite contentious.

The creation of an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, was supposed to represent a way forward in that troubled area — to find a middle ground between domestic interests and international concerns. But the Commission might have been hamstrung at its conception. It has been consistently greeted with protests and boycotts since its first visit in September.

A US government potentially less concerned with protecting the Rohingya than with reinforcing norms of exclusionary xenophobia will also reduce pressure on the Myanmar government to fulfil even its minimal humanitarian duties. A few promising moments in July, where NLD officials and religious leaders publicly spoke out against religious hate speech and the divisive efforts of some members of Ma Ba Tha, have not seen any meaningful follow up. These tensions remain just below the surface.

Outside investment is likely to increase in the coming year, even if continued instability keeps it lower than expected. Government officials need to ensure that pressure for rapid economic growth does not come at the expense of community engagement and robust socially responsible development. Land rights continue to simmer as the only issue with the potential to ignite truly country-wide anti-government protests, so the government must tread carefully. There is also a concern that, having invested so much in Myanmar’s successful transition, many of the countries that supported its democracy movement for so long will be less inclined to challenge the NLD government on important issues of rights and justice.

Above all, progress will be elusive as long as Myanmar’s governance remains a one-woman show. Multiple reports since the NLD took power have described the bottleneck at the top of the government, where most decisions need to be approved by Aung San Suu Kyi. Not only does this limit the opportunities for knowledgeable people in government and civil society to contribute to policy development and implementation, it hampers the administration’s ability to deal with Myanmar’s multitude of priority issues in a timely fashion.

Only if Aung San Suu Kyi releases the restrictions (both formal and informal) on her own ministry officials and parliamentarians and embraces the expertise and energy from Myanmar’s impressive array of community-based organisations, will the country be able to effectively address its political, economic and social challenges in the coming year.

Matthew J. Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2016 in review and the year ahead.

One response to “Myanmar’s year of high hopes”

  1. Thanks for your goodwill and suggestions.
    But why do you think Al Jazeera is credible?
    Even the BBC always credible?
    As a scholar, you may be interested in knowing the history and truth behind the Rakhine issues. Below is the page which has download link for the book called “Rohingya Hoax” written by a respected scholar and printed in USA in 2009. Wish you have better insights and judgement along the way. Thanks.

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