Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD: the fading tale of democracy
The red-light beams once again for the NLD-led (National League for Democracy) government of Myanmar (Burma) following the narrow victory of this year’s by-election which took place on November 5th. Despite the party’s optimistic forecast of a robust majority, only about 54% of seats were won, scoring barely over half of the vacancies.
Striking the Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD as a shock though, the result was by no means unforeseen. The reality is that harbingers of NLD’s decline of support have been pervasive from political to economic front, from the macro-environment to the micro level, from Rohingya crisis to constant downgrading of GDP growth estimate.
“We don’t see anything different“
Behind the ever-growing problems and the brewing public discontent is the political quagmire the government is stuck into. Striving to gear up to the expectations but repeatedly disappointing the people and the international community, NLD government faces challenges from legal constraints set up by the previous military regime, mismanagement of the ethnic tensions, to the inertia to economic reform. “We don’t see anything different,” said Aung Kaung Myat, a 25-year-old student from Yangon, his observation says it all.
2015 was perhaps the most glorious year for NLD, the landslide victory successfully landed the much-admired figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leadership position of the country as the state counselor. But the military, or locally known as Tatmadaw, had never terminated its control of the state completely.
The military-drafted 2008 Constitution, currently adopted by the country, retains substantial privileges for Tatmadaw. In both houses of the parliament, one out of four seats belong to the military, and that excludes the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (UNDP). Tatmadaw also continues to exert control over three key ministries, Ministry of Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defense. Guaranteeing military’s prominent status, the Constitution design also makes it essentially impossible for others to amend it.
“It was a mistake for NLD to accept the 2008 Constitution, it was not legitimate until the NLD accepted it”, said Aung Kaung Myat, expressing his grievance over the decision NLD made in 2015 to participate in the election.
Indisputable responsibility lies on the military, especially, for the Rohingya crisis and the ongoing civil war with ethnic minorities in the border states. In spite of the mounting pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi and the government, Pan Pwint, a 28-year-old Yangon native, came to her defense : “she has no control of what the military does.” She explained that the military is to blame.
Other than Rohingyas in Rakhine state, Tatmadaw engages in multiple wars and atrocities with many ethnic groups like Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in the Kokang Region. The government did endeavor to create a platform, 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, in pursuit of negotiating a ceasefire agreement. The National Ceasefire agreement was even signed in October 2015, but so far there have been only ten signatories with the large armed ethnic groups refusing to take part because of the ongoing oppression of the military and its refusal of compromising to ethnic minorities’ greater autonomy call.
Besides Tatmadaw’s culpable practices, NLD government’s determination to defend democracy and freedom comes under fire. A well-known example is the case of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were prosecuted and sentenced to seven years in prison for violating Officials Secrets Act when investigating the killings of Rohingya people in Rakhine state.
Stephen J. Adler, Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief, released a statement in November defending their former staffs, “In condemning them as spies, it ignored compelling evidence of a police set-up, serious due process violations, and the prosecution’s failure to prove any of the key elements of the crime,” echoing the international outcry towards Myanmar’s undermined press freedom and rule of law.
Humanitarian crisis of Rohingyas
The humanitarian crisis of Rohingyas in the Rakhine state can be another example. In spite of the military’s inhumane practice and the extent to which Aung San Suu Kyi’s hands are tied for altering the status quo, the inaction and indifference of her toward the issue were largely censured. “She’s a politician”, said Dr. Han Enze of the University of Hong Kong who has been researching on Myanmar politics for years. “If you are a politician, you need to think about the support”, reflecting the reality that the crisis is to a certain degree backed by the Burmese population, as the anti-Rohingya sentiment is prevalent domestically.
The economy, unfortunately, has not seen much progress either. Gone are the years of more-than-ten-percent GDP growth rate of the country. Since NLD was elected, GDP growth rate has been oscillating between five to seven percent. Economic outlook, on the other hand, is not any promising. The latest report released by the World Bank East Asia and Pacific economic update cut Myanmar’s projected growth rate in 2018-19 from 6.7 to 6.2 percent, citing reasons of edging-up inflations, rising cost, seasonal floods and the impact of the Rakhine crisis.
Domestically, protectionism, lack of clear policies, slow-paced reform, and gerontocracy hijack the economic development. For example, though Myanmar Investment Commission released the notification to further liberalize restrictions on foreign investment in retail sector, it took over a year for a practical policy directive to be published with high financial bar for foreign investors to actually engage in the business.
Adding to the problem is the aged cabinet, casting doubt on whether the government is “qualified enough to lead the country to economic growth,” said Aung Kaung Myat. Not only did the old officials fail to recognize the benefits of liberalization, but the “bureaucracy is still the same,” said Dr. Han, “with inefficiency derived from lots of red tapes,” the ability of them to actually carry out policies is still in doubt.
Despite the majority of the people still seem to support Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the zenith of the party’s overwhelming support is probably in the past. As a Taiwanese expat in Yangon, Chang Fu Kan, commented : “She has fallen off the ‘shrine’,” as people begin to see her true colors and capability. “It is kind of wrong for them (general public) to believe in only one political leader and have absolute faith in [her],” said Win Lai Lai, 21 from Yangon.
As democratization and economic growth stagnate, the enormous pressure and challenges that fall on Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD are unimaginable. As the next general election in 2020 approaches, however, the government’s every move is under scrutiny by the people of Myanmar, the military, and the international society.
Cover picture. Aung San Suu Kyi in the Polish senate, in 2013. Credits : Michał Józefaciuk