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Suu Kyi under pressure for inaction as honeymoon glow starts to fade

(Photo: Reuters)

By Larry Jagan
Bangkok Post
August 14, 2016

The NLD continues to urge patience as it starts to transform Myanmar, but critics see little evidence of change after its first 100 days in power

It is now more than four months since Aung San Suu Kyi took power -- forming the country's first civilian government for more than 50 years. 

But the public euphoria that followed her National League for Democracy's overwhelming electoral victory last November has subsided. There is increasing criticism of the lack of change and the absence of clear policies during her first 100 days of official governance.

The promises that followed victory at the polls have left many people confused and irritated.

"The main change I've experienced in the last three months is that the price of eggs has jumped from 100 kyat each to 150 kyat," complained May Kyi, an 80-year-old pensioner who voted for the NLD, although she preferred to blame the previous government for this rather than Ms Suu Kyi.

Food prices have risen significantly since April and the Central Bank of Myanmar recently put the Consumer Price Index at 12.14%.

Inflation since the new government took over is running at over 10%, according to bankers, like Soe Thain, the deputy general manager of the Asia Green Development Bank.

Consumers believe the figure is closer to double that. Hanthar Myint, an NLD economic adviser and member of the party's central executive committee, acknowledged prices were rising significantly and that the government had no clear handle on the actual situation, which in turn hampers policy decisions. "We don't have reliable figures or data," he told Spectrum.


This is seen as symptomatic of a general malaise in government. Critics say the country is directionless, amid an acute policy vacuum.

"There are no policies, plans or strategy," said KK Hlaing, owner of the Smart group of companies and a political commentator.

As a result there is an intense inertia in government administration, with the business community in particular frustrated by the government's repeated delays in announcing the new economic policy. When it was finally unveiled at the end of July, it left many business people disappointed as it was too general and failed to give details of how the new government was going to boost economic growth and further liberalise the economy.

In the meantime, Ms Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, the key position she created for herself in April which effectively makes her the equivalent of the prime minister, is distracted by the peace process, to the exclusion of all else, according to some analysts.

"But she should not neglect the economy," said KK Hlaing. "If business grows, the country grows. Otherwise there is a danger of social and economic unrest, which would certainly threaten the country's stability."

"The government is rudderless," said a Myanmar businessman who deals directly with several ministers, on condition of anonymity. "It's like a ship without a helmsman."


Part of the problem, according to many Myanmar academics and business people, is the cabinet.

"These ministers lack credibility," said Nay Zin Latt, a former political adviser to president Thein Sein and founder of the National Development Party which did not win a seat in the November elections. "It's a team of nobodies, idealess and docile."

Most observers believe many of the ministers are only temporary, meant to pacify the bureaucracy and start to develop a plan of action for each ministry.

After only four months in office, a major cabinet reshuffle seems to be in the pipeline. According to NLD insiders, the selection of the ministers was part of a deliberate strategy. All the ministers are in their sixties and seventies -- many with previous government experience as bureaucrats.

Critics charge they are likely to be cautious in their policy approaches and the pace of change.

Stability, for the moment, appears to be the government watchword.

"Ministers must have a passion for the country, passion for the people and initiate dramatic change," said KK Hlaing. "This lot are too worried about doing something wrong, being reprimanded or sacked."

Many Myanmar academics, businessmen and social activists fear the new government has chosen stability over development.

One key consequence of the NLD's failure to grapple with the problems facing the country, is that government administration remains paralysed, with no clear policy positions in most sectors and most ministers and bureaucrats waiting to be told what to do.

"The public servants are sitting at their desks doing nothing while waiting for instructions from above," Hanthar Myint said.

Since the cabinet was sworn in, Ms Suu Kyi has continued to be careful not to upset the bureaucrats.

The former parliamentary speaker, Shwe Mann -- who was the third most important general in the regime before the 2010 elections -- has been a key adviser to Ms Suu Kyi and counselled her early on to be careful not to pick unnecessary fights or antagonise the bureaucracy.

She has followed that advice stringently. Ms Suu Kyi warned her MPs not to criticise the country's public servants and told senior party officials to be patient and not put pressure on them to change just yet.


Originally, the permanent secretaries -- the top public servant in each ministry and appointed by the previous government some 18 months ago -- were seen by the NLD as essential for the continuity of management and policy, something Hanthar Myint confided shortly after the elections. Uncertainty dominates all the positions in Myanmar public service, but it is even more unsettling for the top ranks of the ministries: directors-general and directors.

Most ministers are unable to provide leadership, leaving much to the permanent secretaries. In most ministries this has resulted in inactivity and confusion.

There is no incentive to perform even the perfunctory tasks of the job. As a result there are bottlenecks in the system.

A senior official in the agriculture ministry recently summed up the situation: "Before, top government officials were ruled by fear, now we're ruled by frustration."

Businessmen complain that nothing is happening, that ministers seem loathe to make decisions and that the government generally is overwhelmed. The Myanmar Investment Commission -- which approves foreign investment projects and joint ventures -- was recently reconstituted and only met for the first time in June. It has met twice since then -- though few joint ventures and foreign investment projects have been approved.

Foreign direct investment -- a significant part of the government's economic strategy -- has fallen to a trickle, according to government officials. MIC figures show foreign investment stood at $381 million (13.3 billion baht) for the first quarter of this fiscal year, about a sixth of the previous year when Myanmar attracted a total of $9.48 billion.

But there have been reasons for this hiatus, as businessmen -- especially foreign investors -- are quietly waiting for the government to announce its policies and priorities. There are exceptions of course, with Asian entrepreneurs, especially from Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, anxious to increase their toehold in the country.


Another key issue re-emerging is corruption: though not among the ministers, but bureaucrats, especially in the state and regional governments.

"Things haven't changed," said one Myanmar businessman.

"Corruption is endemic," complained KK Hlaing. "Corruption is evident in every sector and every region. The higher the position, the greater the corruption."

But most Myanmar businessmen believe Ms Suu Kyi's uncompromising stand on corruption has set an example for all her ministers.

"Corruption remains a huge challenge for the government," said Maung Maung Lay, vice-chairman of the Union of Myanmar's Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

"What is needed is a master plan for how the government intends to stamp out corruption, and as yet nothing concrete has been done, though the intention is there."


In the meantime, the NLD is carefully choosing its battles in the post-election period: ones that are seen as crucial to the government's long-term strategy. For some years there has been a festering battle between the NLD and the Buddhist nationalist movement -- Ma Ba Tha, or the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion.

In government, the Union Solidarity and Development Party used them as a battering ram against the NLD -- particularly Ms Suu Kyi -- accusing her of being pro-Muslim. The NLD struggled with the issue last year -- and took every step to avoid any direct confrontation with the movement, especially the firebrand monk Ashin Wirathu.

The NLD went as far as to ban the selection of Muslim candidates in last year's election for fear of inflaming religious tensions, according to a senior NLD leader.

The NLD's massive electoral victory was a shock and rebuff to the movement, which thought it had captured the minds of the Buddhists at least -- which make up the vast majority of the country.

Recently Ashin Wirathu seemed to be making a cautious comeback, holding several high-profile rallies in Yangon and Mandalay -- his home base. But the NLD took on Ma Ba Tha, calling for it to be disbanded because it had no religious authority.

In this battle, the party seems to be winning. The Buddhist ruling body has declared that it was never sanctioned or agreed to. In an important ruling, it said that Ma Ba Tha had no official Buddhist status and the Sangha may even disband it altogether in the near future. This has been greeted with approval by many Myanmar citizens, and has been a significant win for the NLD, and for the time being at least has reduced the group's influence.


Also on the positive side, a recent series of meetings between Ms Suu Kyi and the leaders of ethnic armed groups -- who have been fighting for autonomy for more than 60 years -- has increased the likelihood that planned 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference will take place at the end of this month, after which the renewed peace process could bring an end to hostilities in ethnic areas -- especially in Kachin and Shan state -- and provide an impetus for political dialogue, which envisages making Myanmar a federal state.

This is still somewhat precarious, but it has also revealed that the relationship between the NLD and the military has improved since the "tug-of-war" immediately after the election.

Ms Suu Kyi has held several secret meetings with army commander-in-chief Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing -- largely about the peace process and constitutional change. Several public meetings between the two also highlight the growing warmth and understanding between them -- which also augurs well for the country's future.

So as the government completes its first four months in office -- or first hundred days, which the NLD dates from the beginning of May rather than April -- the conventional honeymoon period, there seems to have been little change so far. Be patient, is the mantra of senior government officials.

But the growing public unease is unlikely to be placated until the government announces its plan of action for all the ministries -- which was expected to be the key results of the first "100 days" of government.

"Nothing is actually worse now, and at best much has been done, is ready to go and will be unveiled in detail in the near future," said Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar's economy at Sydney's Macquarie University and an informal adviser to Ms Suu Kyi, in an email interview.

"Above all, the entire system is much more stable and predictable. Fifty years of arbitrary and irrational decision-making has been replaced by, whatever the complaints about the pace of change, with something that is essentially just 'normal' political economy."

Comedian and political activist Zaganar said, "We should be cautiously optimistic."

What is clear is that while the middle classes -- academics, businessmen and professionals -- may be disappointed and frustrated, the mass of the population which voted the NLD into power, remain hopeful and supportive.

"It's best to be safe, slow and sure," said Win Lwin, a 40-year-old taxi driver in Yangon who voted for the NLD. "We trust Auntie and are confident she will succeed in making the country better for everyone."

But for how long will they be patient?

"We have a year to meet their expectations," senior NLD leader and patron Tin Oo said shortly after the election results.

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