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The many challenges before Myanmar

Following the 2 November 2020 election, the military-backed USDP party and the military started to criticise the election process and claimed that massive fraud had taken place in NLD’s second landslide win. The call for investigation was rejected by both the Election Commission and the government.

SPECIAL TO ANN | New Delhi |

From leadership to China, the economy, Covid-19 and press freedom, Myanmar is in a tight spot on many fronts. We examine some of these.

NLD’s relations with the Military: Most of Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian ministerial appointees were political prisoners during the long decades of military rule. But they remained “activist” by nature and proved to be “ineffective” administrators – fuelling rumours throughout the past few years of an eventual coup. The NLD team’s performance was always compared that of to its predecessor Gen Thein Sein who began the democratization and liberalization process which led to the 2015 national elections won by the National League for Democracy.

Following the 2 November 2020 election, the military-backed USDP party and the military started to criticise the election process and claimed that massive fraud had taken place in NLD’s second landslide win. The call for investigation was rejected by both the Election Commission and the government.

On Janurary 31, the military press team issued a release citing over 10 million instances of vote fraud and requested the Election Commission to release a comprehensive election roll call, a request that was quickly again rejected by the government and the commission. There is no love lost between the military and NLD politicians most of whom are now under house arrest.

Peace Talks: Uniting different ethnic factions – especially armed groups – was Aung San Suu Kyi’s flagship policy. But it progressed at a snail’s pace and had stalled over the past few years. All was not going well and the increase in activities by insurgency groups such as the Arakan Army fueled further conflicts from eastern to western borders. But Suu Kyi appeared to have thrown all her energy into making it work. She was truly her “father’s daughter”. But many critics said the effort was a strategic mistake, suggesting that the economy should have been the priority as a prelude to bringing about peace among the different factions.

It’s difficult to say anything about the future of peace talks. The ethnic groups probably preferred to negotiate with the civilian government rather than the military hardliners but the latter was always going to have the final say. As of now, the coup has been condemned by large ethnic groups with armed factions such as the Karen National Union.

Rohingya: This is one of the few issues on which Aung San Suu Kyi saw completely eye-to-eye with the military. But her personal defense of Myanmar’s back-to-the-wal l Rohingya policy isolated the State Counsellor from the world completely. She might have gone to the World Criminal Court in the Hague but never once did she visit Rakhine State. The repatriation of millions of displaced person – not only those in Bangladesh but within Rakhine State itself – will keep pressure on Myanmar politically, economically and socially. The military is unlikely to give way as it has always used this as a populist tool for domestic support.

Covid-19:Myanmar’s poor public health system meant that infections were going to run away. The number of cases now stand at 140,354 with 3,318 deaths. Of these 125,324 had recovered. Dr Thet Khine Win, a Secretary of the Ministry of Health, has been appointed as Minister of Health and Sports, signaling a continuation of the Covid containment strategy under the new military government. Vaccines just began to arrive in Myanmar last week through the Covishield programme from India. A concerted vaccination effort has not yet taken off. Overall, Myanmar is dealing with a reduction in the second wave of Covid infections. The economy has been badly hit by Covid-19. GDP growth has been stagnant over the past year, but poverty has increased in the country.

Economy: This was the NLD led government’s Achilles Heel in the past four years as the economy played second fiddle to ethnic peace efforts. Sentiment was further dampened by the Rohingya exodus crisis and a sharp drop in tourism in 2019 while in 2020, the business was further hit by Covid-19. But the welfare of those at the grassroots has not seen much improvement and Covid-19 pushed many into poverty.

Some political pundits have suggested that NLD would have lost more seats in the November 2020 elections if it hadn’t played the “return to military rule” card in an effort to woo voters. The economy grew at about 6 per cent in 2019, somewhat below expectations of an investment hungry nation. China continues to be Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor. Some progress was seen under the NLD-led economic team in investment in electricity supply and transportation.

Nonetheless in the past few years businesses have been complaining about indecisiveness and incompetence of cabinet ministers, whose background is mostly of political activism.

Press Freedom: Surprisingly more intolerant and draconian than her predecessor former president Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi proved to have a “thin skin” and failed to defend the “rule of law” (among the harshest in the world) over freedom of speech. A number of journalists were put in jail and many media houses faced intimidation. The most high-profile case was of the two local Reuters journalists who were jailed for their investigation into an army atrocity on the Rohingya community. The government was also an active user of the infamous telecom law under which the accused can go to jail when charged and before trial.

Press freedom, despite all hope, fell substantially since NLD came to power in 2015. Self-censorship prevailed throughout. No improvement in press freedom is expected under the military junta.

Leadership: Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership reference was always made against that of her predecessor and former president Thein Sein who was credited with Myanmar’s opening up on political and economic fronts. She was not seen as a competent leader but more as a popular icon. Myanmar’s long years of education collapse meant that the inexperienced civilian ministers and inefficient bureaucracy could not advance Thein Sein’s achievements. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing now controls the executive, military, and judiciary. His ambition to become the president is well noted and he could run in the next election which the military appears to aim for in a year.

Min Aung Hlaing’s style of governance is still not quite clear, but it looks as though he aims to improve the economy and get Covid under control, according to his initial statements. His quickly-announced cabinet include 11 new members. Many of them are former ministers of the USDP government under Thein Sein or former military officials.

China: Relations with China during the past four years heightened with Myanmar’s isolation because of the Rohingya crisis. Aung San Suu Kyi was drawn into China’s orbit alongside the military. China continues to tread with the policy of non-interference. Along with Russia, China looks to continue to defend Myanmar at the UN Security Council.

China does not want to see Myanmar plunged into political instability and chaos especially at its borders as many projects are now being negotiated under the Belt and Road Intiative. Myanmar is important to China’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean and to future development of the Yunnan Province as well as energy supply from the Bay of Bengal.

The US has indicated the looming threat of sanctions. On paper, Singapore accounts for highest percentage of FDI to Myanmar, but a lot of the investors are American companies investing through Singapore. With sanctions, Myanmar could become more dependent on China. American sanctions are thus seen as bad for Myanmar and could prove to be counterproductive.

World: The arrests of Ang San Suu Kyi and senior NLD members is a watershed moment in Myanmar’s relations with the world. She herself is unpopular with other world leaders because of her stance on the Rohingya and was seen as an ineffective, stubborn and self-serving leader. But many will also feel disappointment as Myanmar steps back from democracy – having come so far – to another possible long military-rule era. The military will propel economic management to the forefront as they have more capable people than Suu Kyi in this area. The military may reach out to the US to try and avoid sanctions. Even if they show progress, it will be not easy. The Rohingya crisis will be pivotal.