Optimism and despair in Myanmar

07 February 2017

In February 2016 Myanmar saw its first freely elected government in more than half a century sworn in to parliament. But while change is happening, a more inclusive and democratic country remains elusive, write Justine Chambers and Gerard McCarthy.

It is a year since Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) were installed as the first democratically elected government in Myanmar after more than 50 years of authoritarian rule.

Following months of speculation about whether the military would hand power to an NLD-led government, in early February 2016 crowds gathered around tea shop televisions across Myanmar as people proudly watched their new representatives take seats in the national Parliament. Young and old tearfully sung patriotic anthems and heaved a collective sigh of relief, content that their national political fates had finally turned.

This cautious optimism was reinforced in March 2016 when it was announced that U Htin Kyaw, a close aide of long-time democracy campaigner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, would be the new president. Suu Kyi confirmed that she would take the position of State Counsellor – a role she said would be “above the President”. The release of hundreds of political prisoners in April prior to the New Year celebrations cemented people’s sense that 2016 was the dawning of a new era for Myanmar. Celebrations during the Thingyan festival in April took on a new and optimistic tone, as people playfully threw water, welcoming in a democratic dawn.

It wasn’t long before fault-lines began to appear in the form of lethargic constitutional reform, rising commodity prices, escalating military campaigns and a growing land rights crisis across much of the country. Meanwhile, reports from international organisations highlighted that the majority of Myanmar’s people continue to struggle with poverty and dire debt, constraining their ability to enjoy the benefits of political and economic reform.

The ongoing military campaign against ethnic Kachin insurgents and other members of the Northern Alliance in the second half of 2016 has led some commentators to question the government’s capacity to oversee the military as well as the security forces’ own commitment to the peace process. Despite public displays of unity and steps towards reconciliation at the much lauded ‘21st Century Panglong’ peace conference in August 2016, it has become increasingly difficult for ethnic minority groups to look to the future with ‘courage’ as Daw Suu asked in her closing speech.

Life for Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority also worsened during 2016 since coordinated attacks on border police posts in October by a militant group. Alleged abuse and rape of civilians by security forces during subsequent military ‘clearance operations’ in northern Rakhine state, documented in recent days in a devastating United Nations report, have driven thousands of civilians to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Despite a positive government and military response to the release of video of security forces beating Rohingya civilians, broader allegations of abuse have been largely dismissed so far.

The government’s defensive approach to both domestic and international media investigating these claims echoes old authoritarian tactics and speaks to an assumed relationship of civilian deference to the military.

Questions remain about the willingness of the government to respond to allegations against the military. The brutal assassination of U Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer and the architect of Suu Kyi’s State Counsellor position, at Yangon Airport on 29 January sends a clear message that intense resistance will continue to undermine the transition to a truly democratic, civilian-led Myanmar. It is still unclear whether the appointment in early 2017 of a civilian — career diplomat Thaung Tun — to the newly-created position of National Security Advisor will strengthen civilian oversight over military affairs.

Setbacks and challenges are expected in any political transition. In Myanmar, formal and informal legacies of authoritarian rule – including military control of 25 per cent of parliament and a number of key ministries including the military and Home Affairs — have proven resilient, significantly constraining the ability of the new NLD government to deliver the kind of change expected by everyday people.

These are just some of the issues to be explored at the 2017 Myanmar Update in Canberra next week.

Over a year since the new Parliament was sworn in, more than 40 experts will give insight into the underlying dynamics and on-the-ground effects of Myanmar’s fitful transformation.

The majority of presenters hail from Myanmar institutions, a sign of how far the country has come given that – until recent years — Myanmar scholars had few chances for engagement and exchange abroad. Universities, long suppressed, are becoming sites of debate and critical thought, including about Myanmar’s civil conflicts.

Clearly things are changing in Myanmar. Identifying what remains resilient, and how obstacles to a more inclusive and democratic Myanmar can be navigated, will prove essential as the NLD enters its second year as the first popularly-elected government in decades.

Gerard McCarthy and Justine Chambers are co-convenors of the 2017 Myanmar Update taking place at the Australian National University, 17-18 February. To register head to Myanmar.anu.edu.au.

This article was first published on New Mandala.

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team