The reviews (and votes) are in for Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and they are not positive. The NLD’s grace period to show progress is short and it will be unable to lean on excuses (however justified) of inheriting a dilapidated economy, infrastructure, and a nation ravaged by civil war. The government must show action toward building a sound foundation for the country and demonstrate that it is, as the party has often said, for the people.
Many of these challenges are difficult to address for even mature democracies. However, there are initial steps Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD-led government can take to help rebuild its connection to supporters and get back on its path.
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The litany of first year post-mortems reflect disappointment and deep frustration. Some things will take time, including the role of the military, national reconciliation, and racial and sectarian sentiment and policies. The military holds 25 percent of all parliamentary seats, three important ministerial posts, and is a key player in Myanmar’s defining challenge: national reconciliation, a ceasefire and political dialogue aimed to end decades of armed resistance.
Peace will not easily be achieved particularly as the armed (and non-armed) ethnic nationalities not only mistrust the military, but the majority ethnic Bamar (of which Aung San Suu Kyi and the majority of the NLD belong). Peace talks have stalled and the NLD’s pro-democracy and non-military background credentials did not convince groups to sign an accord. The military has asserted its authority in the process, resulting in heightened tensions and ongoing clashes. The government must walk a fine line with the military to ensure trust building and the continuation of democratization but also to push for a lasting peace.
The government is also failing with regard to Rohingya and anti-Muslim violence — at its core, a racial issue — and its inaction and bigoted comments continue to shock the international community. Though the NLD should not be given a free pass (particularly as the West clearly struggles with race and anti-Muslim sentiment), it should be understood these issues will not be resolved overnight.
Despite this, the government has authority to enact its agenda but has undermined itself and its success. The party selected ministers who were unqualified, had little capacity or related experience, and were left without decision-making authority. Aung San Suu Kyi herself took four ministerial portfolios, but whittled this down to two and created a new, all-encompassing role of State Counselor. Her micromanaging leadership style is stifling decision-making, creating serious bottlenecks and driving ministers and deputies to inaction.
More disturbing has been the government’s stance on human rights and political freedoms, which has not only undermined support from prodemocracy and civil society groups, but also from the international community that has lavished praise for years. In short, the NLD-led government has had a difficult first year governing.
Getting Back on Track
That said, it can take a series of steps to get back on track.
Mend Fences and Be More Inclusive: This is where the NLD has done itself the most unnecessary harm. The party enjoyed goodwill from pro-democracy groups, ethnic nationalities, and civil society and rather than capitalize on it, the NLD shunned inclusivity, and in some cases, purposefully cut out groups like the 88 Generation Students and Shan and Rakhine States-based parties. Myanmar is plagued by political fractiousness, something that voters in 2015 recognized and sought to eliminate by getting a parliamentary majority, and not a messy coalition government. But voters expect the NLD to listen to the various ethnic nationalities and other pro-democracy leaders. Though relationships are strained, it is not too late to undo the damage.
Provide More Frequent Policy Status Updates: The lack of policy statements and updates is resulting in decreased confidence and confusion (foreign investment is set to drop 30 percent this year) among the local and international communities. The release of its economic policy last year fell flat and there has been little discernible movement on improving the document. The NLD must demonstrate efforts are underway and provide consistent updates, even if there is nothing to say or progress is not as visible, to allay fears.
Establish a Clear Civilian Hierarchy: In a political system that mixes military officials with civilian bureaucrats, establishing a ranking system providing an equivalent military status to a civil servant may ease decision-making challenges and get both sides to speak the same language. The United States has such a system that provides clear authority without questions. A rank can be based on experience, years of service, and job title with requirements for a particular rank publicly available.
Curb Micromanaging and Build Capacity: Micromanaging will undo this government and this party should work as a team, not as competitors or puppets. Aung San Suu Kyi and her ministers must be self-reflective and delineate decisions critical for the State Counselor or for the responsible ministry and respective chains of command. They must commit to provide resources to build each minister’s capacity where needed coupled with explicit guidance on professional accountability. This not only boosts confidence among the electorate and investors, but it would start fixing the government’s tattered legacy.
Look to the Party’s Future: A constant concern revolves around future NLD leadership. Initial steps to cultivate and infuse fresh ideas into party faltered, leaving younger members frustrated and former political prisoners unsure of their place. The NLD not only should recruit new members, but ensure it fosters and builds capacity among current members, assuring disappointed members, ensuring future stability, and building a clear leadership path to halt fractiousness and foster unity.
Remember the Mandate and the People: The NLD was the voice of the people and was expected to use its authority to remedy the atrocities of the past and pave the way for a democratic future. The NLD-led government’s stance on freedoms of the press and speech and lack of progress on core economic issues have many wondering who the government speaks for. Yes, the NLD must be wary of flash points with the military, but this party was elected to start sweeping away draconian laws, not enforce them, bring about peace, not stifle it, and brings jobs, education opportunities, and a stronger economy, not suppress them. The party still has the faith of the people, it must now earn their respect.
Acceptance of a difficult first year should be viewed as an opportunity. This is a time to stop making excuses, be clear and transparent with goals, work with long-time supporters, and demonstrate governing that will bring the country back to and beyond its past prominence. Myanmar cannot do that by wallowing in its own mistakes and giving into the fractiousness and mistrust that has percolated for decades.
As for the international community, we must stop viewing Myanmar as a mature democracy; it is still at the beginning and is dealing with issues that even mature governments consistently mishandle. We must be constructive, continue to highlight and bring truth to serious issues, and find a way to help all sides find stability, safety, and growth.
Erin Murphy is the Principal and Founder of Inle Advisory Group, a Myanmar and emerging market-centric business advisory firm. She was previously the Special Assistant to the U.S. State Department’s Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma and a political analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency.