By Pana Janviroj
Special to Nation Thailand
NLD's relations with the military
Most of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ministerial appointees were political prisoners during the decades of military rule. However, though they remained “activist” by nature, they proved to be “ineffective” as administrators – fuelling rumours over the past few years of an eventual coup.
The National League of Democracy (NLD) team’s performance was always compared to that of its predecessor – General Thien Sien – who began the country’s democratisation and liberalisation process leading to the 2015 national elections. NLD won this election by a landslide.
After the November 2, 2020 election, the military-backed USDP (Union Solidarity and Union Party) and the military began slamming the election process, putting NLD’s landslide win down to massive fraud. The call for an investigation was rejected by both the Union Election Commission and the NLD-led government.
On January 31, the military press team issued a statement citing more than 10 million instances of voter fraud and urged the Union Election Commission to release a comprehensive electoral roll call. This request was again rejected by the government and the commission.
There has been no love lost between the military and NLD politicians, most of whom are now under house arrest.
Uniting different ethnic factions – especially armed groups – was Suu Kyi’s flagship policy. But progress was being made at a snail’s pace and had even stalled over the past few years.
All was not going well and increased activities by insurgency groups like the Arakan Army further fuelled conflicts from the eastern to the western border. But Suu Kyi proved to be her father’s daughter and threw all her energy into making it work. Her father General Aung San was an iconic political and military leader.
However, many critics warned the effort was a strategic mistake, suggesting the economy should have been the priority as a prelude to bringing about peace among the different factions.
At this juncture, it’s difficult to say which direction the peace talks will take. The different ethnic groups probably prefer to negotiate with a civilian government instead of with military hardliners, even though the latter is always going to have the final say.
As of now, the coup is being condemned by most large ethnic groups with armed factions, such as the Karen National Union.
This was one of the few issues that Suu Kyi saw eye-to-eye with the military. However, her defence of Myanmar’s back-to-the-wall policy for the Rohingya people isolated her from the world completely. She may have gone to the World Criminal Court in the Hague, but she never once visited the Rakhine State.
The repatriation of millions of displaced persons, not just those in Bangladesh, but also those within Rakhine State, will continue pressuring Myanmar politically, economically and socially.
The military is unlikely to give way as this has always been a populist tool for local support.
Myanmar’s poor public health system meant that infections were going to get out of hand. The number of confirmed cases now stands at 140,354 with 3,318 deaths. So far, 125,324 have recovered.
Dr Thet Khine Win, a secretary of the Health Ministry, has been named the health and sports minister, indicating the Covid-containment strategy will continue under the new military government.
Vaccines began arriving in the country last week from India through its Covidshield programme, though a concerted effort to inoculate the population has yet to take off. Overall, Myanmar is dealing with fewer cases in the second wave of Covid infections.
The pandemic, however, has hit the economy very badly. GDP growth has been stagnant over the past year and more people are living in poverty.
The NLD-led government’s Achilles heel, the economy has played second fiddle to peace efforts over the past four years.
Economic sentiment was further dampened by the Rohingya exodus crisis and a sharp drop in tourism in 2019. By 2020, businesses were staggering under the burden of the outbreak.
Also, since NLD took over, little change has been made to the lives of people at the grassroots level and the pandemic has pushed many into poverty. Some political pundits suggest that NLD would have lost more seats in the November 2020 elections if it did not play the “return to military rule” tactic. The economy grew about 6 per cent in 2019, far lower than is expected by an investment hungry nation.
China, however, continues to be Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor.
Some progress was seen under the NLD-led economic team in investment in the power supply and transportation sectors.
Nonetheless, the business sector has over the past few years complained about cabinet members’ indecisiveness and incompetence.
Suu Kyi proved to be more intolerant and draconian than her predecessor General Thein Sein. Proving to have a “thin skin”, she often used the “rule of law” – among the harshest in the world – to muzzle freedom of speech and subsequent building of democracy.
Several journalists were thrown in jail and many media organisations were intimidated. The most high-profile case was that of two local Reuters journalists, who were jailed for looking into army atrocity against a Rohingya community.
Suu Kyi’s government was also an active user of the infamous telecom law, in which a suspect can be jailed without trial.
Press freedom, despite all hope, all but disappeared since NLD took over in 2015, and self-censorship prevailed throughout.
No improvement is expected under the military junta.
Suu Kyi's leadership was almost always compared with that of her predecessor, former president Thein Sein. The general was credited with opening up Myanmar on both political and economic fronts.
She was not seen as a competent leader, but more as a popular icon.
The collapse of Myanmar’s education sector from decades of military rule resulted in inexperienced civilians holding ministerial posts and an inefficient bureaucracy that could not push forward Thein Sein’s achievements.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing now controls the executive, military and judiciary sectors. His ambition to become the president has been noted and he could run in the next election, which the military appears to be aiming to hold in a year.
Though Min Aung Hlaing’s style of governance is not clear yet, his initial statements indicate that he aims to boost the economy and get the Covid-19 outbreak under control.
His quickly announced cabinet includes 11 new members, mostly former ministers of the USDP government or former military officers.
Myanmar’s ties with China became closer over the past four years after it was isolated over the Rohingya crisis. Suu Kyi was pulled into China’s orbit along with the military. Though Beijing is sticking to its policy of non-interference, China along with Russia continues to defend Myanmar at the UN Security Council.
China does not want to see Myanmar plunge into political instability and chaos, especially at its borders, and also because many projects under the Belt and Road initiative are under negotiation.
Myanmar is key to China’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean and the further development of Yunnan province as well as energy supply from the Bay of Bengal.
The arrests of Suu Kyi and senior NLD members is a watershed in Myanmar's relations with the world. She has lost her popularity because her stance against the Rohingya showed her as an ineffective, stubborn and self-serving leader.
But many will also be disappointed as Myanmar steps back from democracy after having come so far, into another possibly very long military rule.
The new military government will propel economic management to the forefront as they have far more capable people in this area than Suu Kyi ever did.
The military may also reach out to the US to try and avoid sanctions. But things won’t be easy even if they show progress. The Rohingya crisis will be pivotal.