After winning a landslide victory in 2015 elections, the NLD vowed to amend the 2008 Constitution, end armed conflict, lay a solid foundation for the rule of law in Myanmar and improve socio-economic conditions. Such electoral commitments and expectations were always too ambitious to achieve within one term.
People in Myanmar, mainly those of the Burman ethnic majority, have pinned their hopes on State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) since 1988 to establish a federal democratic political system in Myanmar. But in Myanmar after 2015, there is much difference between elite expectations and those of ordinary people.
Elite expectations in terms of political, economic and social reforms are higher than expectations of the ordinary people, particularly those in rural areas. The latter have limited expectations, realizing that five decades of military rule have resulted in all kinds of deep-seated problems. They usually point out this fact and continue to support the State Councillor and the NLD, regardless of her government’s weaknesses and inability to address public issues in many areas. At any rate, the public in general actually think that NLD’s performance is a lot better than that of previous governments.
Public expectations after 2015 focused mainly on laying foundations of good governance for the long-term development and addressing some of the deep-seated problems: controlling corruption; holding civil servants accountable through elected MPs; achieving budget transparency, effective and efficient procurement processes and the provision of public services at the local level. The NLD government started to initiate reforms to address these problems and promote good governance. For example, with respect to budget transparency, NLD produces citizen’s budget annually. Alll these are long-term goals, and the public expects that one day NLD will achieve these goals.
The landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the 2015 general elections happened because the general public – even including ethnic minorities – believed that she and her party alone were the only path to building a federal democratic nation. They also believed the NLD was a realistic choice for promoting good governance in Myanmar despite major weaknesses in the 2008 Constitution. The NLD clearly was the only party that could challenge the power that be military and USDP party.
After winning the 2015 election, the NLD vowed to amend the 2008 Constitution, end the long-lasting ethnic conflicts in the country and lay solid foundations for rule of law in Myanmar in addition to improvement of socioeconomic conditions of the marginalized and vulnerable groups.
The general public, however, especially people from Burman majority regions, always aired their views that the NLD-led government would not be able to address deep-seated problems overnight. It would need time and experience in governing. However, people wanted NLD government to lay foundations of good governance for the long-term development of the country. That’s why, controlling corruption, budget transparency, effective and efficient procurement process and provision of basic services, holding authorities accountable for their actions and elected representatives accountable to their constituencies were the major expectations of the general public after NLD government came to power in 2016.
Have Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD been able to meet these expectations or not?
At the beginning of the term, corruption, both petty and big, was reduced substantially. According to one anecdotal evidence, the sale of luxury liquors in Naypyitaw fell sharply as businesspeople did not continue to present expensive bottles as “gifts” to high-ranking government officials. People appreciated the anti-corruption drive, although there were delays, bottlenecks and general inefficiency due to lack of essential lubricant in the bureaucratic machinery. Today, however, it is now generally assumed that petty corruption at the lowest and middle level is still rampant. Still, certain remarkable things have happened: During the current term of the NLD government, one regional chief minister was sentenced to prison and another union minister resigned because of corruption charges and investigations. There have been rumors that the Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating many corruption cases involving union and regional ministers, members of parliaments and senior bureaucrats. Hence, now the cost for committing corruption has become much greater than before.
Although there are several shortfalls in budgetary and procurement processes, checks and balances on public expenditures and procurement processes have significantly improved and as a result quality of procured infrastructure and public services are widely believed to be considerably better than before. The NLD government has focused on improving rural road infrastructure and electrification and better transport infrastructure has emerged even in remote areas. The public in general is satisfied with more effective and efficient allocations of basic infrastructure. Rural communities, in cooperation with elected MPs, are participating in monitoring the procurement process and the construction of procured schools, health facilities and rural roads in their communities too. Their voices must be heard too in budget formulation and execution process. For example, in Thabaung township in Ayeyawaddy Region, regional parliamentarians conducted monitoring of construction of schools and rural roads with Township Planning and Implementation Committee (TPIC) which is responsible for planning and implementation of local projects. During planning and monitoring phases, regional parliamentarians received inputs from communities and they convey local voices to TPIC which is formed with governmental departments and coordination body for local development projects.
Constitutional Reform and Peace
However, on three main fronts of constitutional amendment, peace and protection of civil rights, NLD government could not meet the expectations of rights groups and ethnic minorities. These three issues are mainly related to the military and security sector which are not under the purview of the civilian government. Reports issued by international organizations such as the International Crisis Group and the Asia Foundation pointed out that peace process stalled and armed violence in Northeast and Western Myanmar increased. They urged the government, military and EAOs to reconsider the causes of the current impasse and change the approach to peace making in the next term. Especially due to its inability to protect the vulnerable Rohingha refugees and ethnic minorities from military atrocities, NLD has to be considered unable to meet the expectations of rights groups and ethnic minorities.
Many civil society groups criticize the NLD leadership for not being able to resolve long-lasting conflicts, building genuine trust with the military to amend constitution and take actions against human rights violations. In addition, the business community is critical of NLD for not paying sufficient attention to the economy.
It is true to a certain degree that NLD is very hierarchical, rigid, conservative, reactive rather than proactive and follows top-down decision-making. However, at the same time, it is flexible, represents diverse interests, willing to change and listen to common voices. The biggest problem is its poor communication with the public about its policies and actions. Clarity is lacking in its policy articulation and leaders do not speak with one voice in many instances. Moreover, filling important cabinet and union positions with unqualified persons has caused a lot of criticisms.
Despite these weaknesses, the NLD government has initiated major economic and social reforms that the international community and domestic elites in general are unaware about, or neglect. For example, electricity tariff reform is a big step towards the goal of national electrification in Myanmar. Without reforming tariffs structure, private investors will not come in and government will not meet the 2030 target of 100 percent electrification of households.
In addition, the setting-up a Public-Private Partnership Center in Naypyitaw constitutes a major improvement in infrastructure governance. Even even Chinese mega-projects under BRI cannot get approval for implementation without passing through a stringent scrutinizing process.
To conclude, after five years’ experience in governing the country, I hope that the NLD government will become more capable of setting priorities for development of the country and select the right people for the right positions to achieve tangible and measurable results in socioeconomic sector, in the next five years. At the same time, I have few illusions that NLD will be able to resolve ethnic conflicts, change civil-military relationship in favor of civilian government and amend 2008 constitution as it depends a lot on the military’s willingness to change.