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February 27, 2018

Navigating the choppy waters of Myanmar’s post-election era

Myanmar’s historic general election on Nov. 8 led to a landslide victory for the opposition National League for Democracy. Having served in the present government since 2011, I stood as an independent candidate and won a seat in the new parliament.
The elections were widely hailed — both at home and abroad — as free and fair, and the first such national poll for 25 years. This broad approval was largely due to the results. If the incumbent party had scored well, I doubt that international observers would have reacted so positively. Nevertheless, it was a convincing win which will usher in a new era for our country. As a minister in the current government of President U Thein Sein, I believe this administration has performed its historic role to the very best of its ability, and I wish our successors all the best.
The big issue facing leaders of the new administration however is how they handle the many daunting challenges ahead.
This question brings to mind some oft-quoted words of Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister and so-called father of Singapore: “In many countries, anti-colonial fighters and heroes would win independence and assume power, but then fail at nation-building — because the challenge of bringing a society together, growing an economy, patiently improving people’s lives, are very different from the challenge of fighting for independence, mobilizing crowds, getting people excited, overthrowing a regime.”
I choose these words from all Lee’s insights in a positive spirit, because I believe the vital task of governing and governing well requires vastly different skills from those required to be an effective opposition. This is especially the case in a complex situation such as Myanmar’s, where the opposition had little room to operate until 2011.
A fragile peace
Of the myriad challenges facing our country, some are more critical than others.
The first is the peace process. Our government has had to negotiate, over thousands of hours, with dozens of different non-state armed groups and ethnic minority organizations, in the hope of bringing a final end to nearly seven decades of internal armed conflict. We have had to be patient in building trust. But there is still a long way to go to secure this peace, as leaders of the incoming administration no doubt understand.
I congratulate the president, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the government’s chief negotiator — Minister U Aung Min, the ethnic minority leaders and other political figures, including many who have helped from behind the scenes, in getting us this far. What comes next is many months if not years of delicate negotiations, where tough compromises on key economic and political issues will have to be made.
Central to the peace process will be the issue of federalism. There are seven ethnic dominated states in Myanmar — all with different characteristics and all among the country’s poorer areas. Hand in hand with a sustainable and just peace, the objective in our negotiating position was to form a federal government structure, with the states gaining rights to manage their own affairs.
My concern is that instead of a federal system, the country could end up becoming a collection of fiefdoms. Another worry is that power rivalries could develop between the national – or union — government and state governments. Do people living in these states know their newly elected representatives? If not, I urge them to become familiar with their politicians.
Skills gap
Another vital issue facing Myanmar is the dearth of skills. This is not due to a lack of brainpower but a lack of people with the required experience, training and skills. Years of isolation — self-imposed and resulting from international sanctions — have led to a monumental shortage of skilled workers and professionals. There is no quick fix. The education system will take a generation to reform. But the lack of skills in the workforce meanwhile will run the country into many brick walls over the coming years as it tries to move ahead.
There is a darker challenge ahead. As Myanmar becomes increasingly technologically connected, largely due to the priority we have placed on increasing telecommunications and internet access, more people are using the web and social media networks such as Facebook. While some are using these new technologies in positive ways, for example for livelihood development, health and education purposes, many more seem to be using social media to attack those with whom they disagree, spreading rumors and hatred.
Then there is the issue of pent-up public frustration with officialdom and deep-seated impatience for reform. Amid newfound freedoms, many in Myanmar have been quick to criticize those in power. But with our fledgling democracy still in early stages, many critics seem unaware of the differences between the legislative, judicial and executive branches. If some people are unhappy with their township administrators, they criticize the national government. Similarly, if they are dissatisfied with responses of police, municipal officials or judges, the government is automatically blamed.
On a broader level, an emerging culture of what I would call “irresponsibility” could hinder government plans and development of a real democracy. Such attitudes are illustrated in the explosion of traffic in the former capital, Yangon. In recent years, cars have become affordable for many more people after the overhaul of import regulations. But many drivers do not adhere to traffic rules, they become impatient in a way that worsens road chaos and reflects a damaging lack of civic responsibility.
Then there is the economy. Myanmar urgently needs to develop its economy, to create badly needed jobs and boost incomes. We must develop manufacturing and increase exports, and not rely solely on resources like natural gas and gems. Raising productivity will be an ongoing headache. The recent introduction of a minimum wage was possibly before its time. It will take much longer to substantially transform our economy. For now, the services, trading and construction sectors are the only ones that can be considered to be thriving. The new government will be able to build on the foundations we have laid, but it will still be very difficult to catch up with our neighbors in any short space of time.
Border issues
Our diplomatic relations – particularly with China – are another critically important issue. We cannot forget that Myanmar and China share a long border and there are related strategic problems. While the government was striving for nationwide peace with ethnic armed groups, conflict erupted in the Kokang region, along Myanmar’s eastern border with China. Is it a coincidence that eight out of 16 ethnic groups that refused to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government – including the Kachin, Wa, Kokang and Palaung groups ­– are all based along the China border? The issues of politics and trade are intertwined here.
Vast and strategic China-led infrastructure projects have been affected, mainly due to protests about our large neighbor’s growing influence inside the country. It took almost five years to resolve issues over the Letpadaung copper mine, and the Myitsone dam project – suspended for the term of the incumbent government — is still unresolved. The new government must deal with all these challenges while maintaining good relations with China — a balancing act that will be risky but essential.
On an even more precarious front is the issue of sectarian tensions in Rakhine state. Much more needs to be done to build mutual trust and foster development in both the Buddhist and Muslim communities there, which they cannot achieve by themselves. As we know from experience, trust-building in the state is a formidable and highly sensitive challenge.
Finally we must consider a key force in shaping the country: Myanmar’s elected representatives. I do not wish to judge the qualifications of each member of parliament. After all, they are chosen by the people, for the people. But it is worth noting that in order to competently govern, relevant experience is essential. This means having at least the ability to debate and draft appropriate and equitable laws in parliament.
It is a vital democratic practice to hold elections, and there will be winners and losers every five years. It can only be hoped that competent people will take the helm of government and parliament, for the people of Myanmar have huge expectations of the incoming government to steer the ship safely.

U Soe Thane is a union minister in the office of the president of Myanmar.
This article is from the Nikkei Asian Review and is published in the Global New Light of Myanmar with permission from the writer.


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