Hopes and hurdles await new Myanmar government

AFP-JIJI

Nestled among towers of moldering paperwork, the few flickering computer screens at Myanmar’s information ministry are a sign that change is afoot, and nervous bureaucrats expect more to come under the first civilian government in decades.

A novice administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her president proxy Htin Kyaw takes office later this month, facing a raft of challenges — including conflict, poverty and a still powerful military.

One of the new government’s few stated priorities so far is to streamline the country’s notoriously labyrinthine civil service, which bloomed to 36 ministries under military rule and became a byword for corruption and inefficiency.

“We have no idea what will happen to us, we have had had no clear instruction,” said one ministry official on Tuesday, asking not to be named, just hours after MPs across town in the capital Naypyidaw elected the country’s first civilian president in decades.

With its dimly lit corridors, papers stuffed into bags and stray dogs snoozing in the afternoon heat, the ministry — which churned out propaganda under the military — is emblematic of much of Myanmar’s civil service and the junta’s legacy.

Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) have yet to name any ministers.

But party sources said senior members were hunkered down in private meetings Wednesday with a streamlining plan expected to be announced on Thursday.

“Even we are hoping for change,” admitted another information ministry staff member, also asking for anonymity, alluding to Suu Kyi’s simple election message, adding that he expects a merger with the culture ministry.

Myanmar has come a long way since 2011, when the military that drove the country into isolation and poverty for decades suddenly loosened its grip.

President Thein Sein’s outgoing army-backed administration unleashed dramatic reforms that saw the end of most Western sanctions and a flurry of investor excitement.

The resource-rich country now has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, forecast to expand around 8 percent this year, and a vibrant young population.

Foreign visitor numbers have surged from fewer than a million in 2011 to 4.7 million last year.

Commercial hub Yangon has morphed from a crumbling relic to a rapidly transforming metropolis where consumers chow down on KFC while browsing once-prohibited news websites on affordable mobile phones.

Hundreds of thousands of poor laborers have been drawn into city slums by the promise of work in factories or copious new construction sites.

Hantha Myint, who heads up the NLD’s economics committee, said low-skilled manufacturing will be a key to job creation, as well as improving rural infrastructure and agricultural productivity.

“We have to follow the path everybody has followed, build the toy factories and the garment factories and those cheap exports. We should not talk about high technology things for the coming five years,” he said.

But the country remains notoriously bureaucratic — with reams of paperwork the standard experience for most interaction with government officials — while entrenched corruption and a vast black economy still thrive.

Rajiv Biswas, of IHS Global Insight, says the hurdles are large given the NLD’s “lack of experience in governance.”

Priorities, he said, should include “significant” investment in “power, roads and ports, as well as in education and training to build Myanmar’s human capital.”

Myanmar’s civil service will have to be at the forefront of the NLD’s change. But in many ways their hands are already tied.

The budget for the coming year was passed by the outgoing army-backed parliament in January.

Details have not been made public but doctors have complained to local media that the allocation for health, which remains chronically underfunded, is well below what is needed.

Meanwhile the military still holds a quarter of parliament seats and three key ministries: home, defense and border affairs. It also oversees the General Administration Department, a centralized civil service that sprawls across the country down to the smallest level of officialdom.

The NLD’s relationship with the country’s generals will remain key.

The army has pledged to support the democratic transition, on its own terms, and months of tense talks with Suu Kyi failed to removed the junta-scripted constitutional barrier that block her from the presidency.

After years of mistrust and the burning memory of the NLD’s 1990 election landslide that was ignored by the then junta, for many just getting into office will be a major achievement.

“That will be the most important step for the country to see the smooth handover of power,” said lower house NLD lawmaker Myo Zaw Aung.