Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in a televised speech on the first anniversary of her NLD party’s ascension to power, called it great progress that people do not have to fear the government anymore. Still, she continues to face a range of difficult problems and admits that reforms have been slower than people expected. The coming year will be critical for her administration’s efforts to achieve national reconciliation and lay a solid foundation for economic growth.
As Myanmar’s state counselor and foreign affairs minister, Suu Kyi has given priority to the establishment of peace between the army and various armed ethnic groups. In late March, her administration announced that five of Myanmar’s 15 major armed groups will sign cease-fire agreements with the government, joining eight others that had concluded similar agreements with the previous administration. However, Shan state has seen a series of clashes between government soldiers and armed ethnic groups.
The international community meanwhile has turned a critical eye on the Suu Kyi-led administration’s handling of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Rakhine state that has suffered discrimination at the hands of the majority Buddhists.
Since October, the murder, torture and rape of Rohingya people by army soldiers has been reported. The United Nations Human Rights Council last month adopted a resolution calling for the dispatch of a fact-finding mission to Myanmar, while a government-established advisory body headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is investigating the alleged human rights violations. Yangon insists that it will not accept the U.N. fact-finding mission. But the government should help the U.N. with its efforts so it can determine the facts about the reported incidents. It also needs to ensure international media and humanitarian assistance organizations access to the area where the rights violations allegedly occurred.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a report that the army and the police were involved in an organized manner in the alleged murders of Rohingya people. This highlights Suu Kyi’s failure to put the army under her administration’s control.
The army is likely acting on its own. Under the constitution, which was enacted by the military regime, Suu Kyi cannot become president because she has family members with foreign nationalities, and the military holds the power to appoint ministers in charge of security issues. The military should end its opposition to a constitutional revision so that democratization can take root in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi also needs to make serious efforts to rebuild the nation’s economy, which has been damaged by the long years of military rule and international isolation. If people remain unable to feel tangible economic benefits from the change of government, popular frustration will mount and weaken the power base of the NLD-led administration.
According to the World Bank, Myanmar’s gross domestic product grew 6.5 percent in 2016 — slower than the 7 to 8 percent growth achieved in the previous four years. The biggest issue Myanmar faces in the economic arena is how to meet growing power supply needs. The government needs to quickly build infrastructure for power generation. Currently, Myanmar depends on hydraulic power generation for 70 percent of its electricity supply. Since hydraulic power can be affected by changes in weather conditions, the government should take steps to diversify its power sources, such as by building thermal power plants.
In the April 1 by-elections for the federal parliament, the NLD won eight seats, one short of its pre-election strength among the 12 seats up for grabs. The party still maintains a majority in parliament, holding slightly less than 60 percent of the 664 seats. The NLD government should develop policies with clear directions in matters concerning the economy and national reconciliation. For her part, Suu Kyi — who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her democratization efforts — should strive to protect the human rights of Myanmar’s minorities and run her administration in a transparent manner. She needs to speak to and listen to people more as she runs the administration.
The international community, including Japan, should continue to extend maximum assistance to Myanmar to help it tackle the myriad challenges it faces.