Thursday, September 21, 2017

NLD government asks for ‘more time’ as public and pundits take stock

After its first 100 days, what does the government intend to do, and how much has it already done?

With the NLD holding a majority in both houses of parliament, some observers expected more immediate action and reform. Photo: EPAWith the NLD holding a majority in both houses of parliament, some observers expected more immediate action and reform. Photo: EPA

There has been plenty of criticism, both at home and abroad. While observers seem willing to give the still-new administration time to overcome the decades-long legacy of corruption, repression and mismanagement by the former military regime, there is also a feeling that the National League for Democracy had plenty of time to plan for office, and its overwhelming majority in both houses of parliament, coupled with its great popularity in the country and the support it receives from overseas should have translated into more effective, immediate action, even at this early stage.

The media have established a list of important issues where President U Htin Kyaw’s administration might be expected to make its mark: the future of China-backed projects, agriculture and land rights, government-military relations, issues in Rakhine State, the drug trade, cleaning up the jade industry, rebooting the stalled peace process, health sector reform, central bank growth and deficit, fighting corruption and graft.

But where U Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party government lacked the confidence of the people, its National League for Democracy successor could be facing the opposite problem of unrealistic expectations, and popular impatience.

The NLD-backed government is already credited with releasing political prisoners as well as students and others awaiting trial for alleged offences arising from their opposition to the National Education Law. The instruction to civil servants not to accept gifts worth more than K25,000 (US$20) is also seen as a step toward fighting corruption. On the other hand, the new administration seems to have fumbled initial attempts to cut down on betel consumption, and is being blamed for lapses in electricity supply.

The announcement of the 100-day campaign should have been a chance to evaluate the progress made by the government in meeting set goals. However, success in that effort is far from clear, observers say.

Ko May Aye, a leader of the 88 Generation Student Group, said, “I understand that the NLD will need more than a few weeks to solve problems that have developed over the past 50 years. But they did have time to set forth clear policies. Perhaps they have delayed doing so because of the need to build good relations with the Tatmadaw. But this delay is not good for the country.”

U Soe Tun, deputy chair of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), said he had seen no economic improvement so far, adding that most business owners did not care about the 100-day initiative, but they do want to see clear policies implemented in every sector over the next five years.

“I don’t understand the delay. In most democracies, the winning party announces its policies before the election,” he said. “What are they going to do about energy, banking and automobiles? Where should we invest? We don’t know yet.”

Given Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s background as a democracy icon, perhaps the most telling criticism has been over the government’s human rights record, particularly in Rakhine State. Both local and international human rights advocates have been demanding action.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma have released a joint statement criticising the government for failing to make an impact on human rights during its first few months in office.

The two organisations called on the government to establish a national human rights agenda and immediately address key issues of concern such as constitutional and legislative reform, ratification of core international human rights treaties, releasing political prisoners, abandoning anti-Rohingya policies and restrictions, cracking down on anti-Muslim violence and hate speech, removing military impunity for human rights violations, advancing women’s rights, protecting freedom of opinion and expression, and working closely with the UN rights monitoring office.

Voxpop: 100 days later: What has changed?

Despite a promise from President U Htin Kyaw made during his first Union address to revise the constitution, no action has been taken to do so. Speaker U Win Myint told the media in May that the government can begin to address constitutional reform only after national peace and reconciliation are achieved.

Parliament has abolished the 1975 State Protection Act. But some repressive laws used to arbitrarily detain or prosecute activists, human rights advocates, and members of ethnic and religious minorities are still in force. The Peaceful Assembly and Demonstration Law, the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law and the four so-called “race and religion protection” laws have been criticised by external observers who have called for their abolition.

The Legal Affairs and Special Issues Commission led by former Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann was set up to revise existing legislation and propose abolition or revision. Doubt surrounds its performance so far, however.

“We’ve reviewed 397 existing laws. But it might complicate matters to say which laws we are recommending to be abolished or revised,” said commission member U Zaw Myint Pe, adding that the responsibility for such changes lay with the relevant ministry.

Changes to the Peaceful Assembly Law, and the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, and the “race and religion” legislation cannot be made without the permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is under the control of military Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. U Zaw Myint Pe said he was not authorised to say whether or not the review commission had received instructions from the government to review any of these laws.

Vice chair of the Human Rights Commission U Sit Myaing said the commission had received fewer letters of complaint than under the previous government, but the commission had not changed its working methods.

“We used to receive about 300 complaints a month, but now we only get about 100, mostly related to land-grabs,” he said. “We continue to work as normal, and the new government supports us just as the last government did.”

U Sit Myaing said the commission still faced difficulties in investigating complaints about Tatmadaw-related cases that had occurred in conflict zones because of security problems.

However, the commission has conducted human rights awareness training for high-ranking military officers in Nay Pyi Taw, Kalaw, Bahtoo and Thandaunggyi. “That’s new. We weren’t able to do that under the previous government,” he said.

Recently, the Shan Human Rights Foundation Burma presented the government with evidence, including maps, photos and witness testimony, and demanded action against soldiers accused of killing seven villagers in Mong Yaw, Shan State, in June. The government also came under pressure to take action following the outbreaks of mob violence against the Muslim community in Lone Khin, Bago Region. Nobody has been arrested.

Nor has much progress been visible in Rakhine State, despite attempts to recognise the status of the Muslim minority there.

Declining to comment on Rakhine State, U Sit Myaing said the commission was encouraging the government to sign more international human rights conventions and launch more awareness campaigns.

U Kyaw Min, chair of the Democracy and Human Rights Party and an elected MP in the suppressed 1990 election, questioned whether the NLD and its leader were really concerned about human rights.

“Because of the lack of rule of law in this state, the rights of the Muslim community have been violated even more than under the last government. Their lands have been occupied by civil servants. We expected much from the NLD government, but have received nothing,” he said.

Referring to the government’s attempt to rename self-identifying Rohingya as “the Muslim community in Rakhine State”, U Kyaw Min said, “We don’t much care about the terminology as long as we get equal rights.”

For their part, ethnic Rakhine communities have accused the NLD of promoting disunity with the term “Buddhists in Rakhine State”. Rakhine National Party MP Daw Khin Saw Wai said, “The government has done nothing for us in the first 100 days. We understand that no government can do much in so short a time. But they cannot build a true democracy by creating disunity among ethnic minorities.”

Both sides say the government should negotiate with key leaders of both communities.

“If the government wants a solution, they should ask leaders like Dr Aye Maung and influential Muslim leaders to discuss with them how to solve the problems,” said U Kyaw Min. “We won’t refuse to negotiate within the framework of the law, as we respect the rule of law,” said Daw Khin Saw Wai.

One big step forward would be ending armed conflict. The government has taken steps to launch the 21st-century Panglong Conference to open discussions with ethnic leaders, even as fighting continues in Shan, Kachin and Rakine states.

Colonel Sai La, a spokesperson for the Restoration Council of Shan State, said, “We recognise that the government has made efforts toward peace, by announcing that it would invite armed ethnic groups to participate in the peace process and in the political dialogue. This represents a good chance.”

Aware of the mounting criticism, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has asked the international community to give her government more time, and NLD MPs insist they are doing their best to meet people’s needs.

“We did make some progress in the 100 days,” said NLD MP Daw Khin San Hlaing.

Compared to the last government, when she was also an MP, government officials are more willing to cooperate with MPs on regional development projects, she said. “This is an important change for us. We can’t work successfully in our constituencies without government cooperation,” she said.

She asked people to be patient. “We can’t do anything without the support of the people. We promised we would do our best for the people and the country,” she added.