Myanmar’s development is still a work in progress
Aung San Suu Kyi came to power on a wave of expectation, but progress has been slow. She must build the trust needed to push ahead
The leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, brought the highest of aspirations with her when she took office a year ago. The downtrodden citizens who voted overwhelmingly for her National League for Democracy party in elections that all but ended half a century of military rule saw in her government an opportunity for economic prosperity and an end to ethnic conflict. But hopes have been dimmed by a lack of perceptible change outside the financial capital Yangon, and her image has been tainted by international condemnation of her handling of the crisis over the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group. Patience is necessary, though; progress in such a difficult political environment will take time.
Suu Kyi and fellow lawmakers may have been democratically elected, but they serve in a power-sharing arrangement with the military. The formerly ruling junta wrote the 2008 constitution with this in mind, making the army a fourth branch of government with a vast reach in domestic matters. It chooses a quarter of parliamentary seats, appoints the home, defence and border affairs ministers, sets its own budget and has the right to veto decisions of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Most troubling for the NLD, constitutional change requires more than 75 per cent approval in parliament, making military support for amendments a necessity.
That has given the democracy icon limited ability to handle conflicts in two states on the border with China, Kachin and Shan, and the issue of the Rohingya in Rakhine state, which neighbours Bangladesh. Skirmishes between the army and rebel groups have become more frequent, harming her main priority of assuring stability by striking a peace accord with ethnic groups. Beijing is angered by battles in the north, which persist despite its calls for a resolution and threaten a flood of refugees into Yunnan province.
Suu Kyi has been criticised internationally for failing to stop aggression by the army and Burman majority against the Rohingya, which the UN claims faces ethnic cleansing, an allegation she has stringently denied. She has rebuffed UN efforts to investigate charges of abuse by the military.
The surge of economic growth and foreign investment that followed her party’s initial landslide election win in 2015 has slowed. A construction boom is still under way in Yangon, but little new development is taking place elsewhere. The peace process has also foundered. The two loudest complaints about Suu Kyi’s government are poor communication and a tendency towards centralisation. But finding a footing in such challenging circumstances does not come easily; positive results will be more likely when she has been able to fine-tune and build greater trust and cooperation.