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NLD-led Government has Legitimacy but Lacks Power to Pursue Reforms?

By Burma Partnership  •  March 9, 2016

military at parliamentLast week in the newly-constituted and reinvigorated Parliament, National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker Khin San Hlaing tabled an emergency motion requesting an inquiry into the questionable nature and circumstances of business deals involving the sale of national assets and resources by the outgoing Government allegedly without proper safeguards or due process. For many novice National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers, however, it was a sobering reality check as they faced a wall of resistance in trying to exercise oversight and pursue accountability in Parliament.

The resounding sweep at the November 2015 polls meant that the NLD Government has the popular legitimacy and mandate to pursue reforms. Indeed, high hopes have been pinned on the newly-elected Government to combat the previous and current waves of land grab and natural resource-related violations, most of which are due to military interests and army-linked enterprises. Against such a backdrop, an urgent motion was tabled calling for scrutiny into a spate of deals that were opaquely conducted and closed during the period between the elections and closing days of the existing administration.

The inquiry also sought probes into the recent massive land grab and forced removal of “squatters” in Rangoon’s Mingaladon Township and Mandalay Division’s Pyin Oo Lwin, as well as the resumption and fast-tracking of natural resource-related projects on the Salween River and Letpadaung Copper Mine. These projects continue to be fraught with ongoing frequent protests and disputes over compensation claims, resettlement process and the adverse environmental, health and social impacts, while the Letpadaung Copper Mine has a particularly violent past that saw police brutally cracked down on peaceful protestors in 2012 using phosphorus bombs and fatally shot Daw Khin Win in a separate incident in 2014.

In response to the above issues and concerns raised in Parliament, military MPs however disputed the inquest and stood in unison during the session to register their protest instead. Clearly, the calls for transparency and accountability in Parliament – formerly the exclusive domain of the military – have rankled the top brass of the establishment. Outgoing Information Minister Ye Htut petulantly claimed that the incumbents were in no way beholden or accountable to the current parliament, and proceeded to declare a suspension of cooperation with Parliament after accusing the NLD MPs for trying to discredit the Government.

Ye Htut’s sentiments were echoed by a high level official from the President’s Office and a Union Solidarity and Development (USDP) MP, who questioned the necessity of the parliamentary probes during this fragile transition period. It is deeply troubling that the Burma Army and outgoing administration conveniently invoke the narrative of “peaceful transition” and “smooth transfer of power” when it serves their interests, while the intensification of conflict, including through proxy wars, in Shan and Kachin States continues brazenly.

The review of national asset sales before Parliament was further stonewalled as Government officials from the relevant ministries failed to appear as requested. Burma’s long history of centralization of power has ensured that the civil bureaucracy remains dominated by the military, but under-resourced and inadequately capacitated to take on new administrative tasks while still beset by a legacy of political patronage and interference.

The closing of ranks, even on matters of national importance and public interest, is an ominous sign that the democratic transition continues to be fraught with enormous obstacles. The earlier conciliatory and buoyant mood has now evidently soured as deliberations over Constitutional amendments and key appointments by the NLD hit an impasse, and as the Burma Army and the military-backed USDP find their business interests and privileges threatened. Such heated confrontations are likely to occur more frequently, with the military unlikely to loosen its grip on business and the economy.

The electorate sent a loud and clear message of change when they voted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy into power at the 8 November 2015 elections. Democratic space has indeed expanded with the increased presence of truly elected representatives in Parliament. However, whether or not the change in political landscape will allow Parliament and other accountability bodies to thrive and flourish remains to be seen. As demonstrated, the military has not only shrewdly positioned itself in indirect yet firm control, but is also poised to restore direct control whenever it deems necessary.

As it stands, the NLD-led Government will have to start its term on the back foot as the outgoing Parliament slashed the national budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The recent fire sale and privatization of assets also have potentially devastating consequences for pursuing comprehensive economic reforms in the country. Public expectations have already been set after pledges to review economic policies, including scrutinizing details relating to planned Special Economic Zones as well as embarking on land and agricultural reforms, to ensure economic and social justice.

In the hurriedness to tap Burma’s “frontier market”, investors and the international community must also be wary against being complicit in creating a new economic order founded on the injustices of past decades of military rule. Particularly at this juncture, the international community must continue to support the budding democratic transition, and should not be under any illusion that the partial and incomplete reforms can lead to a successful genuine democratic transition that guarantees the protection of human rights and respects the rule of law.

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