Category Archives: Politics

Why China wants Suu Kyi to win Myanmar’s polls

China’s interests will be better served by the Suu Kyi-led status quo than a return to military-dominated rule

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi shake hands before a bilateral meeting at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw on January 18, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Nyein Chan Naing/Pool

BANGKOK – As Myanmar enters an election season, the economy, Covid-19 and issues of war and peace are expected to dominate the campaign trail discourse.

But for the international community, speculation centers on which direction foreign policy will likely take after the poll: toward an even stronger and closer relationship with China or a shift towards a more independent posture.

Much has changed since the leaders in Beijing favored Myanmar’s authoritarian military regime and were deeply suspicious of then opposition leader and one-time pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Now, Chinese government representatives have made no secret in recent private discussions that they would prefer to see Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) win and are wary of the generals, who they find it increasingly difficult to influence and control.

The military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party lost badly to the NLD at the 2015 election and it’s not clear it will fare much better at this November’s poll.

While Myanmar’s military sees it as their duty to defend the nation’s sovereignty and seek to lessen national dependence on China, Suu Kyi turned to Beijing for economic and other assistance after her previous allies and admirers in the West distanced themselves from her over the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Beginning in August 2017 and still ongoing, thousands of Rohingyas have been killed while hundreds of thousands have fled across the border into Bangladesh due to a Myanmar military crackdown.

Once seen as a champion of human rights, Suu Kyi refused to condemn the carnage the UN and others have termed as possible “genocide.” As such, Suu Kyi turned dramatically and almost overnight from darling to pariah of the West.

The third force in Myanmar’s topsy-turvy foreign relations is Japan, which sees the dangers of the region’s shifting geopolitics and thus has not joined the West’s condemnations.

Rohingya refugees shout slogans at a protest against a disputed repatriation program at the Unchiprang refugee camp near Teknaf on November 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar

From August 21 to 24, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi paid visits to Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to strengthen Tokyo’s presence in the four Southeast Asian countries. That his tour took place amid the pandemic underscores the importance of his mission: to counter China’s rising regional clout.

In Myanmar, Motegi met Suu Kyi as well as Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Motegi promised Suu Kyi technical assistance to contain the spread of Covid-19. They also agreed to better facilitate travel for businesspeople and students between the two countries.

In discussions with Min Aung Hlaing, Motegi pledged support for Myanmar’s peace process. A statement issued by Japan’s Foreign Ministry also stated rather curiously and without elaborating that Motegi and Min Aung Hlaing “exchanged views” on regional affairs, “including the South China Sea issue and concurred on deepening cooperation between the two countries.”

It remains to be seen whether Motegi’s promises to Suu Kyi will be enough to make a dent in Beijing’s already strong influence over Myanmar. That’s plain to see in the so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a bilateral scheme that involves the construction of high-speed railways, highways and upgraded waterways along Myanmar’s rivers.

The project is seen as a crucial link in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which arguably will take on more importance in neighboring Southeast Asia as tensions rise with the US in a new Cold War.

Myanmar’s link and outlet to the Indian Ocean will provide an alternative route for China’s trade with the Middle Eat, Africa and Europe, which currently travels via vulnerable sea lanes through the contested South China Sea and congested Malacca Strait.

During a historic visit to Myanmar in January, Xi secured no less than 33 memoranda of understanding, including 13 relating to infrastructure projects, in talks with Suu Kyi and other mostly civilian officials.

Those included a multi-billion dollar plan to establish a special economic zone and industrial park near Kyaukphyu, where a deep-sea port is already being developed with Chinese investment.

Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends a ceremony to mark the 69th Martyrs’ Day in Yangon. Photo: AFP via Mur Photo/U Aung

Min Aung Hlaing, on the other hand, stunned many observers when he said during a visit to Moscow in June in an interview with a Russian news network that “terrorist groups” exist in Myanmar “because of the strong forces that support them.”

Although the military leader did not name any group or foreign force in particular, it was clear that he was referring to the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) in the country’s western Rakhine state which is known to be equipped with Chinese-made weapons.

In November, the Myanmar military seized a huge cache of Chinese weapons, including brand-new rocket launchers and a surface-to-air missile, from another rebel army in northern Shan state.

China’s carrot and stick policy towards Myanmar consists of loans, grants and support for anti-Covid-19 campaigns on one hand while providing some of the country’s many ethnic armies access to China’s huge, informal arms market, which is grey rather than black.

Despite the Covid-19 crisis and numerous talks between government officials, military leaders and representatives of the country’s many ethnic armed organizations, Myanmar’s civil war is raging in several border areas and it has become increasingly clear that it is being heavily influenced by China.

Initiated by former president, ex-general Thein Sein shortly after he assumed office in March 2011 and continued under the present Suu Kyi administration, the peace process has attracted rich support from the West as well as Japan.

But a national ceasefire agreement (NCA) comprises only a handful of groups, some without arms or territory under their control. The most recent peace meeting was held this month and ended with nothing more than an agreement to hold further talks about talks.

The fact remains that groups representing more than 80% of all ethnic combatants have not signed the NCA and are unlikely to do so. Those groups, seven in all, are united under the umbrella of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC). All are known to be close to China.

UWSA special force snipers participate in a military parade in the Wa State’s Panghsang, April 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

The most powerful of them, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is equipped with Chinese-made assault rifles, machine-guns, mortars, surface-to-air missiles and even light armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles.

AA is a close ally and has via other FPNCC members received weapons from the UWSA. So, too, has the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the far north of the country and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic Palaung group that operates over large swathes of territory in northern Shan state.

The West and Japan may be involved in the peace process, and Motegi may have pledged increased support for efforts to bring decades of civil war to an end. But Chinese security officials have in recent meetings with FPNCC members told them not to have any dealings with peacemakers and other officials from the West or Japan.

It is thus clear that China has no intention of giving up its big stick and that recent developments have exposed just how irrelevant other outside actors have become to the peace process.

While the West is caught in the quagmire of the Rohingya crisis and Japan is doing its utmost to maintain and develop ties with Myanmar, China still rules the roost. And that largely explains why China backs a continuation of the democratic status quo, with Suu Kyi and her NLD still in power after November’s election.

Credit: asiatimes.com

Revise Election Broadcast Rules

Overly Broad Restrictions Undermine Fairness

Members of the Union Election Commission wear face masks during a press conference, announcing that general elections in Myanmar will proceed as planned in November despite coronavirus concerns, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, June 4, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar Union Election Commission should amend rules governing political parties’ access to state-owned radio and television stations to ensure that all parties can present their positions without undue interference, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 23, 2020, the Union Election Commission announced that political parties would be permitted to deliver electoral speeches and explain party policies on state-owned television and radio stations during the two-month period leading up to the national election scheduled for November 8. However, all political broadcasts must be pre-approved by the election commission under overly broad and vague restrictions on what political parties can say, in violation of international standards for protection of freedom of speech.

“The UEC’s regulations hamstring the political opposition by effectively prohibiting any criticism of the government, existing laws, and the military,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Doing so strikes at the heart of political speech and campaigning, and seriously undermines the fairness of the electoral process.”

Under international standards, a transparent and independent body, separate from the election commission, should be established to regulate broadcasting content during elections. Campaign messages for broadcast should not be subject to prior approval and there should not be undue limitation on topics allowed to be covered in the campaign.

Under the rules announced by the UEC, a political party must apply to the election commission for permission to present a campaign broadcast and submit a script for the proposed broadcast for review. The UEC can either permit the broadcast or require revisions to ensure that the script does not violate vague and broadly worded restrictions on content.

The rules prohibit any content that “can disturb the security, rule of law and the peace and stability of the county,” or “disrespects” the existing laws of the country, or “defames” or “tarnishes the image” of the country, or defames the Tatmadaw, or can “harm dignity and morality.” The rules also prohibit any content that could “incite” members of the civil service “not to perform their duty or to oppose the government.”

The cumulative effect of the restrictions clearly violates international human rights law by precluding almost all criticism of the government, the Tatmadaw, or current abusive laws, Human Rights Watch said. Voters have a right to receive and obtain information that will enable them to decide how to exercise their vote. It is critical for all parties to have fair access to state-owned broadcast media in Myanmar, so they can present their programs to the voters.

While the decision to allocate time to opposition political parties is a positive step, any limits on the right to disseminate electoral statements should conform to international standards, including that public figures should be required to tolerate a higher degree of criticism and scrutiny than ordinary citizens. Limits on voters’ access to information can have a chilling effect on debate around issues of public importance during campaigns and elections, Human Rights Watch said.

Using Myanmar’s numerous defamation laws, the government and military have treated almost any criticism of their record as defamatory. For example, three Kachin human rights defenders were sentenced to six months in prison in December 2018, for “defaming” the military during protests in Myitkyina calling for the rescue of civilians trapped by renewed fighting in Kachin State.

Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which covers defamation online, has been repeatedly used to prosecute those who criticize the government or the military. The military charged the Burmese language editor of The Irrawaddy,Ye Ni, with defamation under that law in April 2019 for reporting about military attacks in the town of Mrauk-U in Rakhine state, though the charges were later dropped. The restriction on content that “defames” the country or the Tatmadaw thus places severe restrictions on what political parties can say about the current National League for Democracy-led government or the military.

The restriction on content that could cause members of the civil service “not to perform their duties” is also problematic given the history of similar restrictions in Myanmar. Penal code article 505(a), barring speech that may cause members of the military to “disregard or fail” in their duties, has been repeatedly used against critics of the military.

On August 29, 2019, a court sentenced the prominent filmmaker, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, to one year in prison with hard labor under that provision for criticizing the military on Facebook. Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi suffers from liver cancer and was visibly unwell during his trial.

The military also used the law against members of the Peacock Generation, a traditional theater group, for a satirical performance deemed critical of the military. A court sentenced five members of the troupe to a year in prison for violating section 505(a) in October 2019. A different court imposed an additional one-year sentence under the same law in November 2019, and three members of the troupe face charges of defaming the military under section 66(d) for streaming the performance online.

The prohibition on content that “disrespects” existing laws could be used to prohibit political parties from criticizing abusive laws and discussing their plans to change those laws, Human Rights Watch said. The prohibition on content that can “tarnish the image of the country” could be applied to prohibit almost any criticism of the government or the military, including commentary on military abuses in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin states.

Each of these restrictions violates international standards on freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said. They also undermine the fairness of the electoral process by preventing opposition parties from presenting their policies in full where those policies involve criticism of the government, the military, or the country’s many abusive laws.

“The Union Election Commission should revise the broadcast rules to ensure that voters are able to hear opposition parties on state-owned media speaking freely about their policies and platforms,” Lakhdhir said. “Robust political debate lies at the heart of the electoral process, and Myanmar voters are entitled to hear all political views, including those critical of the government in power and its policies.”

Credit: www.hrw.org

America has to defend Myanmar from “malignant influences”: US Ambassadorial nominee

US new Ambassadorial nominee to Myanmar Thomas Laszlo Vajda told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, US engagement with Myanmar is “essential” in order to advance the Southeast Asian country’s reforms and help defend the country against “malign influences”.

NEW DELHI: US new Ambassadorial nominee to Myanmar Thomas Laszlo Vajda has emphasised that one of his goals as envoy would be “to advance US interests and values” in the Southeast Asian country and help defend the country against “malign influences” in a veiled reference to China.

He told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, US engagement with Myanmar is “essential” in order to advance the Southeast Asian country’s reforms and help defend the country against “malign influences”.

The hearing took place after US President Donald Trump’s nomination of Vajda as the US envoy to Myanmar in May.

“It is also critical that we support Burma’s efforts to resist malign foreign influences and challenges to its sovereignty,” he said at the hearing.

“To support Burma in this regard, the United States will need to continue helping government officials, economic reformers and civil society actors who are pushing back on unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit to local communities,” he added.

Though the nominee didn’t name the “malign influences” mentioned in his testimony, his reference to “unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit to local communities” was obvious as being to China.

An op-ed penned last month by the chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Yangon, George Sibley, alleged that China’s actions are part of a larger plan to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbors, including Myanmar.

In response, the Chinese Embassy accused Sibley of “outrageously smearing China” and attempting to sow discord between it and Myanmar, damaging the countries’ relations and bilateral cooperation. It said the article not only reflects the “sour grapes” mindset of the US toward China-Myanmar relations, but also a global effort by the US to shift attention away from its domestic problems and seek selfish political gain.

Credit: economictimes.indiatimes.com

For Myanmar’s Elections to Be Free and Fair Rohingya Must Get the Right to Vote

Rohingya refugees watch televised proceedings at the U.N.’s International Court of Justice from a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh Dec. 12, 2019.
 Allison Joyce—Getty Images

mericans won’t be the only voters going to the polls in November. Myanmar’s third national election since transitioning from half a century of military rule is slated for Nov. 8.

Already, several questions loom over this test of the country’s democratic trajectory. How will the government ensure ethnic civilians displaced by armed conflict can vote? How will Facebook protect voters from disinformation? How will the government manage campaigns and polling in the age of COVID-19?

These are tough challenges. But there is another critical question, easy to resolve, that will also determine whether the exercise is free and fair: Will the government ensure the right to vote for Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority, mostly Muslim, indigenous to western Myanmar; and today, far more live outside the country than inside. The reason for this is summed up in a word: genocide.

In October 2016 and August 2017, the Myanmar military responded to nascent Rohingya militancy with full-scale attacks on civilians, forcing more than 800,000 to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. They have no hope of safely returning to Myanmar anytime soon, and this creates new but surmountable logistical challenges for the 2020 elections.

Rohingya-led refugee groups have already said they want the government to facilitate voting from the camps in Bangladesh. One of these organizations, called the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), has urged Myanmar to set up voter registration and polling in collaboration with the Bangladesh authorities. Many other Rohingya have since reiterated the request.

Some in Myanmar dismiss this option out-of-hand, calling it unfeasible. But this is a cop-out.

In 2004, some 850,000 Afghan refugees voted in their country’s first presidential election from camps in Pakistan and Iran and through absentee ballots. In that case, concerned governments and international humanitarian organizations did their part to ensure refugees could exercise their right to vote. Myanmar and its bilateral partners could do the same.

There are also an estimated 600,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar, and many there are also anxiously awaiting news about the election. The three Rohingya-led political parties in the country—the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD), and the National Democracy and Peace Party (NDPP)—are all registered and intending to field candidates.

But Myanmar has denied Rohingya the right to vote since the 2015 elections that brought Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to power. Despite Myanmar’s wholesale exclusion of Rohingya, the international community made the profound mistake of lauding those elections. President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon all congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi on the outcome. Hillary Clinton even claimed partial credit for nudging Myanmar onto the reform path during her tenure as Secretary of State, recognizing the election was “imperfect” but calling it “an affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress.”

Few stopped to consider the repercussions the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya could have. Some analysts suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi would have to build a constructive working relationship with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in order for her government to be effective. None imagined she’d do so in the commission of genocide against Rohingya, but that’s precisely what happened.

In December last year, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi went so far as to represent Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, defending the military from allegations of genocide in a historic, ongoing lawsuit brought by The Gambia.

By wholly denying any intent to destroy Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi won military favor, and by taking aim at Rohingya on the global stage she strategically scored perverse ethno-nationalist points ahead of the elections.

Now, the cycle is poised to continue. Government insiders, diplomats and even representatives of international non-governmental organizations are saying that if all Rohingya were in Myanmar, they would still not meet the requirements of the election law because they lack citizenship. This is a politically convenient excuse.

Not only did Rohingya vote in past elections—during which they were still unjustly denied full citizenship rights—but since the 1990s, Myanmar authorities have kept detailed records of Rohingya through “household lists.” The government has other sources of data on Rohingya as well, including former identity cards and other evidence it could use to determine Rohingya voter eligibility.

Officials may suggest that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and those in Myanmar will have the right to vote only if they accept National Verification Cards (NVCs). However, these cards are discriminatory, effectively requiring Rohingya to identify as outsiders, thereby foregoing any chance to restore full citizenship under the current law. Any demand that Rohingya accept NVCs in exchange for the right to vote would be unacceptably coercive.

As November approaches, Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh are hoping that access to the polls might help them secure a better future.

“Rohingya need a voice in parliament,” Abdul Rasheed, an expected candidate with DHRP in Sittwe Township, tells me from Yangon. This will be his second attempt to seek office.

“This is not only about voting and democracy, it’s also about dignity and protection,” he says.

The international community, including the U.N. and other organizations, must now do everything in their power to ensure the Rohingya have the right to vote.

Governments around the world overlooked Rohingya disenfranchisement in 2015, and that was at least one paver on the road to genocide. They must not make the same mistake twice.

Credit: time.com

Myanmar prepares response to International Court order on Rohingya

File Photo | Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressing judges of the International Court of Justice  

The Netherlands-based court had in January issued an order for Myanmar to implement provisional measures for the protection of the Rohingya.

Myanmar says it will submit a report due on Saturday outlining its claims of compliance with an order from the International Court of Justice to protect members of its Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority.

The Netherlands-based court in January issued an order for Myanmar to implement provisional measures for the protection of the Rohingya. The court agreed last year to consider a case alleging that Myanmar committed genocide against the group, an accusation vigorously denied by the government. The court’s proceedings are likely to continue for years.

Myanmar’s military in August 2017 launched what it called a clearance campaign in Rakhine state in response to an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group. The campaign forced about 7,40,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh and led to accusations that security forces committed mass rapes and killings and burned thousands of homes.

Chan Aye, director general of the International Organisations and Economic Department of Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry, said on Friday that the government was working on the report, but would not discuss its contents before submitting it.

Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for Myanmar’s military, said it has complied with government orders by providing “complete and necessary information” for the report.ALSO READMyanmar and the limits of pan-Islamism

There is no obligation to make the report public.

The court order requires Myanmar to “take all measures within its power” to protect the Rohingya from genocide, to safeguard evidence relating to allegations of genocide and to prevent “public incitement” to commit genocide.

The court has no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance, and similar orders in high-profile cases in the past involving Serbia and Uganda were ignored without consequence.

The most significant measure taken by Myanmar’s government since the court order appears to have been an April 8 presidential directive that all “military or other security forces, or civil services and local people under its control or direction do not commit (genocidal) acts.”

Critics, however, note that Myanmar’s military has a record of impunity regarding alleged offenses conducted by its personnel.

“While Myanmar’s recent presidential directives ordering government personnel not to commit genocide or destroy evidence appear in line with the International Court order, the reality remains that no meaningful steps to end atrocities — including the crime of apartheid — have been taken,” the human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement Friday.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long considered Rohingya Muslims to be “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. They are also denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.

Credit: www.thehindu.com

Myanmar’s 2020 Elections: What Does the Future Hold?

If the polls move forward despite the pandemic, it will be a landmark development for Myanmar.

A voter registers to cast his ballot at a polling station in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 3, 2018.
Credit: AP Photo/Thein Zaw

Later this year, Myanmar is scheduled to hold its third general election in six decades in a landmark development for the country’s democratic transition. While details remain unclear amid the global coronavirus pandemic, as of now the Southeast Asian state is set to hold its expected polls as the ruling party faces manifold challenges that could pose significant risks for the future trajectory of reform and freedom.

While Myanmar had been under the rule of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, for a half-century, an opening in the 2010s saw subsequent political inroads made that turned the country into a rare story of hope for democracy and freedom in Southeast Asia. The changes culminated in the assumption of power by the long-time opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, following a landslide win in free national elections held in November 2015.

Nearly five years on, while Suu Kyi and the NLD have undertaken reforms in some areas, they have not lived up to the high expectations that existed when they took office. Politically, at home, Suu Kyi’s relationship with ethnic groups has worsened over the years as hopes for national reconciliation and decentralization have dimmed, and her ties with the military – which continues to exercise significant independent influence – remain strained. Abroad, though Myanmar has reinforced its foreign alignments, the balance of those alignments continues to be hampered by the legacy of the Rohingya crisis, which soured ties with some Western countries including the United States and reinforced Myanmar’s continued dependence on China.

Security-wise, the country’s ongoing ethnic conflicts, which have plagued it since independence in 1948, earning the title of the world’s longest-running civil war, have shown few signs of abating. Despite initial hopes for peace and talk of a temporary ceasefire amid COVID-19, a series of structural challenges – including lingering civil-military tensions, fierce divisions among its various ethnic groups, and the influence of insurgent groups, including the new Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – suggest that there is little chance of things truly changing for the better until the dust settles after 2020 polls.

Economically, while the NLD has made some efforts to encourage businesses, this has largely been an area of missed opportunity. Major issues remain in areas such as jobs, infrastructure, and foreign investment, in part exacerbated by the aforementioned stalled efforts at national reconciliation. Though Myanmar itself has thus far not been majorly affected by COVID-19 relative to the rest of Southeast Asia, the virus has nonetheless further dimmed economic prospects in the near term, with the NLD as of now set to enter into the 2020 elections with the lowest growth rates since the country’s opening began.

The confluence of these political, security, and economic challenges reinforce the reality that the NLD will enter into 2020 elections amid a much more somber atmosphere than the hope displayed in the historic 2015 polls that brought it to power. The NLD is facing waning support in certain ethnic and urban areas of the country. More broadly, even though the elections could help consolidate the country’s fragile electoral democracy, these underlying challenges have also heightened anxieties about polls themselves, including whether or not they will be held on time, will proceed in a free and fair manner, and will be held peacefully in the country, especially in conflict-ridden areas.

To be sure, despite these challenges, it is far from doom and gloom for the NLD heading into polls expected later this year. While the ruling party has had a rocky road during its term in office and has at times admitted as much, for now, the fact is that the 2020 elections still remain the NLD’s to lose, with Suu Kyi herself continuing to retain significant popularity in most of Myanmar and little appetite for the military to return to power. It is also important to keep in mind that the focus on COVID-19 can cut both ways: It can exacerbate the NLD’s governance challenges, but it can also reinforce the case for continuity and political stability and take the focus away from the party’s own problems, thereby cementing its expected return to power.

Even so, the realization of an expected NLD election win, albeit one smaller than the landslide that the party had recorded back in 2015, will not change the sobering reality of the NLD’s tough road ahead and the prospects for Myanmar’s democracy and reform moving forward. While a second term for the NLD would keep the prospects for reform intact, the dizzying array of issues it will have to deal with – from constitutional reform to managing ethnic conflict – remains daunting. And as the years progress, other variables, including discontent among smaller ethnic parties, maneuvering by elements within the military to maintain or even increase their political influence, and the NLD’s succession dynamics beyond Suu Kyi herself,  mean that the ruling party’s continued ability to govern Myanmar may be far from assured.

This is not to say that Myanmar’s upcoming polls are unimportant: indeed, if and when they are held and whatever their limits, competitive elections will be a landmark development in helping consolidate fragile electoral democracy in the Southeast Asian state. But a broader, future-oriented perspective must be kept in mind even as the focus is on the dynamics and then the results of Myanmar’s upcoming elections in the coming months. Otherwise, the window of hope for change in the country that we saw open in the early 2010s could soon begin closing and the country’s trajectory could take a turn for the worse.

By: Prashanth Parameswaran
Credit: thediplomat.com

Mr. Set Aung Returns to Myanmar Government as Deputy Minister of Planning and Finance

Mr. Set Aung returns to Myanmar Government

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has appointed Mr. Set Aung as the Deputy Minister for National Planning and Finance; inducting him in the Myanmar Government with the essential responsibility of planning for various departments and taking care of the finances when required.

Mr. Set Aung’s role in the previous administration gained primary importance for structuring a well-defined Special Economic Zone (SEZ) which bolstered the business spectrum in Myanmar. His efforts in developing the Thilawa Special Economic Zone were well received and appreciated by experts and the business community, for it facilitated the processing of investment applications, tax filing and other procedures in a freer manner, upholding the investor’s interests.

To seek his expertise and experience in re-energizing the current economic scenario, Mr. Set Aung’s appointment was approved by President U Htin Kyaw as the 2nd Deputy Minister for Planning and Finance, who would be sharing the excessive workload of the Ministry of Planning and Finance, along with Mr. Maung Maung Win.

Mr. Aung Set’s credibility and excellence are reflected in the instrumental portfolios he had been armed with – Economic Advisor to Thein Sein in 2011, Deputy Minister for National Planning and Economic Development, and Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar’s great hope fails to live up to expectations

It was never meant to be this way.

The script called for the lead actor, a Nobel prize winner, to seize control of a country, bring peace where there was conflict and prosperity where there was poverty. A nation emerging from years of military dictatorship was to become a beacon of hope not only for its cowed population but also for much of a fractured and turbulent south-east Asia.

But like many political dramas – especially over the past 12 months – the script has not been followed by Myanmar and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Now, a year since one of the world’s most famous prisoners of conscience came to power in the specially created position of state counsellor, the talk is not of progress.

Instead, it is of drastically escalating ethnic conflicts that have simmered and sporadically exploded for decades; a new Rohingya Muslim insurgency that has prompted an army crackdown some say may amount to crimes against humanity; a rash of online defamation cases that have fostered a panic over freedom of speech; and a repressive legal framework that allowed the generals to jail so many still being in place. And all the while, Aung San Suu Kyi is accused of remaining mostly silent, doggedly avoiding the media.

Interviews by the Guardian with more than a dozen diplomats, analysts and current and former advisers reveal frustrations with a top-down government struggling to cope with immense challenges. Aung San Suu Kyi’s questionable leadership style, her inability or unwillingness to communicate a vision, and her reluctance to speak out against the persecution of minorities have raised the question of whether the popular narrative is misplaced.

And although some defend her, saying it takes time to right the wrongs of decades, others see a fundamental misunderstanding of the woman herself.

“Many of the people who led the campaign [to free Aung San Suu Kyi] … were more on the liberal side of the spectrum,” one diplomat put it. “I think she’s closer to a Margaret Thatcher.”

It’s a stark contrast to the Aung San Suu Kyi who, during 15 years of house arrest at her lakeside villa on University Avenue in Yangon, stood on rickety tables and delivered speeches about human rights over the gate.

Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, when she was freed from 15 years of house arrest. Photograph: STR/EPA

“And she was electric,” said David Mathieson, a longtime Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch who is now an independent consultant. “She was funny. She was informative. She was principled … And I think it’s lamentable that she’s not doing the equivalent of that now.”

‘Sole decision-maker’

Five hours north by car from Yangon, Myanmar’s dystopian capital Naypyidaw stands surrounded by densely forested mountains.

It is here, in the so-called Abode of Kings supposedly built to insulate Myanmar’s generals from attack, amid a landscape of deserted 20-lane highways and grandiose hotels, that Aung Sun Suu Kyi lives her life in power.

The 71-year-old is a disciplined ruler. Her habit, established during imprisonment, is to wake before dawn and meditate in the house she shares with her pet dog and a small retinue of maids.

She has breakfast with an adviser, often Kyaw Tint Swe, a former ambassador who spent decades defending the junta’s actions.

An aide, Win Htein, says Aung San Suu Kyi eats very little. “The amount of food she is taking is like a kitten,” he said. “She doesn’t eat carbohydrates. Fruit and vegetables. No pork, or mutton, or beef. Only fish.”

Her few indulgences include a vast wardrobe of luxurious silk longyis and evening film viewings, musicals being her favourite. Win Htein recently gave her a copy of La La Land.

But mostly she works. And there is a lot of work.

As well as state counsellor – a position created to get around the military-drafted constitution that bars her from the presidency – she is foreign minister, minister of the president’s office and chair of numerous committees. Widely described as a micromanager, she pores over documents after hours. A source close to the attorney general’s office says she asks to see a copy of every draft bill before it is submitted to parliament. Ministers routinely pass decisions upwards.

“The problem is there are no policymakers in her cabinet,” said Burmese political analyst Myat Ko.

People who know her say Aung San Suu Kyi inspires both devotion and fear. She is variously described as charming and charismatic, and sharp and authoritarian. “She feels like a real leader,” one diplomat said. “Intelligent, quick-witted, quite funny.” At the same time, he added: “I would say that she has appeared to be very keen to be the sole decision-maker to have no chance of establishing rival power centres.”

Echelons above her subordinates in stature, the state counsellor is often depicted as living in a bubble, surrounded by a cabal of advisers who are too nervous to convey hard truths. A Yangon-based analyst working on the peace process said bad news often does not reach her.

“In meetings, she is dismissive, dictatorial – in some cases, belittling,” said a senior aid worker who, like many others interviewed for this story, insisted on anonymity because he works with the administration. The government, he said, has become “so centralised, there is complete fear of her”.

A bumpy transition

This is not the administration many hoped for when the National League for Democracy (NLD) took over the government last year following victory in the 2015 election. The circumstances of this seismic shift in Myanmar has admittedly been far from ideal for cohesive, effective government. The army has retained control over key ministries as well as the security forces. But the election and transfer of power from the previous military-backed government were smooth.

“Most transitions end badly: the Arab spring and many other examples,” said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst. “At the same time, transitions are always bumpy and I think Myanmar is going through a particularly bumpy moment in its transition.”

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Before those bumps, the first few months brought good news for the new administration. Aung San Suu Kyi released scores of political prisoners. She announced the creation of a Kofi Annan-led advisory commission on Rakhine state, where the minority Rohingya Muslim community has been persecuted for decades. Major peace talks were held in August with armed groups. By mid-September, the US pledged to lift all sanctions.

But cracks were there from the start. The announcement of her cabinet was met with ridicule when it emerged several of her new ministers had phoney degrees.

Aung San Suu Kyi did not have much choice. The only people with experience in government were from the previous regime. But she is said to have a small network and is slow to trust people, a legacy of her house arrest and persecution.

Obsession with party loyalty soon became a theme. NLD legislators were told not to speak to the media in the run-up to the election and then were ordered not to raise tough questions in parliament.

The silence held through October, as a fresh crisis unfolded in Rakhine state, and November, when four ethnic armed groups formed a new alliance in the north.

Peace was Aung San Suu Kyi’s priority, she said before taking office. But conflict has escalated to unprecedented levels in Shan and Kachin states, with tens of thousands of refugees driven over the border into China.

As a Bamar Buddhist, Aung San Suu Kyi hails from the dominant ethnic group. “The Lady”, as she is lovingly referred to across the country, built a following across Myanmar’s fractured ethnicities by taking trips to the border regions since 1989, often wearing local dress.

But ethnic leaders have recently questioned the extent of her sympathies with minorities. Her government has put out statements condemning abuses by ethnic armed groups, ignoring aggressions from the military. In one case it labelled a major ethnic organisation a terrorist outfit. The peace process analyst said she has one strategy: “to have good relationships with the Tatmadaw [army]”.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s squeaky-clean image had already begun to blur in 2012, when she did not speak out after a surge in sectarian violence that led to the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, in Rakhine state. In an apparent concession to domestic racist factions, her party blocked Muslims from running for parliament in 2015.

Many people put her ruthlessness down to political expedience and fear of an unpredictable military. Win Htein, her adviser, cited something she told him in 1988: “She told me, since she decided to get involved with politics, she would change everything. Any criticism directed towards her, she wouldn’t care.”

‘Potential for genocide’

The biggest moral challenge of her leadership is posed by Rakhine state, a tinderbox of tension between minority Rohingya Muslims and majority Buddhists.

The northern part of the region exploded into violence on 9 October after nine police officers were killed on the western border with Bangladesh by Rohingya armed with swords and makeshift rifles.

Aung San Suu Kyi got the news in the middle of the night. The morning after, she convened a sombre meeting with government and police officials. “She was not worried, [but] she was not calm. She was upset,” Win Htein recalled.

Soldiers sealed off the remote corner of the country, barring media and aid access. Tens of thousands of Rohingya, whom many in Myanmar regard as illegal “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh, fled across the border to refugee camps. They have recounted mass killings and rape, accusations which the military denies. One woman who spoke to the Guardian said troops raped her, killed her husband and seven of her children. One child survived, she said.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has angrily dismissed many of the claims as “fabrications”. The words “fake rape” were plastered over her official Facebook page. A report by a government-appointed committee cited the presence of mosques and “Bengalis” to dismiss the accusations. It was a clumsy response. “We have had conversations about messaging,” said one diplomat.

Yet the foreign ministry last week said a UN resolution to send an independent international fact-finding mission to Myanmar “would do more to inflame, rather than resolve, the issues at this time”.

A south Asian envoy said three months passed before Aung San Suu Kyi’s deputy at the foreign ministry visited the Bangladesh embassy. According to the diplomat, they offered to repatriate some Rohingya but made no reference to hundreds of thousands of others living in Bangladeshi camps since fleeing previous waves of violence.

“I can say that the government is only round about a year old but we haven’t seen a concrete indication towards really addressing the situation as far as Rakhine state is concerned,” the diplomat said. The Myanmar foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Shelters destroyed by fire at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. Photograph: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

And then a personal blow. In December, more than a dozen fellow Nobel laureates wrote an open letter to the UN security council warning of a tragedy “amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. It cited the “potential for genocide”.

‘Not the change they promised’

Few people who know her believe Aung San Suu Kyi is prejudiced, though they do say she is afraid of being painted as cosy with Muslims by powerful, radical Buddhist influencers.

“I think she sees it sort of like older white guys in America: they’re not racists but they don’t prioritise [race],” said one diplomat.

But when, 10 months into her rule, one of her advisers, a prominent Muslim lawyer, was assassinated, her silence left many dumbfounded.

Ko Ni, a constitutional lawyer who helped create the state counsellor position, was shot dead on 29 January as he stood outside Yangon international airport, holding his grandson in his arms. For a month, Aung San Suu Kyi made no public comment. She did not even call the family.

It was only after she attended his memorial service at the end of February that she made her first public statement on the matter.

The immense authority retained by the military means the state counsellor has limited power over what happens in conflict areas. But even in sectors well within its purview, the government is seen to be falling short.

Foreign investment is set to plunge 30% for the year ending 31 March, according to a report in the regional business publication the Nikkei Asian Review. The downturn is attributed in part to a vague economic vision.

The NLD’s parliamentary majority gives it the ability to amend and remove oppressive laws, including the notorious 66D clause in the telecommunications law that has been used to jail scores of people for Facebook posts critical of the government and army. But, instead, senior NLD officials began using it with an order to pursue some of the cases against critics coming from the highest levels of government.

By the start of 2017, at least 38 people had been charged with online defamation, some unrelated to the NLD, including two men who allegedly went on a drunken rant about Aung San Suu Kyi and one who called her puppet president, Htin Kyaw, an “idiot”.

Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s regional director for south-east Asia and the Pacific, said: “This is not the change the NLD promised to deliver during last year’s elections.”

Meanwhile, western diplomats continue to give Aung San Suu Kyi the benefit of the doubt. Few supported the establishment of a UN-backed commission of inquiry – the highest level of probe – on the Rohingya crisis.

“There’s a belief by some important actors that we just need to support her to steer the country,” said the analyst who works on the peace process. “That’s not been successful.”

Misplaced expectations

Aung San Suu Kyi’s aides turned down requests for an interview. Win Htein, who also works as the NLD spokesperson, praised her silence as politically astute and said media interviews were too “time-consuming”.

Win Htein – a man in his mid-70s who sleeps with an oxygen tank – has a reputation as the party disciplinarian.

Speaking at his home, a military-style dormitory for MPs in Naypyidaw, he added: “Please tell those who are disappointed in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or in us just [to] look at the history … More than 27 years we have struggled. Through real hardship. So this point is too early. They have too high expectations.”

So far, the government has successfully clamped down on corruption and fostered a climate of free speech, he said, adding that “there is an argument for both sides” for the 66D clause. He said claims that Aung San Suu Kyi was the sole decision-maker in her cabinet were “rubbish”.

Governance, he said, has meant constant negotiation with the army. Members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party have told him they plan to challenge Aung San Suu Kyi’s state counsellorship as unconstitutional.

Win Htein’s views on the Rohingya reflect common prejudices in Myanmar. He said the “Muslim lobby” exaggerates the plight of the group, even though 120,000 have been confined to camps in Rakhine state since 2012. He said the “illegal immigrants are flowing into our country like a stream since many decades ago” and that Islamic practices are incompatible with Buddhist beliefs.

Win Htein cannot speak for Aung San Suu Kyi. But it seemed pertinent to ask if he thought she might have private sympathy for the Rohingya.

He paused and then said: “No.”

National League of Democracy with half of seats in Myanmar by-Election


Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party National League for Democracy (NLD) has won nearly half of the seats contested in by-elections in Myanmar. This is the first vote since March 2016 elections which NLD won by 360 of the 652 MPs at the Assembly of the Union. This time the party but has bagged 9 out of 19 seats in the national and regional parliaments. The losses suffered by NLD were in more remote areas, including in ethnic minority regions. NLD enjoys a large majority in the Parliament so the outcome of the by-elections will not affect the balance of power within the parliament, where the, However, these elections do offer a chance to gauge the popularity of the administration in a country like Myanmar where nationwide public polls are not an available option. Worst defeat suffered by the party has been in the southern state of Mon, where it lost a lower house seat to its main opposition party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).


Connect North East 2016: Emergence of a new paradigm for connectivity and development in North East India

Connect North East 2016: Emergence of a new paradigm for connectivity and development in North East India
The North East is at an inflexionpoint of time with the focus on connecting northeast being echoed by leaders, policy makers and industry members from across India and abroad. The idea of Connectivity led development was the central theme at the recently concluded three day international conference CONNECT NORTHEAST 2016.

Thanking FICCI for arranging the Summit in Agartala, Mr. Manik Sarkar, Chief Minister of Tripura urged FICCI to take up the connectivity issues with the Union Govt and help the NE States in becoming an engine of growth. He appreciated the role of the Govt of India in improving bi-lateral relation with Bangladesh and Myanmar. While agreeing with the central message, and the need for physical connectivity Nagaland ChiefMinister, T R Zeliang stressed upon the importance of People-to-people connectivity. Zeliang further added “given the unique land holding system among the nagas, the Government of India shouldshould consider a fencing less border with Myanmar in Nagaland. He further said, rail and road connectivity with rest of the country and South East Asian countries must be upgraded to international level to end the isolation of NER States. He also focused upon lack of electricity and internet connectivity in the region.Ranjit Barthakur, Chairman of FICCI North East Advisory Council said the commitment of the Government is evident from the extremely pragmatic yet motivating speeches made by the Chief Ministers. He stressed on the need to bring about the level of economic and cultural integration that existed before 1947 if the North East is to graduate to ahigher growth trajectory.

The Northeastern part of India has been at a great disadvantage, being virtually disconnected from the Mainland India except forthe narrow Chicken’s Neck corridor which connects the region with West Bengal. A once prosperous region with a GDP that exceeded many other regions of India and probably the world, the north east has had to bear the brunt of an unfortunate chain of events that started with partition of the country in 1947.The region was a leading producer of tea and with the discovery of crude oil the region was one of the key revenue sources for British India.
The people of the region historically and traditionally had close ties with the people of the neighboring countries. The strategic positioning of the region was jeopardized with the attention shifting from the remote North East after partition.

Dr. A Didar Singh
“For business, the single most important factor is connectivity, India already looses some 15% on logistics cost, and when you come to the North East, the situation is worse” said Dr. A Didar Singh, Secretary General of FICCI while delivering the welcome address at the inaugural session of Connect North East 2016 in Agartala.The North East Connectivity Summit was conceptualized on the premise that better connectivity would lead to faster and more inclusive development in 2014, focusing on core connectivity issues of surface and air connectivity. The attempt was to bring forth a convergence of efforts and intellectual output into a common platform which could highlight the needs of the north east region and catalyze action for reenabling it as an economic and strategic area of interest for the sub-region.With more than 5300 kms of international borders,strengthening and expansion of connectivity network with the neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar etc has been a long standing demand in the region.
Dr. BibekDebroy, Member of NITI Aayog
The North East Connectivity Summits, since 2014 have been trying to gather data and crucial analysis about these issues through several reports to substantiate the viability of connectivity led development and catalyze investment in critical connectivity infrastructure. Multilaterals like World Bank, UNESCAP etc have also joined hands with FICCI, the State Governments of the region and industry members in order harness the expandingpossibilities that the region represents.

Connect North East 2016, the thirdNorth East Connectivity Summit was organized in Tripura which shares more 850 kms of international borders with Bangladesh and is undoubtedly a strategic point for trade and commerce with Bangladesh and even SE Asia through the Chittagong portTripura has important resources like Rubber, Bamboo, Gas, Agrihorti Resources and many importantlocations for Tourism.With a long border with Bangladesh the state has the potential to become a major hub of commercial activity and manufacturing. Unfortunately the state has been severely constrained by a huge gap in connectivity with mainland India, with the rest of North East and with neighboring Bangladesh, though in recent times the conditions have begun to improve. “Dhaka is just 150 km from Tripura’s capital Agartala, Chittagong port is just 75 km from Tripura’s border and Ashuganj river port is very near (50 km)” saidDr. BibekDebroy, Member of NITI Aayog who was one of the speakers at the Summit. He also said that Agartala-Akhaura rail link is being set up to connect north-east with Bangladesh and Akhaura check post is beingmodernized and many border haats (markets) are being set up to enhance trade with Bangladesh.

Mr Manik Sarkar
Connect North East 2016 was organized with Border Trade and expansion of cross border marketing linkages with Bangladesh and otherSouth East Asian region as a central theme. The Government of Tripura joined the initiative as the host state. The private sector and multilateral agencies were invited to look at Tripura as a region with immense potential for widening business reach offering access to not only thepeople of Tripura and North Eastern states but also to a base of more than 3.2 billionpeople in BBIN and South Asian RegionThe summit saw many perspectives converge at one single platform. Mr Manik Sarkar, Chief Minister of Tripura was joined by his counterpart from Nagaland, Mr T R Zeliang, Chief Minister of Nagland.

Dr BibekDebroy, Member NitiAayog, Tapan Chakraborty, Minister of Indiustries, Tripura and Amir Hossain Amu, Minister of Industries from Bangladesh were some of the important leaders who helped set the stage for a wider dialogue at Connect North East 2016. Several MPs and senior officials from Tripura and other North Eastern States also presented their viewpoints on the issues of connectivity. Ms. Sushmita Deb, MP from Assam said that the issue being deliberated uponwas very important and beyond narrowness of politics, which is why the summit was successful for the third time.

There was a visible interest from the international community with the representatives and delegations from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Japan, Russia, and the United Statesetc taking active part in the deliberations at Agartala. “These are all positive developments to build connectivity and boost trade relations, we must work towards an action oriented agenda. Chairman of FICCI NE advisory Council, Ranjit Barthakur said, the summit was organized by FICCI with support from the Tripura government to present a glimpse of the emerging opportunities for business in the state and connectivity was one of the core issues impacting economic development in the region.