In 2015, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s “National League for Democracy” (NLD) achieved a landslide victory in Myanmar’s general elections with the slogan “Time for Change”, many believed that such an historic milestone could finally set the “pariah state” of South-East Asian politics on the right path towards full democratization, after more than fifty years of military rule. Since then, however, the euphoria that surrounded her designation as State Counsellor (Myanmar’s de facto head of government) has progressively evaporated, to be replaced by mounting feelings of delusion and frustration both within the country and in the international community. In fact, rather than constraining or endeavouring to supplant the enormous influence maintained by the armed forces – also known as Tatmadaw – in tandem with the military-backed “Union Solidarity and Development Party” (USDP), the Nobel peace laureate has decided to enter into a fragile power-sharing agreement with them, which allows the Tatmadaw to control a quarter of all delegates in the national parliament, along with several key ministries. Due to the extensive prerogatives that endow Myanmar’s generals with formidable veto powers over unwanted changes to the 2008 constitution, during its four years in office the NLD has thus repeatedly failed in championing a coherent and sustainable agenda for constitutional reforms, not only in the field of civil-military relations, but also in other key domains such as ethnicity, citizenship, federalism, and civil liberties.
From this perspective, the electoral promise of building a more pluralistic society characterized by the expansion of minority rights has gone largely unfulfilled, while the dramatic recrudescence of communal violence in frontier areas like Rakhine State since early 2016 has casted a very dark shadow on the progressive government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. In the midst of the Rohingya crisis, brought about in late 2017 by a series of Tatmadaw retaliatory military campaigns against Muslim minorities that the UN later declared to be “textbook examples” of ethnic cleansing with a genocidal intent, the NLD has de facto turned a blind eye to the massive violations perpetrated by the army. Additionally, Aung San Suu Kyi has also validated and supported the military-sponsored, inflammatory rhetoric that portrays this ethnic group as an “alien race” and a threat for Myanmar’s Buddhist identity, due to the alleged ISIS-style terrorist techniques employed by Rohingya militants. More generally, the NLD’s embrace of the ethnic criterion as the cornerstone of its idea of nationality has been reflected in the strenuous defence of the discriminatory and much criticized 1982 Citizenship Law, which consolidated a long-standing racial taxonomy based on the primacy of the Bamar majority, while stripping Rohingyas of their citizenship rights. By the same token, the progressives have failed to repeal or amend the infamous 2015 “Race and Religion Laws”, passed by the Thein Sein administration with the aim of restricting religious conversions and interfaith marriages, in what appears to be a further attempt to charm the ultranationalist Buddhist organizations that promoted similar bills. As could be expected, the escalation of the Rohingya disaster has also led to a significative fall in foreign investments: at the end of 2017, the total FDI inflow towards Myanmar had in fact receded to pre-2013 levels, signalling a vigorous reversal of the positive trends that had materialized since the start of the political transition.
Unfortunately, the low profile displayed by Aung San Suu Kyi in refraining from questioning the views of the military elite has also impacted on another prominent matter, namely Myanmar’s half-hearted and largely unsuccessful attempts to advance the issue of decentralization and federalism, as originally pledged by her father Aung San in the much celebrated 1947 Panglong Agreements inked with minority groups. In 2015, seeking to bring an end to decades of civil war through the revitalization of the “spirit of Panglong”, the progressive government drafted a nationwide ceasefire agreement that, up to now, has been signed by only 10 out of 22 officially recognized ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). Most notably, the list of the non-signatories also encompasses the “United Wa State Army” (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest, best equipped and most prosperous EAO, thanks to its solid ties with China and massive involvement in the lucrative business of narcotics. Hence, if the NLD seems merely interested to a temporary and tactical truce with minority groups in order to alleviate the international outcry stemming from the Rohingya conundrum, the coalition of non-signatories EAOs recently issued a series of demands to link the relaunch of the ceasefire agreement to a permanent devolution of powers towards Myanmar’s peripheral areas, which have been rebuffed by central authorities as totally unacceptable.
Finally, a similar state of impasse has characterized the government’s record also in terms of the expansion of individual and collective rights, which clearly stands out as an essential precondition to forming a more open, pluralistic, and democratic Myanmar. Where the issue of civil liberties is concerned, a source of major worry is currently represented by the NLD’s recurring attempts to limit Internet freedom, at the expense of netizens, activists, and online journalists who chose this pivotal domain as the main battleground to advance their causes and grievances. More specifically, the curtailment and manipulation of online content has been achieved through a series of unprecedented tools, involving the employment of “keyboard armies” composed of spambots and fake accounts, as well as growing recourse to the controversial 2013 Telecommunication Law, which endows central authorities with arbitrary and ill-defined powers to prosecute the crime of defamation in cyberspace. On top of that, the harassment of local media has attracted worldwide criticism in the paradigmatic case of the judicial odyssey experienced by Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists sentenced to seven years in prison in December 2017 for reporting on atrocities against Rohingyas, under the draconian provisions of the 1923 “Official Secrets Act”. In this complicated scenario, and with the run-up to Myanmar’s 2020 general elections already underway, the NLD may thus be tempted to secure another triumph at the polls by further tilting towards nationalist and Bamar-centric polities, which have definitely emerged as the most vocal and influent constituencies in the country’s stalled transition.