NEW DELHI: The National League for Democracy (NLD)-led civilian government came to power on a wave of euphoria and exceedingly high hopes less than two years ago, as the first civilian president in five decades was sworn in on Mar 30, 2016.
The Brookings Institution called it “a new and hopeful chapter in Myanmar’s sorrowful history”. CNN said it was a “historic day” and the BBC proclaimed “Myanmar is a country on the up”.
Fast forward to January 2018, it seems key developments in Myanmar over the past year have largely shattered expectations of progress for its democratic transition, not least because of its treatment of the press and its approach to the crisis in Rakhine.
WHITHER PRESS FREEDOM?
At least 11 reporters were arrested in 2017, both Myanmar and foreign journalists.
The most recent episode involving Lau Hon Meng from Singapore and Mok Choy Lin from Malaysia on assignment for the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation finally ended last week, after they spent two months in prison for using a drone near the parliament while shooting a documentary there.
While Myanmar authorities were empowered under the law to take action against possible breaches of security near a government building, the case raises concerns about press treatment and the diminishing levels of tolerance the Myanmar government has these days with the media.
The worry is that this newfound impatience has hardened into disdain and contempt, as the government grows more sensitive and suspicious about what it perceives as actions to undermine it.
A more serious case emerged in December 2017 concerning two Reuters journalists who have been detained in Myanmar for three weeks, as a probe continues into allegations that they breached the country’s Official Secrets Act. If found guilty, they could face up to 14 years in prison.
The pair had been working on a Reuters coverage of the crisis in Rakhine where about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims fled a fierce military crackdown on militants.
Details of the information they obtained have been closely guarded but it is widely believed the documents may contain information about the operational orders of the security forces in Rakhine.
There are also suspicions that it contains the military’s investigation over a mass grave found in the village of Inn Din, where attacks and the burning down of Rohingya houses by Myanmar security forces in late August 2017 have been documented by Amnesty International.
NOTHING BUT IMPASSE LEFT FOR THE ROHINGYA
Now that the Rohingya issue has been internationalised, it makes it even more difficult for Myanmar authorities to ignore global criticism and pressure.
Yet this dynamic has also resulted in authorities fixating on the tone of press coverage and insisting that many news reports are fake, instead of confronting longstanding policy issues involving the complexities of a generation-long challenge of Myanmar statehood, citizenship and identity.
Still, it is too easy to follow international condemnation of the gruesome actions of the Myanmar security forces who Rohingya refugees say drove them out with violence and lambast the Myanmar government for being complicit through their reticence.
For one, worries about the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army using Rakhine as a base to stage more attacks are visceral among echelons of decision makers in Naypyidaw who feel compelled to prioritise national security above all else.
But it is disappointing to see authorities adopt a siege mentality instead of decisively putting a stop to the violence and braving confronting difficult questions, in a crisis that has tested the leadership’s mettle.
PEACE PROCESS RESOLUTION LOOKS ELUSIVE
The situation in Rakhine in 2017 has taken the heat off the country’s peace process with its armed ethnic groups, another critical challenge for the NLD.
Aung San Suu Kyi herself had said one of her government’s top priorities was to make peace with armed ethnic groups and work toward bringing economic development to her people.
Some baby steps towards progress have been achieved in May last year, at a conference organised by the NLD which brought together some 1,400 representatives from the government, parliament, the military, invited political parties, armed ethnic organisations and civil society groups.
The conference discussed 41 points covering political, economic, social, security, land and environmental issues and reached agreement on 37 points.
These include an agreement on building a union based on democracy and federalism, with the right to self-determination for ethnic groups, and with states and regions empowered to write their own laws in accordance with the country’s 2008 constitution.
However, no agreement was reached on the thorny questions of the status of these armed groups, and ethnic minorities’ desire for secession and greater political independence.
Resolution looks elusive. The military, which plays a dominant role in politics and the peace process, insists there should be a single army under a new federal arrangement but ethnic armed groups want to see a federal army, which would allow them to retain their respective armed forces.
Where only 8 of more than 20 groups have signed onto a national ceasefire agreement, these differences may tilt a fragile balance.
More eyes will be on Myanmar for signs of progress when the next conference is convened in late January.
NOT DOING SO WELL
Going by the developments in 2017, it seems the year did not go so well for Myanmar’s civilian government or the military establishment, which inherently maintains an important role in a hybrid regime.
The Rohingya crisis overshadowed all other issues, with the destruction wrought across Rakhine and the mass exodus of refugees into Cox’s Bazaar.
Going into 2018, it is likely that these issues, especially the Rohingya crisis, will continue to dominate Myanmar’s domestic politics and international attention, even as Myanmar’s economy and infrastructure projects may gradually pick up pace in the later part of the year.
Reading over the news from 2016, perhaps the more circumspect perspectives expressed by Asian media outlets during Myanmar President Htin Kyaw’s swearing in had been more accurate.
Noting that a key challenge for the new administration was to maintain smooth relations with the military, the South China Morning Post had asked “who is really in charge?”
Channel NewsAsia also called it when they said Htin Kyaw assumes his role at a difficult time and faces multiple immediate challenges.
Dr Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the O P Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratisation of Myanmar.