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Myanmar. A fragile democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s first visit to Beijing as foreign minister of her country last August, had mainly economic objectives. It was fundamental for the revival of relations between Myanmar and China which are currently in a phase of review, despite that the powerful neighbor remains the most important trading partner of Myanmar and its largest investor with projects for $15.4 billion already approved.

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After decades of the Burmese military regime’s strict dependence on aid and investment from the Chinese who drained away massive mineral and forest resources, as well as building infrastructures with a negative ecological impact for the local population in many cases, the government that succeeded the military regime which had a very close relationship with Beijing, stopped the work for the construction of the gigantic dam of Myitsone, in Kachin State in 2011. A work that the Chinese consider a priority in order to resupply electricity to the border regions. It was a project worth $3.6 billion that the Democratic leader, imprisoned for years under a regime that Beijing always protected internationally, was able to unlock, in exchange for Chinese intervention in the process of pacification of the northern areas where an ethnic guerrilla warfare, a legacy of the military dictatorship, is still active.

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During the talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, there was no commitment by the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who expressed her support instead for the construction of a bridge in the area inhabited by the Kokang, ethnically close to the Chinese, and still fighting against the central government. An initiative designed to facilitate transit between the two countries which have a high-level of exchanges in the border areas.
The journey, beyond the practical results, has however highlighted once again the limits that Aung San Suu Kyi is experiencing in managing the fragile democracy in Burma of which she, in the eyes of the world, is both promoter and ambassador. Given the importance but also the delicacy of relations with mainland China – clearly signaled by this, her first official trip to a foreign capital – there has been no action on her part in favor of Chinese dissidents. An unmet expectation also in February 2015, the previous visit prior to the victory of her National League for Democracy in the November 2015 vote and her ministerial assignment. What was seen as the beginning of a diplomatic offensive by the Burmese was, from many aspects, placed in a situation of stalemate, which raises doubts and discontent that are even more intense when compared with the expectations for Burma’s ‘new course’. Eight months from the entrance to office of the first civilian government in over half a century, Myanmar sees the euphoria that accompanied the victory without compromise in the elections of November 2015, vanish.

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The National League for Democracy headed by her in the twenty years that the military regime took   to capitulate in front of non-violent opposition and international pressure is now subject to increasing criticism for its inability to develop a politics consistent with its own roots and election promises. Of the three major lines of intervention for the country (peace, development and an international role), no substantial progress has been seen, while the growth prospects of the country and the interest of international investors have led to an increase in prices and housing rents and land, as well as – especially in the major cities – the prices of essential goods. All are well beyond the increase of income and opportunity for the average citizen of the 55 million Burmese population. The price of food surged from April and the official tendency of consumer prices is 12.4 percent, to which more than 10 per cent unofficial inflation registered under the new government, must be added. Government economic advisers admit excessive heating of prices and a lack of clarity in government action. For some even a lack of direction, a real political vacuum, risky at a time when the administration, born from the ashes of the military’s control over the land but which still retains extensive privileges, needs results to accredit and consolidate itself.

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It is the business class especially, already perplexed by the delays in the development of the new economic policy, and the most critical today of the measures announced in late July that do not provide clear guidance on how the government intends to boost the economy and proceed towards its liberalization. The priority in official plans seems to be the realization of the peace plan that should regulate the still active situations of conflict with ethnic militias who, with varying success, fought the military to protect their identity and autonomy, rather than for abstract reasons of rights and democracy that are functional to them however. A goal of the utmost importance, but it should not penalize a growth that can now enjoy – for experts and operators – opportunities elsewhere denied due to global crisis or particular strategies. For many, the prospects of the country must be based on a coincidence of related and coordinated initiatives rather than one objective, however noble.

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As noted by Nay Zin Latt, former political adviser to Thein Sein, the president who led the five-year period of transition between military and civil power, “the ministers lack credibility”, and are  “a team of individuals without qualities, ideals and resolve”. A description that is not lacking in validity looking at the composition of the cabinet in office, which is the projection of a transition that must take into account the sensitivity of the military and of the forces still linked to them, as well as the bureaucracy. Each ministry now has its own strategy for gradual change that can not be rushed or imposed without paying the penalty of further difficulties ahead. An executive with a strong bureaucratic footprint and that has consequently, as its long term goal, stability as its only objective. With the consequence of a substantial block of government activity that waits on instructions from above that do not arrive, because Aung San Suu Kyi and her collaborators do not want to place themselves in conflict with the bureaucracy. Thus, as Hantar Myint, a Burmese analyst, remarks, “public officials remain seated at their desks and do nothing awaiting for instructions from above”. In the delicate balance of Burmese power, this is also a consequence of the role of the men in uniform or those who have abandoned it in recent years in exchange for portions of power shared with civilians, but without effective control over their own interests that remain enormous, starting from the economic ones.

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Shwe Mann, third in the hierarchy of the pre-2011 military regime and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi up to the entrance into office of the current government, has clearly indicated the need for a non-confrontational relationship between civil and executive bureaucracy. A necessity that the heroine for democracy did indeed practice, by communicating to her ministers to avoid any case of conflict with the bureaucrats or the exerting of pressures for their transformation. A bureaucracy which for its own part is taken by uncertainty, in particular with regard to its leadership that, on the one hand has carte blanche from the ministries that are unable to present a coherent policy, and on the other a lack of inspiration and incentives as it feels the effect of the privileges and stagnation that make the country’s government even more dysfunctional. The effects are already perceptible and threaten a resource capable of reviving the country such as direct investments from abroad. The Investment Commission of Myanmar, for example, allows permits to filter through very slowly and thus investments have been reduced to a trickle compared to their tsunami potential. If last year the country had attracted direct initiatives and in joint-ventures for 9.48 billion dollars, in the first quarter of 2016, they only reached 381 million. This is in line with the position of wait-and-see potential global investors, but on the other hand collides with the interest of Asian nations, such as Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, to participate actively and immediately in the development of the country.
If the management system is held back by uncertainty, old habits instead remain fully active. Corruption, among them; with serious consequences given its persistence in every sector and every area of the country. (S.V.)

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