State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues have their work cut out for years to come tackling Myanmar's key problems: negotiating an end to the many ethnic conflicts, raising incomes and boosting an economy that has been mismanaged for decades, and overhauling the country's decrepit infrastructure. Worldwide criticism of the harsh treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority has severely dented Myanmar's reputation, just a few years after the country was welcomed back into the global community.
21st-century Panglong Conference
When Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) government took power in April 2016, she said that her main priority was ending the almost 70 years of ongoing conflict between various ethnic minority groups and the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military). One of Suu Kyi's first initiatives was to stage a re-run of the famous Panglong Conference of 1947, when her father, Aung San, persuaded ethnic leaders to join the then Union of Burma, with a guarantee of full autonomy for their regions. The failure to keep that promise by subsequent politicians, and then the junta that ruled for almost 40 years, is the root cause of the conflicts that have rumbled on almost from the moment Myanmar became independent in 1948.
At the end of August 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi hosted the 21st-century Panglong Conference in Myanmar's capital, Nay Pyi Taw, where representatives of almost all the ethnic groups fighting the government met with senior politicians and generals. But no agreement was reached and subsequent meetings have also failed to result in any real progress. At the same time, the fighting in eastern and northern Shan State has been at its most intense for years. With the ethnic groups deeply distrustful and the Tatmadaw unwilling to compromise, the prospect of peace and an end to the civil wars seems as far away as ever.
The Army's Role
Perhaps the major difficulty Aung San Suu Kyi and her government face is that the army has only partially stepped back from political affairs. The Tatmadaw retains control of three key ministries: border affairs, defence and the interior, while 25% of all MPs are from the military. Under the 2017–18 annual budget, the Tatmadaw will receive almost 14% of the money available, more than will be spent on education and health care combined.
In practical terms, Aung San Suu Kyi has no real control over the army. That was highlighted in August and September 2017, when Rohingya militants launched attacks on police outposts in Rakhine State close to Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. The Tatmadaw responded with a devastating scorched-earth offensive that resulted in over 400,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. While worldwide condemnation of Myanmar's response was focused on Aung San Suu Kyi, she could do little to stop the army's actions.
Aung San Suu Kyi's Rohingya Problem
While conflict between the Rohingya Muslim minority and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine State is nothing new, the sheer scale of the violence that erupted in 2016 and 2017 has garnered worldwide attention. With a combined total of around 500,000 of the estimated 1.1 million Rohingya in Rakhine State fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi's prevously stellar reputation as a global icon of democracy and human rights has taken an awful battering.
While Suu Kyi was unable to stop the Tatmadaw's operations in the wake of attacks by Rohingya militants on police outposts, her failure to acknowledge the level of violence employed by the army and by Rakhine Buddhists and the suffering of the Rohingya refugees led to sustained criticism from the United Nations and countries around the world. Only China – once again positioning itself as Myanmar's closest friend and ally – has offered her its support.
But the Rohingya are deeply unpopular in heavily Buddhist Myanmar. Regarded by most Burmese as illegal immigrants, they have long been persecuted and denied citizenship. Caught between an outside world outraged by the treatment of the Rohingya and a home population that has little or no sympathy for them, Suu Kyi is faced with a Rohingya problem that will not go away.
The 6.8-magnitude earthquake that struck central Myanmar on 24 August 2016 damaged almost 400 temples across the plains of Bagan. At first sight, the earthquake's effects appeared devastating, but subsequently it has been seen as a chance to fix the poorly executed past restorations of the temples. Doing that will put the country's most important archaeological site in a better position to achieve Unesco World Heritage recognition, a prize that has been denied to Myanmar for over two decades.
Unesco is coordinating an international team to work on the monuments and is supporting the government in its bid to apply for World Heritage status. But for Bagan to rank alongside other Southeast Asian cultural treasures, such as Cambodia's Angkor Wat, it's likely that 40-odd hotels and other businesses will have to be demolished or moved away from the proposed heritage zone. In the meantime, on the government's long list of new laws to enact are bills increasing protection for Myanmar’s cultural heritage and imposing tougher punishments, including jail terms of up to seven years for anyone found to have damaged, removed or destroyed heritage buildings.