New MPs to inherit host of issues in Myanmar

First-time NLD MP Tin Ko Ko Oo, who is on the "citizen rights and duties" committee, is already dealing with many issues raised by his constituents, such as complaints of land grabs and a lack of basic infrastructure.
First-time NLD MP Tin Ko Ko Oo, who is on the "citizen rights and duties" committee, is already dealing with many issues raised by his constituents, such as complaints of land grabs and a lack of basic infrastructure.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Incoming NLD govt faces many problems such as land rights, graft

Rookie MP Tin Ko Ko Oo spends his free time poring over training manuals, learning English and studying a much-thumbed Burmese-English copy of Myanmar's Constitution.

"It's like going back to university, but not as easy," he said in his modest office allotted to MPs in a leafy compound in Naypyitaw. "Now we have responsibilities; we are accountable. I have to be careful of what I say and even how I dress."

The 39-year-old, a geology graduate from Mawlamyine University in Mon state who spent some years in Kuala Lumpur working for a printing press, is a first-time National League for Democracy (NLD) MP. And he is already dealing with a host of issues from his constituents - from complaints of land grabs to a lack of basic infrastructure.

The NLD has to cohabit with the military, which controls 25 per cent of Parliament and provincial assembly seats, plus the home, border affairs and defence ministries.

But additionally, a long list of issues awaits the incoming administration, from grassroots problems to sensitive matters like land rights, dams, mines and citizen rights. The NLD has set up 18 committees to deal with them - and new MPs like Mr Tin Ko Ko Oo are negotiating a steep learning curve. He is on the "citizen rights and duties" panel.

  • TOP FIVE ISSUES

    LAND RIGHTS

    Thousands of hectares of land have been confiscated or grabbed by the rich and powerful under decades of military rule - and it has not stopped. Land titles are rare, leaving people who have lived on the land for generations vulnerable. Land reform is urgently needed.

    RELATIONS WITH CHINA

    Myanmar's northern neighbour wants to reopen negotiations on the Myitsone dam, shelved in 2011 by President Thein Sein. Locals around the China- Myanmar joint venture copper mine in Letpadaung also hope the government will take a strong stand on environment matters. These will be early test cases for ties with China.

    INTERNAL RIVALRIES

    In some states, the NLD has to manage rivalries and tensions over ministerial posts and local grievances. These go straight to the heart of relationships between political parties and with ethnic minorities.

    THE ROHINGYA

    The largely stateless Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine state are a hot button issue. Foreign rights groups will put pressure on the incoming NLD government to give them more rights, which will not go down well with nationalist Buddhist monks and the state's Buddhist Rakhine majority.

    THE ECONOMY

    The government will have to stabilise the currency and meet the expectations of domestic and foreign investors seeking reassurances that investor- friendly economic reforms will continue. And it must ensure the benefits accrue to the masses.

    Nirmal Ghosh

Today, the NLD will name its candidates for president. The NLD-dominated Upper and Lower Houses each will nominate a candidate, as will the army bloc. MPs will vote, probably next week. The candidate who gets the most votes will become president, while the other two will be vice-presidents.

After the president names his Cabinet, the new administration will take power on April 1 - and immediately run into a blizzard of demands and expectations.

Already, China has said it wants to renegotiate the terms of the shelved Myitsone dam project in Kachin state. In Sagaing division, west of Mandalay, locals are hoping for support in their opposition to a joint-venture copper mine.

Across the country, there is a clamour for land rights. Often, district officials' maps show empty land when in fact it is inhabited. Locals are kicked out when a well-heeled or well-connected businessman turns up, Mr Tin Ko Ko Oo said.

"There is corruption at every step," he added.

Vast tracts of land have been turned into private plantations and people living on it, into labourers.  

Then there is pressure on human rights - both at home and from foreign groups seeking to persuade the new government to, among other things, grant rights to Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.

State politics presents minefields. The Rakhine Arakan National Party (ANP) won most of the local assembly seats in last year's elections but was outflanked by the NLD, which wants to appoint its own Rakhine candidate as chief minister.

Dr Aye Maung, ANP's chairman, told The Straits Times bluntly in a phone interview: "The ANP is not happy. We want to sit down with the NLD (but it is) not responding... If the NLD refuses to talk, then ANP will act like an opposition."

Similarly, in Shan state, there are internal tensions over state ministry appointments. These are over and above pressing problems, including surging drug production and addiction.

"There is all that and more - economic policy, currency gyrations, the peace process, navigating the relationship with China," said Yangon-based independent analyst Richard Horsey. "They (NLD) will face a slew of decisions on day one."

He added: "But the NLD also has a great deal of popular support, so it will be given time and benefit of the doubt. There are huge expectations - but it may have a decent honeymoon period in terms of delivering results."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2016, with the headline 'New MPs to inherit host of issues in Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe