Suu Kyi's govt faces poll test amid discontent

With only 19 seats up for election, the results are not likely to change the balance of power in a government dominated by the National League for Democracy.
With only 19 seats up for election, the results are not likely to change the balance of power in a government dominated by the National League for Democracy.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Her star has faded, with an increase in border unrest and anaemic economic achievements

YANGON • Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's government faced its first test at the ballot box yesterday in by-elections around Myanmar seen as a barometer for growing disillusionment with her party's first year in power.

The euphoria that surrounded the democracy icon's landslide electoral win in 2015 has ebbed as her party struggles to push through promised reforms.

Discontent is particularly acute in ethnic minority areas where many see Ms Suu Kyi as working too closely with the military, which ran the country for 50 years and still controls key levers of government.

With only 19 seats up for election, the poll is unlikely to alter the balance of power in a government firmly dominated by her National League for Democracy (NLD).

But the voting may offer a glimpse of the public's view on the NLD's first year in office - a rocky 12 months marked by a surge in border unrest and disappointing economic gains.

Hundreds of voters lined up outside polling stations on the outskirts of Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon yesterday, though the scenes lacked the fanfare and enthusiasm of the historic 2015 election.

The party will face its toughest challenge in the north in Shan State. Tens of thousands have been displaced by fighting between the army and ethnic insurgents.

"There are many victims of war here and other ethnic areas now," said Mr Sai One Leng Kham, an Upper House MP from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy.

"Sometimes (the NLD) works without any understanding of what's going on on the ground."

In strife-torn Rakhine State on Myanmar's western coastline, the party will face a strong challenge not only from the local Arakan National Party but also the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The USDP led the transitional government that took over from the junta in 2011 but was trounced in elections four years later that swept the NLD to power.

In the south in Mon, the NLD is facing a backlash over the naming of a new bridge after Ms Suu Kyi's father that many see as a symbol of the party's disregard for minorities.

Myanmar's economic and political elite, including the NLD, have long been dominated by the majority Bamar ethnicity.

"Now, more people think MPs from ethnic parties should be in parliament," said local Nyan Soe, who was among tens of thousands who protested over the bridge.

Ms Suu Kyi herself is constitutionally barred from campaigning while in office. But she came out to defend the NLD's record - while also conceding that progress in some areas had been slow - in a rare national address to mark her administration's one-year anniversary last Thursday.

But she stressed that her party was dedicated to rebuilding the impoverished nation and that this process would take time. "I believe most people are becoming increasingly aware that they do not have to live in fear of the government any more," she added. "I see this as progress."

A long-awaited investment law designed to attract more investment to the country kicked in yesterday.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline 'Suu Kyi's govt faces poll test amid discontent'. Print Edition | Subscribe