MYANMAR OUTLOOK IN 2021: Cautious optimism in peace process with gloomy economic forecast

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Sai Wan Sai
Sai Wan Sai

As the new year is about to begin, many are wondering on how the transition from the first National League for Democracy (NLD) to second NLD administration will pan out, given the row between the Tatmadaw or the military and NLD over the former insistence to investigate some 200 townships, where the military families have cast their votes in November election. Reportedly, the Tatmadaw wanted to be sure that the Union Election Commission (UEC) conducted the elections in a free and fair manner, while the latter said it has no such legal rights to enact such undertaking.

Regardless of such misgivings, it will be in order to delve on how the ethnic representation in parliament will look like; the likelihood of future peace process development; and the uncertainties of the country’s economy given the effect caused by coronavirus pandemic. 

Ethnic representation in Parliament

The ethnic political parties (EPPs) prior to the November 8 elections were convinced that the elections could better their bargaining power, either as a coalition partner of a mainstream Bamar party, which could either be NLD or military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP),  or plays a Kingmaker role if the election outcome becomes indecisive or a hung parliament in union, national-level to form government. But their projected goal evaporated as NLD won a landslide victory with super majority. 

According to the UEC election outcome result, in Union Parliament, the combination of upper and lower houses, NLD won 396 seats which is 59.7%; USDP won 33 seats which is 5%; the EPPs won 46 seats which is 7%; the vacant (excluded from the election)22 seats which is 3.3%; and the Tatmadaw 168 appointed seats which is 25%.

The total seats for Union Parliament is altogether 664.

Given the NLD landslide victory, there is actually no need to form a coalition in union parliament but in state and region parliaments it will have to find coalition partners in Arakan, Shan. Mon and Kayah states, in order to appoint house-speakers as the seats it won aren’t enough. However, as the NLD will install its president having won the election with super majority, the appointment of the chief ministers in state and region parliaments won’t be a problem, as it is within the power of the sitting president.

To be able to appoint house-speakers in Shan State Parliament 66 votes are needed. The outcome seats distribution from the elections were: NLD 29, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy 26, USDP 24, Shan Nationalities Democratic Party 1, Ta’ang National Party 7, Pa-O National Organization 7, Wa National Party 2, Lahu National Development Party 1, and Tatmadaw appointed 33.

In the same vein, to appoint house-speakers in Kayah State Parliament 11 votes are needed.  The outcome seats distribution from the elections were: NLD 9, USDP 3, Kaha State Democratic Party  3, and Tatmadaw appointed 5.

To appoint house-speakers in Mon State 16 votes is needed.  The outcome seats distribution from the elections were: NLD 14, Mon Unity Party 6, and Tatmadaw appointed 8.

Finally, to appoint house-speakers in Arakan State Parliament 10 votes is needed. The outcome seats distribution from the elections were: Arakan National Party 7, Arakan Front Party 2, NLD 4, USDP 1, and Tatmadaw appointed 5.

But the NLD has made an overture to build a national unity government and invited the 48 EPPs to join the government. The NLD three-member working team consisting of three senior leaders: Dr. Aung Moe Nyo, the party’s third secretary and Magwe Region chief minister; Daw Nan Khin Htwe Myint, a member of the party’s Ethnic Affairs Committee and Karen State chief minister; and Ntung Hka Naw Sam, the chair of the party’s Ethnic Affairs Committee, has been formed to lead discussions with ethnic parties, according to the NLD.

Peace process

So far as the peace process goes, the government has no official meeting with the ten nationwide ceasefire agreement-signatory-ethnic armed organizations (NCA-S-EAO) since last August, when they met on the eve of the fourth 21st Century Panglong Conference.

The government wanted to restart it the peace negotiation process officially before the year end but the signatory EAOs said they were not ready, as they need to discuss among themselves.

With the NCA-non-signatory EAO the government last met the Northern Alliance-Burma (NA-B) in December 2019 only and since then there has been no meeting.

The NA-B is made up of Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Arakan Army (AA).

But lately, the Tatmadaw seems to be taking a lot of peace talk initiative by meeting the AA and also even with the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP). 

While the KNPP is a separate approach being from the south close to Thai border, the meeting with AA, if workable will also pull in the NA and eventually, also the seven-member political alliance Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) headed by the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

FPNCC is a political front made up of NA-B and UWSA, Shan State Progress Party and Mong La or  National Democratic Alliance Army.

For the time being the war in Arakan State has come to a halt, amid the Tatmadaw endorsement of AA proposal to hold additional elections in Arakan State nine townships which were excluded in November 8 elections.

Apart from that the Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief has been changing tactics, for whatever reason he may have in store, by showing positive eagerness to accommodate the AA proposal and refraining to call the outfit terrorist group, which it has initiated to be designated last year.

Separately, the NA-B also told the media that it is ready to negotiate any time for bilateral ceasefire talks, which have halted since a year ago.

The NCA-signatory Restoration Council of Shan State Chief Sao Yawd Serk recently made public in his video message regarding the peace process that all EAOs, NCA-signatories and non-signatories, are in agreement of four points, which are establishing federal democracy, amendment of 2008 Constitution, becoming federal union armed forces, and rights to draw up their own ethnic state constitutions.

COVID-19 affected economy

According to World Bank (WB) publication,  “Myanmar Economic Monitor – Coping with COVID-19”,  published December 2020, under “Recent Developments” listed: “The second wave of COVID-19 severely affected the  public health and economic challenges; the economy is estimated to have grown by 1.7 percent in FY19/20, down from 6.8 percent in FY18/19; the pandemic is having severe effects on the poorest and most vulnerable; domestic inflationary pressures have eased, with food prices gradually declining and the increase in electricity tariffs dropping out of the base; trade has slumped as a result of COVID-19, but foreign direct investment approvals have been resilient; and relatively high fiscal deficits are expected in FY19/20 and FY20/21, due to the effects of COVID-19 on spending and revenues.”  

As far as the outlook is concerned the report projected growth to remain relatively low at 2 percent in FY20/21. And despite the impacts of the pandemic, medium-term growth prospects remain positive. Growth is projected to recover to 7 percent on average, supported by new investments in industrial and urban development projects, roads, and communication and power infrastructure. A gradual resurgence in manufacturing activities is expected, while increased use of digital technology could boost productivity across a broad range of sectors.  

Recommendation made by the WB are: to undertake COVID-19 relief measures that slow the spread of the virus; a demand-led strategy for a medium to longer term recovery;  in the short to medium term to support private consumption and investment,  public infrastructure,  increasing the productive capacity, an efficient and stable financial system; and explore economic opportunities in the areas of digital technology, pharmaceutical production, insurance services, health and educational services and fintech as new growth levers.

Outlook

To sum up, ethnic representation in the parliament won’t mean much and may depend on the largesse of the NLD, which has the super majority, particularly in Union Parliament. But coalition-building could come into play in ethnic states, given that the NLD don’t have majority vote to install house-speakers in Shan, Kayah, Mon, and Arakan states.

As it now seems, the NLD won’t go for coalition partner sort of unity government building, but rather to choose individuals from ethnic parties to fill the minister and deputy-minister portfolios. In short, the EPPs could only be second-fiddle not coalition partner.

Apart from that, the NLD leadership recently has been sending signals that the planned meeting with the EPPs, some 14 of them which have responded to its general overtures, will largely survey or gather inputs from them on how they wanted to see the federal union should be formed than engaging in minister portfolio distribution.

Regarding the peace process, the Tatmadaw and government are not cooperating and not on the same wavelength. For example, the former wanted to hold elections, as proposed by the AA in Arakan State, but the latter is lukewarm and indifferent to the proposal.

But the unofficial ceasefire observed by both the AA and Tatmadaw since November 8 is a welcome move, which is still holding. Further meetings were said to be planned between the two, including the NA-B and eventually FPNCC, which could usher in a peaceful atmosphere and reconciliation for the whole country. But it could also be derailed as inter-ethnic armed clashes in  northern Shan State and clashes between Karen National Liberation Army, armed wing of the Karen National Union, a NCA-signatory, and Tatmadaw in Karen State were being reported quite recently.

Concerning the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic,  according to the World Bank it should bounce back to 7 percent GDP but cautioned that it will depend on the ups and downs of how the pandemic developed during the months ahead. 

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