COMMENTARY: Burma (Myanmar) and the Philippines: change is coming?

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 30 July) — In mid-2015 I wrote an article on the similarities and differences of Burma and the Philippines at a time when both countries were preparing for their respective national elections, Burma in November 2015 and the Philippines in May 2016. (Read – http://opinion.inquirer.net/…/ph-and-burma-can-learn-from-e….)

Now both countries have elected and installed new governments. Burma, after 45 years, has a non-military government with the National League for Democracy (NLD) Party at the helm while the Philippines since its birth as a republic more than a hundred years ago has, for the first time, a President — Rodrigo Duterte — from Mindanao, the long neglected resource-rich island of the country.

Burma’s government is semi-federal, with weak regional and local governments and a number of belligerent states with their own army, while the Philippines is presidential, generally influenced by the political and economic elite, with largely autonomous local governments. Duterte wants a major shift of the country’s presidential form of government to federal while Burma needs further restructuring as part of the peace process demands of the armed ethnic groups. Philippines can learn from Burma’s federal experience while Burma can study the local governance structure of the Philippines. Both countries should stamp out large business and economic interest hovering over government programs, officials and politicians.

NLD is faced with the huge expectation of forming a peace agreement with all the 16 armed ethnic groups, each with their own state government and independent army, while Duterte, even before being sworn into office, has already made initial steps for a peace agreement with the communist insurgents and offers federalism as a solution to the Moro rebellion in Mindanao. Duterte has appointed key personalities in his Cabinet who are aligned with the Communist Party of the Philippines.

NLD’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father was a military general and the founder of modern Burma, has worked hard to woo the military for support to NLD’s programs particularly its peace efforts. NLD’s stance vis-à-vis the large businesses controlled by military generals remains to be a big question however. Duterte on the other hand promised to substantially increase the salaries of the police and military to wage war against criminality and illegal drugs, his key platform for change.

Eradicating opium production by small farmers in Burma, second world’s biggest producer, remains a big challenge while the illegal drug trade in the Philippines has pervaded the corrupt government and police officials and has become a cottage industry employing mostly the poor and the unemployed.

Both countries are faced with resistance in the Muslim-dominated territories, the Rohingya people in Burma’s northwest who are mainly Muslims and the Philippines with the decades old Moro rebellion in the south, but the new government of the two countries do not include a Muslim in their respective cabinets or ministries.

Burma has rich mineral resources and timber and its related industries and businesses are mostly cornered by Thai and Chinese investors. China and Thailand have invested and placed much interest over Burma’s huge agricultural resources and river tributaries for Thailand and China’s food and power requirements. The Philippines on the other hand has rich maritime resources in the West Philippine Sea that China has already invaded illegally, a case of which has been filed by the outgoing Philippine administration in the International Court with the Philippines recently being granted favourable decision. Burma and Philippines shares a common interest to parry China’s aggressive intrusion of both country’s territories and rich resources.

Burma’s parliament is fully controlled by NLD that recently passed a law for Aung San Suu Kyi to have overriding power over key ministries and it may not be far-fetched that populist and unsustainable policies will be passed by the NLD-dominated parliament. The Philippines on the other hand has a House of Representatives that already has a “super majority” aligned with Duterte’s PDP LABAN Party that is expected to pass new laws on restoring the death penalty and shifting the government structure to a federal system. While it is unclear whether it will still exist in a proposed federal set-up, the Philippine Senate is more independent than the House of Representatives and performs a check and balance role of the policy measures emanating from the house of representatives.

Burma’s bureaucracy, one of the largest in Southeast Asia, is weak and hounded by corruption at the highest levels. While generally professional and skilled, the Philippine bureaucracy is also badgered with political influences, inefficiency and corruption at national and local levels. NLD has started to streamline its 36 large ministries while Duterte, who also ran on anti-corruption platform has publicly announced to close corrupt government offices, punish corrupt government personnel, solve bureaucratic red tape towards more efficient government services.

Agriculture is a key sector of both country. Burma’s public agricultural institutions are weak and agricultural extension services inefficient. NLD promised major reforms that will benefit its majority agriculture-based and rural poor population. Expectations are high that if nothing happens soon may turn such expectation to frustration. Duterte promised free irrigation and support services and a reformed land administration bureaucracy. This platform combines both a populist (and may not be sustainable) and a reform measure with the latter facing potential huge opposition from the affected offices.

Burma’s civil society organizations have flourished in recent years due to large foreign funding by multilateral and bilateral agencies but remain fragmented and serves mainly as “project contractors.” Civil society in the Philippines is organized nationally and generally professional, participates officially in local governance but are also largely dependent on contracts with foreign donors and government. A few Philippine NGOs have ventured into more sustainable economic-based approaches on social enterprises, micro-financing and participation in value chains.

NLD will have five years to carry on its programs for the largely rural and poor Burmese population amidst very high expectations from its people and Duterte will have six years to deliver on his promises of change to a country largely divided coming from the recent elections and still with a quarter of the population considered poor.

A new government always offers a ray of hope and creates high expectation but in the end it is the maturity, the vigilance, the participation and the commitment to a grassroots-based democracy by an organized citizenry that will bring about real, meaningful and significant change.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Jerry “Jing” Pacturan has been in agriculture and rural development work for 30 years. A former Undersecretary of the Philippines’ Department of Agrarian Reform, he has carried out rural development consulting work in Burma and Cambodia.)