YANGON, MYANMAR - Aung San Suu Kyi’s new government received a mix of encouraging and discouraging feedback in the first major survey of public opinion in Myanmar since the National League for Democracy (NLD) officially took power more than a year ago.
Carried out from March 9 to April 1 by Myanmar Survey Research under the auspices of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI), the poll sought answers from thousands of residents in 15 different regions and states.
The findings, released on August 22 in Yangon, were all the more revealing when stacked up against results from a similar IRI survey carried out under the military-backed administration of President Thein Sein in 2014, with the current government not faring as well by comparison.
Fewer think Myanmar is headed in the right direction.
For instance, 88 percent of respondents said the country was headed in the right direction in 2014, versus 75 percent in the new poll. Some 73 percent appraised the economic situation as “somewhat good” in 2014, versus 53 percent today. Asked if the current government was doing a “good job,” 58 percent said it was, but that number dipped from 69 percent three years ago.
The 2014 poll results raised eyebrows among some observers who thought it overstated support for the military.
Reforms, peace process
In a way, however, the numbers are not shocking. Though Myanmar was still racked by conflict, Thein Sein headed up welcome reforms that included ending pre-publication censorship, freeing political prisoners and broadening access to the Internet, creating stark contrasts with the days of junta rule.
But the military retains significant levels of ministerial and parliamentary control through the constitution, and some have suggested the NLD's election landslide in 2015 raised unrealistic hopes that Myanmar would improve rapidly now that Aung San Suu Kyi was at the helm. A year later, the reality may be settling in.
The questions posed in the survey ranged widely, covering socioeconomic issues, the media, regional autonomy, natural resources and state-level parliaments, said Darin Bielecki, resident program officer for IRI.
“We surveyed 3,000 people across the country, which is a very big sample size,” he said.
The opinion poll revealed contrasts between international and local perceptions.
Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism for not speaking up in defense of human rights and ethnic minorities. But in the survey, the performance of the economy weighed most heavily on the minds of those interviewed, with most saying it should be the number one priority, and 60 percent preferring “prosperity” to a democratic form of government.
Still, there were bright spots.
More than 50 percent of respondents said things had gotten better “when it comes to the democratic process” over the past year, while only 31 percent said the situation remained the same and 8 percent thought it had gotten worse. More than a third of respondents said for the most part people are not afraid to express political views, though only a slightly smaller number said, “most are afraid.”
The answers also seemed to hint at a certain patience among the electorate, given the fact that the NLD has only been in power for about 17 months, and that it inherited problems tied to decades of military rule. More than a third of respondents said they expected the government to start delivering more results by the end of their current terms.
The 2015 elections, that elevated the NLD into office, filled national and regional parliaments with first-time politicians, and that inexperience shows. More than 95 percent of interviewees said they had not been contacted by a member of the national or state government over the past year, while 81 percent said they would welcome the engagement.
The survey also touched on the media, with most of the respondents listing “fake news” as one of the things they disliked most about Facebook, and 38 percent saying they got most if not all of their news from the social media platform.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has placed great weight on peace talks with ethnic armed groups, and has largely advocated a peace before development of a position.
Sectarian conflict and the peace process ranked high among concerns, but not above the economy.
Nyan Win, a member of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee, said while he had not seen the results of the survey, he is not surprised the economy featured prominently, saying it was the “most important thing for our country.”
But he reiterated that stopping conflict would have to come first.
“In the first year of the government…their priority is the peace process, peace meetings. And they don’t neglect the economy, but the economy is not a priority,” he said. “The first priority is peace, to make peace in the whole country.”
The margin of error in the poll was plus or minus 1.8 percent.