Myanmar’s stabs at reform test public’s patience

Myanmar’s year-old government has drawn stiff pushback from its sudden cuts to a national holiday and crackdown on unlicensed buses, burning up goodwill won with the promise of change.

The government said last month that the public holiday period for the Thingyan water festival marking the new year would be shortened to five days from 10. The festival, which began Wednesday, is a popular time for residents to travel home and visit with family. Prior to the change, residents would have had a 12-day break through April 23, including two Saturdays.

Shortening the break to a length matching that in neighboring Thailand was intended to soften the holiday’s blow to economic activity. And the five off days cut from Thingyan will be moved elsewhere in the calendar. But the sudden shift nevertheless sparked a public backlash.

Myanmar’s underdeveloped transportation system makes it difficult for city dwellers to return home to the countryside over a mere five-day break. For one supermarket worker here, the trip home and back takes six days combined. A number of companies are giving the normal break despite the official shift.

Changes to Yangon’s bus system made with little warning in January encountered similar resistance. Authorities have strengthened a crackdown on unlicensed buses, which are a key means of transport for many residents, and drastically cut the number of official routes. The result has been long lines at bus stops during rush hour.

One public employee complained the changes have added 45 minutes to his total daily commute. Improvements such as driver-only bus operation and a smartcard-based fare system are also planned, but will have a tough time countering the frustration residents feel with the overall bus shortage. While public support for State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the government’s effective leader, remains high, these hasty reforms are likely not the changes voters had in mind when they put her National League for Democracy in power.

Source: Nikkei Asian Review

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