On July 20, 1989, Myanmar’s ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council detained Aung San Suu Kyi under the State Protection Act, the start of her first period under house arrest in Yangon – or Rangoon as it was known at the time.
Suu Kyi would pass a total of 15 of the next 21 years locked inside her lakeside family home, a period that saw her win the Nobel Peace Prize and emerge as a venerated democracy icon. She was finally released from house arrest in 2010, five years before the euphoria of her National League for Democracy’s landslide election win spurred hopes that the former political prisoner was poised to guide Myanmar down a new path of transparency and prosperity.
However, 30 years to the day from when she was first detained and just over a year out from possible re-election, many longtime Myanmar commentators have soured on The Lady, as she is sometimes called, who as de facto head of government has used anti-defamation laws to imprison journalists and activists and stood by amidst a military campaign of mass atrocities in Rakhine State.
And while Myanmar’s top military leaders were targeted with individual sanctions by the US this week, it seems that unlike all those decades ago, the generals overseeing widespread massacres of Rakhine State’s Rohingya community seem to have the idolised Suu Kyi in their corner.
While the NLD has backed the military in its wars on ethnic minorities, it has been much more assertive in confronting the army when it comes to constitutional change
Despite her apparent imitating, in part at least, of some of the more malign governance habits of her former jailers, the State Counselor (Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from holding the presidency) remains immensely popular across the country. Her force of personality leaves the NLD primed to retain power after elections scheduled for November 2020.
While scholars disagree on how to explain Suu Kyi’s transformation from democracy icon to hardheaded autocrat, in retrospect it appears that Suu Kyi’s personal political ambitions and her capacity for authoritarian – or at least centralised decision-making – were underestimated, perhaps hidden in plain sight by her idealistic rhetoric as opposition leader.
As the unyielding face of resistance to the military’s relentless grip on power, Suu Kyi as dissident-under-arrest spoke of universal human values and democratic idealism. Whether she genuinely believed in what she said or was playing a longer realpolitik game – most likely a mix of both – Suu Kyi’s decades of defiance seemingly left her imbued with the conviction that she alone could resolve the country’s many problems, leading her into a Faustian bargain in which she sought to negotiate a gradual political transformation with the military.
The daughter of independence hero and almost-mythic revolutionary war hero General (“Bogyoke”) Aung San, Suu Kyi came to be seen – and to see herself – as a child of destiny whose sheer force of will could transform the country from an isolated military-run backwater to a prosperous democracy.
Her own political aspirations and vision for her country’s development echoed what remained a strident nationalism, particularly among the ethnic Burman majority, and a widely-shared belief that decades of military misrule had stymied the country’s natural potential for economic development, which should have seen Myanmar at least emulate the prosperity achieved by neighbouring countries in an economically dynamic region.
In the early decades after independence in 1948, Burma – as Myanmar was then known – had been the rice basket of Asia, a hub for international travel, and a major destination for foreign students to enjoy a prestigious education. So for many, the Suu Kyi era, coming as the world’s economic centre of gravity shifts to Asia, meant an almost automatic revival of the heady days when Myanmar was the most prosperous country in Southeast Asia.
But those expectations were never fair or realistic – not in the short-term at least – and certainly not immediately after five decades of economically-ruinous military rule. And not with a leader who seems more inclined to repeat the mistakes of the past, both her own and those of her former oppressors, than implement bold or even visionary reforms.
Under Suu Kyi’s individualist leadership, the NLD has largely spurned outside expertise and hesitated to empower a younger generation of political talent to replace the ruling party’s leadership mix of oligarchy and gerontocracy.
Worse still, the NLD has steadily alienated a broad swathe of ethnic minority supporters in northern parts of the country. After the 2015 elections, the NLD appointed chief ministers to each of the states it had won from within its own ranks, refusing to appoint from other parties – even those that won more votes than the NLD.
To ethnic minorities and observers of core-periphery relations in Myanmar, the episode highlighted what many saw as a blundering arrogance as the triumphalist NLD proved unwilling to ally with other parties.
Since then, the NLD has further angered ethnic minorities by insisting on putting up statues honouring General Aung San in minority homelands, mostly border regions far from Yangon where the Myanmar military has long been seen as an oppressor and only representative of the interests of the majority ethnic Burmans.
Many disaffected minorities and armed groups purporting to represent minorities see Suu Kyi as the embodiment of “Burmanisation”, meaning continued dominance by the country’s biggest ethnic group. Myanamr’s ethnic minorities have long sought – and fought for – a federal system of government, but Suu Kyi has shown little inclination to dilute central control.
Worst of all, Suu Kyi has failed to speak out against virulent Buddhist nationalism and a wave of state-directed violence perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the minority Muslim Rohingya. The NLD has implicitly defended the military’s shocking atrocities in Rakhine State, which has killed as many as 10,000 Rohingya, according to a UN fact-finding mission, and led to the expulsion of more than 700,000 across the border to Bangladesh.
While the government recently issued an arrest warrant for Wirathu, a radical monk seen as the mouthpiece for Buddhist nationalism, this came after his condemnation of the NLD for its alleged failure to defend Buddhism from what extremists see as Muslim encroachment on their country’s faith, and not for his long history of anti-Muslim incitement.
But while the NLD has backed the military in its wars on ethnic minorities, it has been much more assertive in confronting the army when it comes to constitutional change.
“The completion of our democratic transition must necessarily involve the completion of a truly democratic constitution,” Suu Kyi vowed a year ago, though she was careful to reassure the army that any changes would only come “through negotiation.”
Arguably Suu Kyi has done no more than replace the cult of loyalty inculcated by the military junta with a cult of personality – her personality.
In January 2019, the NLD used its majority in the Union Parliament to override military objections and form a Joint Committee for Constitutional Amendment, following through on campaign pledges to reform the military-approved 2008 Constitution and at last diminish the army’s dominant position in domestic politics.
Suu Kyi’s supporters took up the constitutional change baton earlier this week, when hundreds took to the streets of Yangon on Wednesday, their red headbands demanding that lawmakers “Amend the 2008 Constitution.”
Former military personnel will again likely run against the NLD in next year’s elections, while the army will be allocated its 25% of seats in parliament – unless the NLD miraculously manages to change the constitution before the vote. But all the same, the NLD faces no serious contenders. The former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, closely affiliated with the military, shows little sign of a resurgence, despite tactical changes such as a more focused targeting of key, ostensibly winnable constituencies, in contrast with 2015 when the USDP tried to take on the NLD all over the country.
Other parties are also re-jigging their electoral strategies ahead of next year’s vote. After failing to win adequate representation in the 2015 election, ethnic political parties have learned they will fare better by banding together in state-wide blocs. For example, the Shan National League for Democracy, which holds 31 of 103 elected seats in the Shan State Parliament, recently pledged to make itself a “state-based” rather than ethnicity-based party.
New contenders such as the People’s Party (formerly the 88 Generation or “Four Eights Party”) have emerged to challenge the NLD but do not yet look capable of sucking votes from Suu Kyi’s party. That is despite the People’s Party being founded by household-name leaders of the student rebellion that propelled Aung San Suu Kyi to national prominence in 1988 and house arrest a year later.
With the NLD’s electoral victory looking increasingly likely, Myanmar’s future appears uncertain. Following a win in the 2020 national election, the 73-year-old Suu Kyi, looking increasingly set in her ways, is likely to double-down on what’s not worked so far, trusting few outsiders and surrounding herself with fawning and fearful political allies.
If victorious, the NLD may pass additional legislation liberalising the economy and opening the country to foreign trade, but Suu Kyi has made clear her intolerance of criticism from activists and her willingness to trample press freedoms.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s overriding goal of constitutional change hinges on compromising with a military that has no discernible reason to concede to her demands. Unfortunately for the country’s many democracy proponents and an untapped next generation of leaders, Suu Kyi has consolidated this political quest in her hands alone, casting capable advisers and political allies aside.
Arguably she has done no more than replace the cult of loyalty inculcated by the military junta with a cult of personality – her personality.
If history has not quite come full circle – in that Myanmar has not reverted to the worst excesses of military rule under Senior General Than Shwe and his predecessor Ne Win – today’s illiberal, semi-democratic Myanmar has not yet exorcised the ghosts of Burma past – the spectres of colonial oppression followed by decades of civil strife and economic sclerosis.
Myanmar has failed to deal with the traumas that followed its bloody struggle for independence, and the same daughter of independence, first detained 30 years ago for championing the struggle against military rule, is now arguably the main obstacle to Myanmar succeeding in the post-military era.
Hunter Marston (@hmarston4)
is a PhD candidate at Australian National University and an independent consultant who writes on Southeast Asia.
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