Aung San Suu Kyi: Falling Star or Beacon of Hope

In this March 15, 2016 file photo, National League for Democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives in Myanmar's parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe / Associated Press

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar  — For nearly 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi starred as arguably the world’s most prominent and revered political prisoner, a courageous champion of human rights and democracy in her military-ruled nation.

As she completes her first 100 days in power, the Nobel Prize laureate’s halo has all but vaporized on the global stage: Suu Kyi is being assailed for ignoring the plight of the oppressed Rohingya Muslims, failing to stop atrocities against other ethnic minorities and abetting moves to erase from collective memory the bloody history of the generals she replaced.

Some have even labelled her a “democratic dictator,” an increasingly aloof one-person show who surrounds herself with close friends and loyalists without nurturing a vitally needed new generation of leaders. Gone are the days when the elegant hostess would charm visitors over informal teas and reduce hard-bitten reporters to voicing soft-ball questions.

Even her supporters find it hard to cite concrete achievements of her government during the 100-day period, which ends this week, except for the freeing of most but not all political prisoners and initial efforts to stop rampant land grabs.


The Lady

However, to the country’s Burman majority, The Lady, as the charismatic 71-year-old Suu Kyi is affectionately known, remains a beacon of hope, one who will eventually surmount an array of troubles that would buckle the best of leaders — from the world’s longest running insurgencies to abysmal health care and China’s rampant exploitation — while somehow breaking the still-powerful grip of the military.

“We should give her 1,000 not 100 days given the legacy of a half century of military oppression. People are still patient, at least the majority of Burmans. But of course, for the ethnics it is different,” said Ye Naing Moe, a prominent journalist and educator.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Information Minister Pe Myint cited the government’s main achievement to date as progress toward a twofold “national reconciliation” — between civilians and military, the majority Burman people and the ethnic minorities, which make up about 40 percent of the population.

“I believe we are moving in a positive direction,” he said. “The main aim is to build a democratic federal union.”

The Rohingya

But criticism from foreign quarters has been withering, focused on Suu Kyi’s refusal to act on the Rohingya Muslims, who were driven into squalid camps amid waves of killings in 2012, and continue to flee on perilous sea voyages from a country that denies them citizenship despite historic proof of centuries-long residence.

Meanwhile, the generals continue to wage war against several ethnic groups, who rose up against the central government following Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, said his group has received more reports of atrocities by the military in Kachin and Shan states in recent months than similar periods last year under the military-dominated government.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights last month said that the new government “has the responsibility and opportunity to halt these violations” and called for an end to “discriminatory policies and practices by repealing discriminatory laws.” A New York Times editorial said “a woman whose name has been synonymous with human rights for a generation has continued an utterly unacceptable policy of the military rulers she succeeded.”

Suu Kyi has countered that she needs “space” to sort out such problems as the Rohingya and maintains that she has always stood for human rights and the rule of law.

The question of maneuvering space seems to be key to Suu Kyi’s power, or lack thereof. Despite her party’s sweeping victory in last November’s election, a 2008 constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of parliamentary seats, control of three key security ministries and a constitutional veto. The armed forces also have cornered large chunks of the economy.

“People were expecting miracles (after Suu Kyi’s victory). But first of all it is important to remember that this is a government with very limited power,” said Bertil Lintner, an author of several books on Myanmar. “The government has hobbled along and been blamed for actions which are beyond its control.”

Some observers say Suu Kyi, descending from the high moral ground of a political prisoner, has simply become a pragmatic politician, one who fears that pushing the military too far on human rights and other contentious issues could stop her in her tracks — if not spark a military coup — and never make her laudable end-game possible.

She has not taken up the cause of the Muslims, this line of argument goes, because this would alienate a key segment of her electorate, the Burman Buddhists among whom a virulent anti-Islamic movement has been growing. In another upsurge of violence, Buddhist mobs have recently burned down a mosque and attacked Muslims in several areas of the country.

A less charitable view says that given her massive popular mandate and international backing, Suu Kyi has enough political space in which she could afford to alienate radical anti-Muslims and the generals, who don’t appear keen for any breaks with Suu Kyi’s government.

Systematic Problems

Farmaner said that while Myanmar’s deeply systemic problems are obviously going to take a long time to solve, “it doesn’t take time to release political prisoners. This can be done immediately. Or lift humanitarian aid restrictions on the Rohingya, Kachin and the Shan. That can be done immediately, and this has not been done.” More than 60 political prisoners are still behind bars with 140 awaiting trial.

“She is so different from what she was before. People are really questioning who she really is now,” said Tun Kyi, once an ardent Suu Kyi supporter imprisoned for 10 years following the 1988 uprising against the military which propelled Suu Kyi to prominence.

The answer for many ethnics and Muslims like Tun Kyi is that while trying to resolve internal conflicts at heart, Suu Kyi views Myanmar as a Burman Buddhist country and will put Burman interests first. And despite her nearly 15 years under house arrest at the hands of the military regime, Suu Kyi retains an abiding fondness for the army — something she herself has acknowledged, noting that her father, independence hero Gen. Aung San, founded the institution.

Some also question the leadership mantle she has assumed.

“She only wants to give orders. She is not interested in listening to those who have opinions other than her own. She has equated her own destiny to the destiny of the country,” said Tun Kyi, who works with the Former Political Prisoners Society.

Barred by the constitution from serving as head of state, Suu Kyi said she would “be above the president,” and took on the newly created post of state counsellor. She also serves as foreign minister, minister of the president’s office and heads the National League for Democracy party. President Htin Kyaw is a close friend and her personal physician Dr. Tin Myo Win acts as the inexperienced negotiator with ethnic groups.

“It has got to be tempting for a woman with a huge to-do list to accumulate power in her own hands, to ignore the niceties of consultation and drive-through solutions: that would be a mistake in a brittle young democracy like Myanmar,” said Tim Johnston, Asia program director of the think tank International Crisis Group.

Her to-do list seems endless and it remains unclear on how some of the challenges will be dealt with since the government has yet to issue a comprehensive policy platform.

Myanmar remains one of the world’s least developed countries, the second largest producer of opium and this month was listed among the worst offenders in human trafficking by the U.S. State Department. Rife with corruption, it ranks 147 out of 168 countries on the latest index of Transparency International.

With one-third of the population having access to electricity, the government must decide whether to pursue dam construction by China, which has wreaked massive deforestation and other environmental degradation, or risk alienating its northern neighbor by axing Chinese projects. Beijing is currently on a charm offensive to restart construction of the USD$3.6 billion Myitsone dam, which was suspended by the previous government after nationwide protests.

“For the next generation, peace is the best legacy to pass on. Our country will develop only if it has peace,” Suu Kyi said last month, as preparations began for the “Panglong 21st Century Conference” in late August to persuade more than 20 insurgent groups to lay down their weapons.

The information minister said peace will be some time in coming with a key barrier the highly centralized, military-crafted constitution, which Suu Kyi and ethnic groups want amended to give greater autonomy to minorities. For some ethnic leaders, the conference will prove a non-starter unless such amendments are made and the army halts its ongoing attacks against the Kachin, Shan and others.

“We want to see Suu Kyi publicly condemn the current fighting and war crimes of the past. Without this the talks will fail,” said Charm Tong, a leading Shan human rights activist. She has done neither, with her government at least tacitly going along with military efforts to ban public discourse about the army’s decadeslong abuses.

“The main success of the government is that it is there. Although with limited powers, it is the first civilian government since 1962. And that gives the people some hope,” said Lintner.

The information minister described Suu Kyi’s victory as a “dream come true, but people expected something more, something perfect, so they are not 100 percent happy or satisfied.”


Story: Dennis D. Gray and Esther Htusan


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