During Myanmar’s political upheavals in the late 1980s, then pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi famously said in a foreign press interview that any future government she led would not have an “easy time” because of “all the problems” it would have to face after decades of military misrule.
At the time, she predicted the people would speak out and give her envisioned popularly elected administration “a very uncomfortable time.”
Nearly three decades later, now as the country’s de facto elected leader, Suu Kyi faces more problems after a year in office than she likely ever anticipated. She is now openly criticized, both domestically and internationally for a host of thorny issues, ranging from a sluggish economy to state-sponsored human rights abuses.
The former Nobel Peace Prize laureate is now no doubt having a very uncomfortable time as national leader.
Despite peace talks spearheaded and prioritized by Suu Kyi, there is now more war than peace across the country as conflicts rage in various regions. More than 100,000 people have fled their homes in recent fighting between state forces and ethnic armed groups in northern Kachin State and northeastern Shan State, and are now living in squalid makeshift camps.
Suu Kyi has also faced criticism from the international community for abuses committed by state security forces, including well-documented allegations of murder and rape, of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine State. Her deflections of the allegations have fueled perceptions she has prioritized steady relations with the military over promotion of rights.
Foreign investment, meanwhile, is down since she first rose to power, with the economy staggering despite earlier hopes of a post-election boom. And media freedom, after an easing of restrictions under the previous government, is now under fire again as journalists are being imprisoned for critical commentary about the military, as well as senior NLD members.
As the list of national woes grows, the question remains: How much power does Suu Kyi have to counter the military and impose a more democratic order?
Myanmar’s constitution, drafted under the military’s auspices and adopted after a May 2008 referendum that most observers viewed as rigged, has guaranteed continuity rather than change, including an ironclad “leading role” for the military in politics through a 25% bloc of appointees in Parliament. It also guarantees that the military only takes orders from its commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing,
Under the charter, the military appoints the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs. The home ministry, in turn controls the police and the civil service on all levels, from village tracts to the central administration. What is left for elected representatives are mostly figurehead posts as ministers and parliamentary committee heads.
“Suu Kyi is often unfairly taking the heat for the military’s abuses,” says a Bangkok-based political analyst who closely watches Myanmar’s politics. “It’s clearly a long-view strategy to keep democracy on track, but is she being outmaneuvered to the extent that there may be no coming back?”
The next election will be held in 2020, at which time Suu Kyi will be 75 years old with no clear new generation of leaders being groomed to take the helm of her NLD party. The military-run Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which ruled the country in quasi-civilian fashion before its crushing defeat at the 2015 election, is probably not poised for a full comeback at those polls.
“But there are other possibilities that would suit the military’s agenda to remain in power for the foreseeable future,” says the analyst.
Many people in Myanmar and abroad are thus bewildered at Suu Kyi’s lack of action in promoting a more democratic system. They note a change in tone from Suu Kyi’s inspirational speeches before the 2015 election, including one in which she said, “For the first time in decades our people will have a real chance of bringing about real change. This is a chance we cannot afford to let slip.”
But that window of opportunity is arguably closing fast. Suu Kyi’s only move to balance the power of the military was made in January when she appointed Thaung Tun, a veteran diplomat, as her government’s security adviser. His appointment drew strong criticism from Ye Htut, who served as information minister under the previous military-backed regime.
In an article published in Singapore’s Today newspaper on January 21, Ye Htut called Thaung Tun’s appointment a “risky gambit” and went on to claim that “past civilian governments under Prime Minister U Nu…and President Thein Sein…have honored” an arrangement whereby “internal security has been the sole domain of the Myanmar military with the commander-in-chief serving as the principal adviser to the government.”
Many would question whether Thein Sein, an ex-army general who served as premier under the previous junta and president of the administration before Suu Kyi’s NLD took office, ever headed a “civilian” regime. U Nu led truly civilian governments from 1948-56, 1957-58 and 1960-62, and was under no obligation to take orders from the military.
Indeed, Myanmar’s first 1947 constitution stated clearly that “the right to raise and maintain military, naval and air forces is vested exclusively with the Parliament”, and that “no other than the forces raised and maintained by the Union with the consent of the Parliament shall be raised or maintained for any purpose whatsoever.”
U Nu’s main political mistake, which led to his eventual downfall and subsequent consecutive decades of harsh military rule, was that he failed to use his constitutional powers to prevent the military from becoming a state within a state, which it consolidated in a bloody 1962 coup that abolished the country’s first and only democratic constitution.
Considering the power the military continues to wield, few believe Suu Kyi will be similarly deposed, due to top brass concerns another coup would lead to the reinstatement of Western economic sanctions. The 2010 election, which brought Thein Sein and the USDP to power, was at the time jokingly referred to as the “generals’ election” rather than a “general election.”
The NLD boycotted that sham poll. But the question is now rising whether the 2015 election, even though the NLD won in a landslide and power was peacefully transferred, was also a “generals’ election”, but with more democratic veneer than before.
In pursuit of national reconciliation, Suu Kyi has so far shown little interest in changing her country’s military-dominated power structure. With the massive popular support and international recognition Suu Kyi still enjoys, many in Myanmar wonder if she doesn’t challenge the military’s political power, then who ever will?
The risk is thus rising that Myanmar will remain a military-run country with mere trappings of democracy long after the 2020 election and when the septuagenarian Suu Kyi eventually fades from political view.