Suu Kyi is likely to win again, but will that bring about any real change?
It was a landslide victory in 2015 for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Suu Kyi secured the victory with support from the most potent groups in Myanmar: the Tatmadaw (combined Armed Forces and the Police), and the Bamars (the ruling ethnic group). The minorities—more than 135, according to official estimates—held their breath in high hopes of a better future. Rohingyas—the most persecuted people in the world—sighed in relief. Her numerous admirers in America and elsewhere were euphoric.
But within merely two years, Suu Kyi's scorecard was already abysmal, as The New York Times reported in 2018. With cold-blooded apathy, she dashed the hopes of millions and drove the country further towards violence, autocracy, and persecution. What did she wish to achieve by winning political power, then? To find the answer, let's reflect on some relevant events.
Myanmar has been under the Tatmadaw's tight control since the 1962 coup d'état. During the long years of international sanctions that followed, Myanmar became dependent on China for arms as well as political and economic support. The Tatmadaw was, however, trying to open its doors to the US and distance itself from Beijing.
China and Myanmar signed an MOU for the Myitsone Dam project in 2005, a key project under Beijing's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Myanmar.
The Tatmadaw initiated limited political reforms in 2010, allowing a pseudo-civilian government, and released Suu Kyi from house arrest.
Myanmar stalled the Myitsone Dam project in September 2011, citing widespread public criticism, including that from Suu Kyi, indicating its growing differences with Beijing.
In May 2012, the US eased sanctions on Myanmar.
Despite her victory in 2015, Suu Kyi could not become the Prime Minister. The Constitution of Myanmar barred her from official positions because of her British family.
However, Ko Ni, Suu Kyi's long-time ally and an eminent lawyer, found a way around and created a new role for her—the State Counsellor—which was in all but name equivalent to the position of Prime Minister. She took it up in April 2016. In January the following year, Ko Ni was assassinated. Suu Kyi skipped the funeral.
In August 2017, the Tatmadaw launched its "clearance operations" against "insurgents" in the Rakhine province. Almost a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. The Tatmadaw soldiers left telling evidence of rape, arson, torture, and mass killings, perpetrated "with genocidal intent". The whole world looked up to Suu Kyi for her moral voice. But she spoke only to support the Tatmadaw, accusing the Rohingyas of making up stories.
In December 2019, Suu Kyi was in The Hague, to defend the Tatmadaw at the International Court of Justice, blowing up the last shred of doubt about her strong support for the Tatmadaw's genocidal acts in Rakhine.
Suu Kyi has been developing her relations with Beijing even before ascending to power. She met President Xi Jinping in Beijing in June 2015 which, on the face of it, secured Chinese support in her quest for power.
She was in Beijing again in November 2017 to a warm welcome, in sharp contrast to the scathing criticism she was facing on the Rohingya issue elsewhere in the world. China was happy to offer her political shelter, in return for her support for the BRI. In March 2019, she changed her stance on the Myitsone Dam project, advocating for its continuation. President Xi visited Myanmar in January 2020, his first official visit since becoming the president, and concluded several BRI deals.
Suu Kyi has all along been playing a delicate balancing act between the Generals and Beijing. But what does she want to achieve?
Let's assume she is proceeding cautiously—courting the old guard, getting the military comfortable with civilians running the government, and pushing on with the reform process—as some argued to Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Adviser to Barack Obama.
One of Suu Kyi's election commitments was the reform of the Constitution to bring about greater civilian control on the state affairs. The 2008 Constitution contained many provisions that contradicted the basic norms of democracy and prevented civilian oversight on the Tatmadaw. In a carefully calculated manoeuvre, the Constitution allocated 25 percent of the seats of both houses of the Parliament to serving Tatmadaw officers. This provision, along with the requirement of the support of more than 75 percent of the members, make any change in the Constitution impossible without the Tatmadaw's active support.
It took full three years for the NLD to form a committee on a constitutional amendment in January 2019. The Parliament voted on the proposed amendment bill on March 10, 2020—interesting timing, considering that the next election is scheduled for November 8, 2020.
To no one's surprise, least of all Suu Kyi's, the Parliament rejected it as it failed to achieve the required 75 percent of the votes (25 percent Tatmadaw and 11 percent USDP voted against). Was she sincere in her bid? Unfortunately, there are reasons to think otherwise, as Human Rights Watch reported.
The first, and most crucial, is her unwavering support for the Tatmadaw, despite the overwhelming evidence of its war crimes. At the same time, she has abandoned her ethnic minority followers, most notably the Rohingyas, only to appease her support base (the Tatmadaw and the ethnic Bamar majority).
Second, she could have pushed through several attainable reforms with her parliamentary majority, such as the repressive laws that criminalise free speech and peaceful assembly. She didn't. On the contrary, her government has persecuted an increasing number of journalists and activists.
The NLD will most likely win the upcoming election as well because Suu Kyi is the best bet for the Tatmadaw, Beijing, the Bamars, and the Americans. But for the ethnic minorities, she is the last hope. Will Suu Kyi live up to their expectations in her second term and overcome narrow ambitions to become a true leader? If not, she will most likely become a victim of her political manoeuvring. And history will remember her as a puppet at best.
Sayeed Ahmed, PhD, is a consulting engineer with experience in infrastructure project management in South Asia.