Much has been made of the strong democratic principles of Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, her rise to power in Burma has disappointed many. Lyndsey Croal considers the issues at play.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political figure and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, has been venerated internationally for her philosophy of non-violence and for standing up for human rights in a country with a recent history of violence and persecution. Her early role in the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its 1990 election success, which the military refused to accept, led to her house arrest between 1989 and 2010. Her messages of peace and unity during those years earned her the fond title of Ahmay (mother) for many Burmese. She was seen as a true liberator of the people.
When the NLD under Suu Kyi was elected in November 2015, many hoped it would spark the action needed to improve conditions for those who had suffered decades of military rule. While the constitution prevented Suu Kyi from becoming president because of her foreign spouse and children, her colleague Htin Kyaw was appointed to the post. He became the first Burmese civilian president in 53 years. Even so, Suu Kyi continued to play a central role. She quickly took a key position in the administration where she has since led education, foreign affairs and energy, and served as the Minister in the President’s Office.
The NLD’s victory was widely seen to herald the opportunity for a tidal shift in Myanmar; a transition could now be made away from militarised rule towards true democracy. Currently, a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military. For years Suu Kyi has characterised this as an obstacle to the democratic process. Nevertheless, she has had to rely on securing a degree of military support to consolidate her own position, potentially sacrificing certain liberal democratic values for the sake of building peace. While this in itself does not have to block progressive change, recent events have shown there are real doubts as to whether Suu Kyi is the liberator many expected her to be. Many worry that she is simply maintaining the status quo.
A WORRYING LACK OF CHANGE
Commentators and her own party members have challenged Suu Kyi’s failure to take decisive action given her considerable influence in government. It has been reported that she has been so controlling of processes and decision-making that parliament has little left to do. Is this truly a move from militarism to democracy? It is true that Suu Kyi is partially constricted by the considerable residual power of the military. However, she has not taken advantage of her undoubted influence in areas such as press freedoms and the denunciation of ongoing human rights abuses, particularly against the Rohingya Muslim population.
The picture isn’t entirely gloomy however, and there has been progress. This July, for the first time in decades, the armed forces commander took part in an annual ceremony on Burma’s Martyrs Day, marking a strengthening of relations between Suu Kyi’s government and the military. Refugees and migrants are returning to Burma in their thousands (though this may be influenced by Thailand’s own increasing crackdown on illegal immigrants). Trade and investment routes have opened up – Scottish oil and gas firms were amongst those who visited Burma last year in an attempt to capitalise on the country’s resources. Many political prisoners have been released, following years of detention. These are undeniably welcome moves.
TROUBLING QUESTIONS REMAIN
However, these developments are not enough to prove Suu Kyi’s supposed liberal credentials. The optimism following her victory has been short-lived. The level of human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslims cannot continue to be ignored – or excused – by the NLD and Suu Kyi if they are to maintain credible claims of governing the country under notions of progress and fairness.
It is undeniable hypocrisy to lead a movement of non-violence, to criticise the military for a continued abusive campaign, while at the same time wilfully disregarding the attempted genocide of an entire ethnic group.
It is undeniable hypocrisy to lead a movement of non-violence, to criticise the military for a continued abusive campaign, while at the same time wilfully disregarding the attempted genocide of an entire ethnic group – the one million strong population of Rohingya in western Rakhine State. Suu Kyi’s government has recently denied UN investigators access to assess claims of war crimes against this persecuted minority. This followed reports of mass arrests, torture, rape, deprivation of vital resources, restrictions on access to healthcare, and the destruction of towns and villages.
While many thousands of Rohingya Muslims began fleeing Burma in 2016 and continue to do so, a majority remain, unable to escape the violent persecution. Suu Kyi’s government asserted that any UN mission might “aggravate” the situation. It has been culpably indecisive in its actions, even if it has officially denounced violence. Allegations have largely been ignored; the government claiming that abuse is exaggerated or fabricated. Obvious attempts are being made to prevent the media from reporting on the true events in Rakhine State.
During the military junta, press freedoms were harshly suppressed; even the state media was restricted. Suu Kyi could use her new-found power to promote further transparency and accountability through protecting journalists’ right to free speech. Instead, it seems that press freedom has not advanced, with current restrictive laws remaining virtually untouched by Suu Kyi’s government. In August, the Parliament voted through minor changes to legislation relating to limiting telecommunications. Yet the most contentious clause that criminalises subjective acts, like defamation, remains. Recent abuse and arrest of journalists, who face prison time under such laws, only serves to hinder democratisation efforts. Just last month Suu Kyi encouraged the country to follow state-run news outlets in an effort to marginalise the independent media. Foreign media may be afforded greater freedom than domestic, but access to conflict areas is still heavily restricted.
As well as limiting press freedom, Suu Kyi’s office frequently claims that any critical media reports of her actions are simply fake news. Following her election, she suggested that allegations of genocide against the Muslim Rohingya should not be exaggerated. She further stated “I promise everybody who is living in this country proper protection in accordance with the law, and in accordance with the norms of human rights”. This statement cannot be taken seriously if an entire ethnic group is excluded from the undertakings. Some have even commented that her actions reflect an underlying racism displayed by the Burmese elite of which Suu Kyi, by family background, forms part of. This is something Suu Kyi will ultimately have to answer for should she wish to remain in her position. But turning away from the international community will only be a further step towards isolation.
Maybe old habits die hard in a country that has languished under autocratic rule for so long. Perhaps it was too optimistic to expect real change at the hands of a single prominent figure. Changing actions and attitudes requires a lengthy peace process and a dramatic restructuring of governance, the economy, infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly the military; no easy task for one individual. In fact, some of those figures who have been critical of the army or suggested any sort of rollback of military power have been arrested for crimes against the state. Therefore, it may be fair to say Suu Kyi is biding her time and treading carefully to find common ground with the military before initiating meaningful change with its backing. Whether that really is the case or not is yet to be seen.
Overall, it seems a messy picture for Suu Kyi’s government. Since her party’s rise to power she has failed to deliver on her elected promises and in some ways the government has moved backwards instead of forwards. The country appears sorely lacking in political will to make the transition from autocratic division to unity. In the meantime, the dispossessed from the minority ethnic groups in Burma who longed to be afforded proper human rights protections are fast losing hope. Suu Kyi is not living up to her reputation.
Lyndsey has a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of St Andrews and is interested in international security, human rights, international development, and terrorism. She runs her own current affairs blog, The Peace and Conflict Thread (The PACT), volunteers with an NGO on the Thai-Burma border, and works with CABLE on their communications. Lyndsey is on twitter as @LyndsCroal and can be contacted by email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Photo Aung Sun Suu Kyi visits her constituency in 2012. Image: Wikimedia Commons [CC BT-SA 3.0]