Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Seen Extending Mandate in Sunday’s Vote

By Roseanne Gerin
2020-11-06
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myanmar-assk-votes-naypyidaw-oct28-2020.jpg Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi inserts her ballot into a ballot box during early voting for the country's upcoming Nov. 8 general elections, at the Union Election Commission office in Naypyidaw, Oct. 29, 2020.
Associated Press

Aung San Suu Kyi’s domestic popularity is expected to propel her party to victory in Myanmar’s national elections on Sunday despite the damage caused to her global reputation over the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims and her defense of army atrocities in an international genocide trial.

Limited polling in Myanmar indicates that Myanmar’s voters will give the former political prisoner a second five-year term, after she won office in 2015 on a platform of establishing civilian government following five decades of harsh military rule and ending long and costly wars with armed ethnic groups.

A wide-ranging survey of political views in the multiethnic nation released a month before the Nov. 8 vote found that 79 percent of respondents had expressed confidence in the 75-year-old Nobel laureate, up from 70 percent in the same poll in 2019.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was identified by 39 percent of respondents as the party that most closely represented their interests and views, while only seven percent said that of the main opposition, military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the survey by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) showed.

“Aung San Suu Kyi can be proud that after spending nearly 20 years under house arrest, she has now served a full term as de facto head of a semi-elected government and is poised to begin another,” said Christina Fink, a professor who specializes in Myanmar at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington.

“She continues to have the support of the majority who remain grateful for her past sacrifices and believe in her leadership abilities,” she said in emailed comments.

Just two years old when her father, Burmese independence hero Aung San, was assassinated, Aung San Suu Kyi later led the NLD to a landslide win in 1990 elections, only to have the military nullify the results and put her under house arrest for 15 years between 1989 and 2010.

Sunday’s results are likely to be less than the landslide she and the NLD won in 2015, but still a victory for Aung San Suu Kyi, say country experts. She is effectively the nation’s civilian leader, serving in the position of state counselor because the military-drafted constitution bars her from becoming president as she has two sons who are foreign nationals.

“As a government, we can say NLD has gotten a passing grade,” said Hla Kyaw Zaw, a political analyst based in Yunnan province on the Myanmar-China border.

National League for Democracy party supporters take part in an election campaign event with a portrait of Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Oct. 25, 2020.
National League for Democracy party supporters take part in an election campaign event with a portrait of Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Oct. 25, 2020.
Credit: AFP
’70-plus years of neglect’

Hla Kyaw Zaw cited developments in infrastructure, including the building of better roads and the supply of electricity to rural areas, improvements in education with free school supplies for students, and upgrades in public services with assistance for senior citizens and pregnant women — “a stark contrast for people who had been under 70-plus years of neglect.”

Aung San Suu Kyi has carried herself with calm and authority during the election in her frequent online video conferences, said Hla Kyaw Zaw.

“I like her public relations skills in these discussions, because these kinds of interactions had not existed in Myanmar before,” she said.

“Whatever the results of the elections may be, as a leader of a political party, she is setting a good example for future political leaders as I see her laying good groundwork for them,” added Hla Kyaw Zaw.

Myanmar-based political analyst Than Soe Naing said Aung San Suu Kyi’s work heading her country’s COVID-19 task force has won her support.

“People are pleased with what she has done as this committee’s chair and NLD’s chair,” he said.

“What I think is that she won people’s trust in this period, more so than in normal times,” he added.

Analysts inside and outside of Myanmar mostly agree that handling ethnic affairs and peace talks to wind down decades of civil wars were Aung San Suu Kyi’s major failures — even though explanations for the horrors experienced by ethnic Rohingya and Rakhines on her watch contrast sharply.

“Aung San Suu Kyi failed to deliver tangible progress on some of her government’s major priorities, such as peace and reconciliation with the ethnic armed groups, constitutional amendments, and the economy,” said Nehginpao Kipgen, executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at India’s Jindal School of International Affairs, in an email.

Others noted that the largely unaddressed ethnic grievances have fueled continued civil war in parts of the country.

“Well over one million people remain in refugee and internally displaced camps with little hope that they can return home soon,” said Fink.

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses judges of the International Court of Justice on the second day of the three-day hearing in The Hague, the Netherlands, Dec. 11, 2019.
Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses judges of the International Court of Justice on the second day of the three-day hearing in The Hague, the Netherlands, Dec. 11, 2019.
Credit: Associated Press
Genocide charges

In 2017, Myanmar’s military responded to attacks by Rohingya militants on border posts in Rakhine with a scorched-earth campaign that destroyed countless Rohingya villages, killed thousands, and drove 740,000 members of the Muslim minority into neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain in crowded camps.

A year later, an attack on border posts by the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine nationalist force, prompted the Myanmar military to launch a war in Rakhine state that has left nearly 300 civilians dead and displaced about 226,000 others — with frequent reports of villages being burned and civilians being hit with artillery fire.

The actions against the Rohingya brought genocide-related charges against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the U.N. court which settles disputes between nations, and an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity by the military at the International Criminal Court, a separate court that tries individuals.

At an ICJ hearing last December in The Hague, Aung San Suu Kyi, who led Myanmar's defense, said the violence meted out against the Rohingya — which included killings, mass rape, torture, and village burnings — occurred during army operations to sweep northern Rakhine of Muslim insurgents. She asked the ICJ to drop the case and rejected U.N. and other international evidence out of hand.

Cities in Europe responded by stripping Aung San Suu Kyi of freedom awards, three fellow Nobel peace laureates accused her and the military of committing genocide, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum revoked a prestigious human rights award. There were even calls to rescind her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

“But for Burmese people, they see it differently,” Hla Kyaw Zaw said of the international criticism over the Rohingya. The Muslim minority are denied citizenship, voting rights, and educational opportunities, while even residents of many generations in Myanmar are derided as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

“The way people see it, she saved the country from disgrace. People like her stance, and they like those who defend their interests. Up to now, they have believed in her as a defender,” said Hla Kyaw Zaw.

A motorcyclist rides past a billboard depicting Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Su Kyi with the three military ministers against the backdrop of the UN's International Court of Justice, displayed along a road in Hpa-an, southeastern Myanmar's Kayin state, Nov. 28, 2019.
A motorcyclist rides past a billboard depicting Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Su Kyi with the three military ministers against the backdrop of the UN's International Court of Justice, displayed along a road in Hpa-an, southeastern Myanmar's Kayin state, Nov. 28, 2019.
Credit: AFP
Army power sets parameters

The eruption of a new war and the Rohingya humanitarian crisis in Rakhine came as Aung San Suu Kyi struggled to make headway in her signature policy goal of winding down wars the national army has been fighting in far-flung states dominated by ethnic minority groups.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government held four rounds of talks with about half of the country’s ethnic armies, mostly the smaller groups, without major breakthroughs.

The last round before the Nov. 8 national elections was held in August and produced acceptance in principle by Myanmar’s powerful military of the concept of federalism after decades of resistance to the idea.

“To forge peace in Burma, she has to deal with military but their relationship has grown cold during last five years,” Hla Kyaw Zaw said.

Uniformed army soldiers are guaranteed 25 percent of seats in national and regional legislatures under the constitution it wrote in 2008, holding an effective veto over any significant changes for the constitution, which require more than 75 percent support in parliament.

Top military commander Min Aung Hlaing offered a sharp reminder of the military’s clout early this week when he bluntly condemned the ruling party and election authorities for poor handling of election preparations. The military denied he engaged in unconstitutional partisanship, but the intervention alarmed those with memory of military dictatorship that ended only in 2010.

Troubles aside, Sunday’s vote is the first conducted by a civilian government in 70 years and analysts say the entrenchment of democratic practices is a virtue in itself — although the NLD government has seen continued use of defamation and telecommunications laws against journalists and activists critical of the government and military.

“For the country, the election will be the consolidation of the democratic process and political reform,” Yun Sun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., told RFA by email.

“No matter how imperfect the process might be, this is a process that has won over the support of the Burmese people,” she said.

Additional reporting by RFA’s Myanmar Service.

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