Two Years on, Democracy Icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s Legacy Hit Hard by Myanmar's Realities

Ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, stalled constitutional reform, and authoritarian tendencies leave little to celebrate.

Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi (R) accompanies new President Win Myint (L) to take his oath of office at parliament in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2018.

Two years ago, both Myanmar and the international community hailed the coming to power of Aung San Suu Kyi — leader of the political opposition who endured 15 years of house arrest for challenging the military dictatorship, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and icon of democracy — in the Southeast Asia nation.

A widespread belief pervaded that once “The Lady” was at the helm, she would oversee the completion of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, end decades of civil war, speed up reform, and accelerate economic development.

So far, however, much of Aung San Suu Kyi’s game-changing agenda under her ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) — the first civilian government to lead Myanmar since independence in 1948 — hasn’t panned out as expected.

The government started out on a positive note when Aung San Suu Kyi, 72, secured the release of political prisoners and jailed students, but quickly took a turn for the worse several months later with the first of two crackdowns by security forces in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Responding to deadly raids on border guard stations on Oct. 9, 2016, Myanmar security forces began “clearance operations” in the northern part of Rakhine state, searching Rohingya Muslim communities for the attackers who later said they were from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Muslim militant group.

The second crackdown began after larger-scale attacks on police outposts in the region by the same group on Aug. 25. More than 6,700 Rohingya were killed during the first month of the campaign, according to Paris-based Doctors Without Borders, and more than 700,000 have been driven across the border to southeastern Bangladesh where they live in sprawling and squalid displacement camps.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s handling of the crisis — her lack of acknowledgment, denial of reports of brutalization by the army, and failure to stop the violence when presented with credible reports — has made her the focus of scorn among rights groups and the international community, which have called the campaign ethnic cleansing, if not genocide.

Three cities in the United Kingdom and one in Ireland stripped her of freedom awards, veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson slammed her for a lack of “moral leadership” amid the crisis, three fellow Nobel peace laureates accused her and the military of committing genocide of the Rohingya, and the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington revoked a prestigious human rights award.

At the United Nation Human Rights Council in Geneva this year, Myanmar also joined the likes of China, Cuba, and Venezuela in passing a resolution that limits the ability to hold states accountable for abuses.

The Rohingya crisis has tarnished Aung San Suu Kyi’s first two years as de facto leader of the country and will likely define the 72-year-old’s legacy in the years to come.

“The icon of democracy for the world basically is destroyed,” said David Steinberg, professor emeritus of Asian studies at Georgetown University and an expert on Myanmar, when asked about Aung San Suu Kyi’s first two years as Myanmar's leader.

Steinberg said it was a “disgrace” that Aung San Suu Kyi either didn’t know what was going on in Rakhine state or pretended not to know when she addressed foreign diplomats in Naypyidaw last September about the crisis.

At the time, she told them that “clearance operations” had ended as of Sept. 5, and that the government was perplexed by the exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh, while the majority of the 1.1 million Muslims in Rakhine state had not fled.

“Internationally, the one issue facing the country now — the decisive defining issue — is the Rohingya, and that’s going to get worse,” said Steinberg, noting that annual monsoon rains will soon sweep in from the Bay of Bengal, dumping several hundreds of inches of rain on parts of Myanmar and southeastern Bangladesh where Rohingya refugees live, bringing more miserable conditions and the risk of disease.

“She has to take a clear positive role that she has yet to take,” he said. “And I understand why she’s caught between the military and the human rights aspects.”

Plans to repatriate the refugees are moving slowly with Myanmar so far agreeing to take back only about 500 who could prove residency in Rakhine prior to the first crackdown that began after the Oct. 9, 2016, raids on border guard stations.

Rights groups and the U.N. have warned that the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are subjected to systematic discrimination in Myanmar, will face more of the same treatment once they return without guarantees for their safety and the granting of citizenship.

“It is hard to see how the Rohingya crisis will be resolved or how the Myanmar government can end the international shunning it faces and again be accepted by Western governments without finding ways to accept the return of some refugees with guarantees that they will be allowed to return to their former villages and eventually be able to achieve residency status and citizenship,” Murray Hiebert, senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in an email.

Aung San Suu Kyi (L) receives an official welcome during her visit to Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, March 19, 2018. Credit: AFP
Power is everything

Some experts on Myanmar who have observed the country’s development and Aung San Suu Kyi’s performance say her propensity for tight government control has been a hindrance to the country’s development during the NLD’s first two years.

“It’s difficult to see what she’s done well, as both she and the NLD have kept policy maneuvers, policy thinking, and any communication about their governance essentially to themselves, leaving many of us to conjecture what they have done,” said Erin Murphy, founder and principal of Washington-based Inle Advisory Group, an emerging market strategic advisory firm.

After the NLD came to power, Aung San Suu Kyi made sure that she would be personally involved in all critical issues facing the country. When she was barred from becoming president under a constitutional stipulation that no one with relatives who are foreign nationals can hold the nation’s highest office, she stepped into the newly created role of state counselor so that she could be “above the president,” though the position is not specified in Myanmar’s constitution.

She also took on the roles of minister of foreign affairs and the President’s Office. She was also named minister of the government’s education and electricity and energy portfolios, but quickly gave up those portfolios.

Aung San Suu Kyi also chairs Myanmar’s National Peace and Reconciliation Center, the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State (UEHRD), and the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, the reincarnation of peace negotiations with Myanmar’s ethnic groups that were started 60 years ago by her father, Myanmar independence hero General Aung San.

Because Aung San Suu Kyi is making all the key decisions, nothing is being allocated below her to other people, Steinberg said, “which means a lot does not get done.”

“And that is part of the problem,” he said. “So what we see is a country that has limited and very good and important reforms not making progress on some and finally retrogressing on others.”

Since she became de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has focused on “building up her own power base at the expense of former allies, supporters, and the liberal democratic agenda she once championed for the country,” Michael Charney, a military historian specializing in South East Asia at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, wrote in an email.

“She has successfully formed good relationships with the military and business tycoons within the country, but has not delivered on other promises,” he said.

A few Myanmar lawmakers and political observers have expressed optimism about new President Win Myint, an Aung San Suu Kyi loyalist and former speaker of the lower house of parliament, believing that he will be a stronger president than ailing Htin Kyaw who stepped down on March 21 to “take a rest.”

NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt told RFA earlier this week that the party is planning leadership reform changes.

And in his first address to parliament on Friday, Win Myint pledged to focus on implementing rule of law, improving socioeconomic conditions, fostering national reconciliation and peace, bringing about constitutional reform to lay the foundation for building a democratic federal union, and protecting human rights.

But changes may come to naught if Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t loosen the reins on her control of the government and the NLD doesn’t become more transparent about its policies, experts said.

Though a stern and diligent former speaker with a reputation for getting things done, Win Myint will not wield the same kind of power reserved for Aung San Suu Kyi, they said.

“We have had changes in the presidential and chief minister positions, but we can’t expect much from government as long as it won’t change its policy,” said Myanmar writer Kyaw Win. “When the NLD government received the state’s power, International Crisis Group suggested that she [Aung San Suu Kyi] should transfer some positions to others because she was taking on too much.”

“But she is still taking many positions, and it is like a tight central control,” he said. “There will not be many effective political changes if this policy doesn’t change even though the people have changed.”

Aung San Suu Kyi sits for a group photo during talks with representatives of ethnic groups to mark the 70th anniversary of Myanmar Union Day in Panglong, southern Shan State, Feb. 12, 2017. Credit: AFP
The struggle with the military

The 21st-Century Panglong Conference — Aung San Suu Kyi’s key peace initiative to try to end decades of civil wars between the Myanmar army and a handful of ethnic armed groups in the country’s border areas — has been the intended focal point of her administration, but it has floundered on account of the Rakhine crisis and ongoing hostilities between the national military and ethnic militias in Kachin and Shan states.

The initial talks were held in late August and early September 2016 with subsequent negotiations to be scheduled at six-month intervals. The delayed second round was held in May 2017, and the delayed third round is scheduled for this May.

Aung San Suu Kyi “has not dealt with any of the critical issues; she’s just brought hundreds of people together,” said Steinberg about the first two rounds of talks. “It’s fine as a symbolic gesture, but they haven’t really dealt with the major issues.”

Eight ethnic militias signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement with the government under former President Thein Sein in October 2015, but the current NLD government has managed to get only two more armies to sign the pact.

Aung San Suu Kyi must tread carefully in the government's power-sharing arrangement with Myanmar's armed forces, whose officers are automatically allocated a quarter of the seats in parliament and control the defense, home affairs, and border security ministries.

Before she became state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD lawmakers failed to push through changes in the constitution, drafted by a military junta in 2008, to reduce the political power of the military and make her eligible for the presidency.

“She’s been a very poor politician because the first function of a politician in her role given the circumstances in that country was to basically build up trust in the military,” Steinberg said. “But she has not done that. She has in fact done the reverse.”

“She has tried to outflank the military by first creating the position of state counselor which is not in the constitution, and then by basically confronting them on internal issues — [but] not on the Rohingya [issue] because she knows that she can’t go that far,” he said.

Meaningful political reforms and a genuine transition to democracy can only be achieved if the military is brought under civilian oversight through constitutional change, Charney said.

“Currently, the military is in the strongest position it has ever been in,” he said. “They can act with impunity, and the civilian government takes all the blame for anything that goes wrong. There can be no fundamental transition unless the military is brought to heel.”

Reversal of freedoms, economic disparity

Experts also point to the deterioration of the limited freedoms that had been granted under Thein Sein, saying that the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi have failed to make progress on this front.

“The human rights situation hasn’t improved yet under NLD government’s term as much as we expected,” Robert San Aung, a human rights lawyer in Myanmar, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“We must amend the 2008 constitution, so the president can work with his full authority,” he added.

Civil society groups, journalists, and others who have criticized the government and others in positions of authority have increasingly been subjected to harassment, arrests, and lawsuits in retaliation for their words or deeds.

“[T]he government under her [Aung San Suu Kyi’s] leadership has reversed course on civil rights and freedoms, and the country has begun to retreat back into the authoritarian government of the junta and BSPP years,” Charney said, referring to the Burma Socialist Programme Party formed by a military regime under General Ne Win that seized power in 1962.

And with growing economic disparity in the country, experts say that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD must focus more on alleviating poverty and making life better for ordinary Myanmar citizens who expected her to improve their living conditions.

“The NLD can do so much on economic policy and development, but the top-down decision making, decision-making paralysis, and/or lack of capacity is really undermining what could result in visible and tangible wins,” Murphy said.

Business analyst Min Khin told RFA that despite the passage of two years, the government “still doesn’t show accountability and responsibility on the economy.”

“It should not only make economic policy, but also manage control to implement these policies,” he said. “At least the government can try to attain microeconomic stability in the country.”

Others say that Aung San Suu Kyi should focus on mobilizing civil society organizations (CSOs) to effect change at the grassroots level.

“I would urge her to do everything in her power to mobilize civil society organizations,” said Matthew Mullen, an expert on Myanmar politics at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Thailand’s Mahidol University, in an email.

“Grassroots CSOs catalyzed change in Myanmar and remain the reason for hope during a troubled transition,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kyaw Kyaw Aung and Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service.