Should Suu Kyi lead Burma?

Seldom do political leaders resign after their ‘struggle’ has been achieved. David Hutt explores whether this should be the case in Burma.

Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (not in picture) in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 22 May 2016. © REUTERS/Nyein Chan Naing/Pool


If asked to draw up a list of today’s democracy icons, seldom would the name Aung San Suu Kyi be excluded. Burma’s long-suffering symbol of democratic hope has won more peace prizes than most can remember, was imprisoned under house arrest in Burma for almost 15 years, bears the personal scars of her country’s oppression at the hands of military criminals, and has served as general secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD) since the pro-democracy political party was formed in 1988.

This sacrifice, however, was not in vain. Last November, the NLD clenched victory in Burma’s first true democratic election in decades, putting an end to more than 50 years of military rule – a military junta between 1962 and 2011, followed by a military-backed civilian government. Nevertheless, just five months since the NLD officially took office, iconoclastic chisels are beginning to chip away at Suu Kyi’s previously unquestionable sanctitude.

Despite the NLD’s victory, a constitutional wrangling imposed by the former military rulers meant Suu Kyi could not become president. Yet, by promising to be ‘above the president’ and handpicking her obscure confident and former driver Htin Kyaw to take up the position, she has become the country’s premier in all but name. She has also given herself four out of 21 cabinet posts, including foreign minister, the president’s officer minister, and the uniquely-crafted role of state counsellor, which, according to AFP, gives her ‘vaguely-defined powers to guide parliamentary affairs’.

In Peter Popham’s recent book, The Lady and the Generals, Suu Kyi is described as possessing a ‘ravenous egotism’. The Nikkei Asian Review recently posited that ‘some foreign commentators have even labelled her a “democratic dictator” in the making.’ It can be reasonably assumed that when NLD politicians are frequently prevented from speaking to the media or attending civil society events without the permission of party headquarters – restrictions known as than mani, or ‘iron rules’ – it is Suu Kyi’s permission that is needed. Another assumption, it was her decision to fill the remaining cabinet posts with NLD politicians who, according to one commentator, ‘are all over 60, relatively unknown, with limited management experience and will follow Suu Kyi's lead unquestionably.’

As David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, recently told the Diplomat: ‘There’s a culture within the party of being very untransparent and authoritarian… A lot of MPs are under gag orders not talk. They’re really trying to keep party discipline to an undemocratic degree.’

That a pro-democracy party should behave so undemocratically has confounded many. But is this justifiable? In the short term, arguably yes. Suu Kyi and the NLD would, most likely, not dispute the insinuation that they are liberating Burma from a militocracy. And, as with most liberators, if they want to prevent the inherent implication of French philosopher Regis Debray’s thesis – ‘the revolution revolutionizes the counter-revolution’ – and stave off their own Thermidor, then it is justifiable to prolong the struggle until it is safe. For Burma, this might mean curtailing the NLD’s internal democracy until national democracy is secure. (This is no foregone conclusion since the country’s constitution mandates that 25 per cent of parliamentary seats automatically go to the military, which continues to control important ministries, and which has already indicated that it would oppose any further democratic changes.)

Still, if this continues in the years to come, Suu Kyi could find herself in the similar position of earlier political leaders. A rather premature forewarning could be that she wields her ‘iron rule’ over the NLD for far too long, preventing younger generations of leaders from rising through the ranks, and endangering democracy which necessities more than the rule of a pro-democracy party, and one figurehead.

It is beyond doubt that, for now, after securing 80 per cent of available parliamentary seats in last November’s elections, the NLD and Suu Kyi have the support of the Burmese majority. And as for Suu Kyi herself, many inside and outside the country consider it her destiny to reign not only because of her lineage – her father was a hero of Burmese independence – but also because of the sacrifices she made for the struggle. This might explain why so much attention, or sympathy, was paid to her unceremonious inability to become president, an issue that occupied the media for months after the election, leaving perhaps more relevant issues, like what the NLD will do in government, a mere paragraph or two for consideration.

Now in power, however, the NLD and Suu Kyi face the unenviable tasks. Nicholas Farrelly, an expert on Burmese politics, recently wrote: ‘Wherever you looked around the country, there were issues that demanded attention including tough topics like human trafficking, drug production, HIV, civil war, child soldiering, economic malaise, forced conscription and crony capitalism. Most of these old issues are still on the agenda. But now that the NLD has a much greater say in how the government runs they can no longer expect somebody else to fix these problems.’

Important questions are also being raised as to how humanitarian the pro-democracy icon is, particularly with her government’s recent controversy of kowtowing to the country’s Buddhist extremists by failing to recognise the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has long been brutalised in the country, as a legitimate ethnicity. A ‘cowardly stance’, according to the New York Times.

What’s more, as many commentators have pointed out, for too long the NLD has relied on Suu Kyi’s cult of personality, rather than policy or ideology. One of the main problems concerning the NLD is that it has long possessed very few policies. And now in power, it must decide upon them in a rather haphazard fashion – or, worse still, have them dictated by Suu Kyi herself.

At the same time, as Chit Win, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, recently stated, the NLD must reach equilibrium between ‘necessary reforms [and] the existing political realities that constrain that very reform agenda. If the NLD pushes for drastic political reconfiguration without accommodating the military’s concerns and interests, it will undermine this balance and provoke a hostile reaction from the military.’ (Burma need only look south to Thailand for what this might entail.)

And by extension, should reforms not happen as expected, the NLD could also face a backlash from those who voted the party into government – an aspect of democratic rule Burma’s former military leaders never had to concern themselves with. As the head of the NLD’s economics committee, Hantha Myint, told AFP in March: ‘The people have very, very high hopes and then if we misbehave in some way… the people’s expectations will be crushed.’ Some commentators have asserted that so high were expectations, the NLD can never possibly appease them.

Few doubt that the NLD can rule Burma efficiently, or suggest that Suu Kyi should step down immediately; Burmese democracy must be sustained and strengthened, and by no means will this be an easy feat. However, so that democracy does not become synonymous with Suu Kyi, and for it to endure in decades to come, it is clear that the 70-year-old should be making real preparations for her own retirement, sooner rather than later. The NLD must become the NLD, and no longer Suu Kyi’s NLD.