Suu Kyi as the challenge to democratic Myanmar
by Suhas Chakma on 25 Nov 2015 0 Comment
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in Myanmar’s general election of 8 November 2015. After the victory, Suu Kyi offered to form a national unity government, but it remains to be seen whether the same can be formed. Yet, there is little doubt that the transition will be smooth and the Army’s vice-like grip over the country will gradually dissipate. The blasphemous question is whether Suu Kyi will become a threat to democratic Myanmar.


Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya issue has received international censure but her democratic credentials, surely not as juxtaposition to her campaign against the military dictatorship, have seldom been scrutinised. The NLD lacked inner party democracy and history is against Suu Kyi.


Suu Kyi lacks a team unlike many pro-democracy leaders; the Burmese pro-democracy movement has been mostly about her. The founder of non-violent mass political movement, Mahatma Gandhi, was never required to participate in governance and within the Congress Party, democracy had roots. Gandhi’s candidate for Congress President, Dr Bhogaraju Pattabhi Sitaramayya, was defeated by Subhas Chandra Bose in the inner party elections held in 1939. (Gandhi later forced Bose to resign, but the episode showed that it was not an entirely one-man show).


During 27 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela became the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, but the African National Congress in the meantime had been led by distinguished leaders such as Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu etc. The NLD lacked such leaders at home while the Government-in-exile of Burma had a natural death for want of leaders of high stature, among other reasons.


Since her release from house arrest, Suu Kyi has shown glimpses of authoritarianism. Seventeen members of Myanmar’s respected “88 generation” were denied NLD tickets for contesting the 8th November general elections. Earlier, reformist Dr Thein Lwin was sacked from the NLD’s auxiliary Central Committee in February 2015 for lending support to students protesting against the adoption of the National Education Law supported by the NLD in Parliament in September 2014.


Suu Kyi called on demonstrators to abandon plans for an ill-fated protest march from Mandalay to Rangoon in January 2015, but the students refused. Those who defy or question her decisions have been purged. The statement of Suu Kyi on 10th November 2015 that the elected President of Myanmar “will have no authority, and will act in accordance with the decisions of the party … because in any democratic country, it’s the leader of the winning party that becomes the leader of the government” may be instructive.


While Suu Kyi may still find a rubber stamp President, the rule of the majority is unlikely to be handy for dealing with the ethnic minorities who have been waging wars against the majority Burmese for the last five decades. The NLD could not forge any effective alliance with the ethnic minorities while opposing the Junta. An effective alliance for power sharing with them may not last long considering the absolute majority of the NLD in the parliament and aspirations of the ethnic nationalities.

Cease-fire agreements signed with seven out of the 15 ethnic minority armed groups in October 2015 remain in place, but eight other armed groups, including the powerful United Wa State Army and Kachin Independence Army remain outside the canvas. Experiences from Scotland to Catalan of Spain show the struggle of mature Western democracies with the right of self-determination and resource sharing. Suu Kyi, who often claimed to be fond of the military given her background as daughter of General Aung San, is unlikely to hesitate to use the army against the ethnic insurgents, should the peace processes fail. Obviously, the Rohingyas are unlikely to be her nemesis.


Suu Kyi’s rule will however not be undone by economy. The expectations remain low and the key economic challenge of Myanmar on the economy has been reduction of Chinese control, one of the key factors for loosening of the grip by the Junta and start of the democratisation process to facilitate Western investment to counter the Chinese. Burmanisation of the economy is not new but has become more complex and challenging. In an attempt to Burmanise the business and administration, over 300,000 Indian origin people were expelled by the architect of the military dictatorship, General Ne Win, in the 1960s.


The Chinese having similar physical features to the Burmese cannot be expelled like the Indians. Further, China does not only hold a seat in the UN Security Council and the position of second largest economy in the world, the junta government established Myanmar Peace Center alleged that the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army did not sign the cease-fire agreement in October 2015 because of Chinese pressure.


Does the history of the transition of pro-democracy leaders into efficient public administrators favour Suu Kyi? Since the fall of the Berlin wall, with the exception of Nelson Mandela, leaders of the Orange revolution in Ukraine, the Arab Spring or the Maoists of Nepal have miserably failed to deliver.


The NLD won because the people of Myanmar abhor the military, but the NLD has been all about Suu Kyi. The second in command, Chairman U Tin Oo, is 88 years old. Being a follower of the non-violent movement and a Nobel Laureate does not make Suu Kyi less vulnerable to the venalities of power. The absolute majority of the NLD and the lack of inner party democracy may be the biggest challenges to democratic Myanmar.


The author is the Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights

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