Stubborn and proud, the Lady’s not for turning

In just three years, Aung San Suu Kyi has lost the support not only of the West but also of minorities in her own country. What went wrong?

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A protester gets treatment after being injured during a demonstration near a statue of General Aung San in Loikaw on February 12, 2019 (AFP/Getty Images)

On February 19, an angry crowd of about 5,000 surged towards the centre of Loikaw, the capital city of Kayah state in eastern Myanmar. Police in full riot gear, bearing long truncheons and polycarbonate riot shields, pushed back. Water cannon were deployed, and soon enough rubber bullets were flying through the air. Consequently 20 or so people were injured, some seriously; images bear witness to the wounds inflicted on the dazed victims by rubber bullets. Medics did what they could to help, mopping up streams of blood. Many protesters had turned up in their distinctive traditional garments and the thin, woven cloth afforded them little protection.

Myanmar, riven by internal conflicts ever since it won freedom from Britain in January 1948, is no stranger to police brutality and arbitrary violence. But the cause of this particular protest in Kayah state was certainly a novelty; the local Karenni, one of over a hundred distinct ethnic groups in the country, were demonstrating against the erection of a statue — of General Aung San.

Revered by Burmans, the dominant ethnic group in the country, Aung San was the leader of Burma’s independence movement against colonial power. More to the point, he was also the father of the current de facto leader of the country, state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). It is not clear who has been paying for this — and other — statues of Aung San, but his daughter’s government has certainly been encouraging them. They are, after all, useful symbols of the NLD’s current electoral hegemony, and reminders that it is General Aung San (and thus by proxy his daughter) who are supposed to have been the only leaders of Myanmar capable of weaving this fractious, disparate country together.

The Karenni, however, in assaulting Aung San’s statue, have explicitly rejected this narrative. They argue that the claims of Aung San and his bloodline are a sham. Indeed, the way that the bronze edifice was clumsily imposed upon them without consultation speaks to the high-handed and dismissive manner in which they have always been treated by the Burman authorities. In this respect, Ms Suu Kyi has come to be regarded by many not so much as a freedom fighter but as indistinguishable from her unloved and unlamented predecessors, those cruel, rubber-faced generals who ruled Myanmar from 1964 onwards, when they seized power in a coup.

It is not only the Karenni. The Kachin, in the far-north of the country, have been objecting to a similar statue that was foisted upon them several years ago. Perhaps nervous of its reception the local state government parked this particular bronze Aung San behind a high fence, just off a main road. No matter. Last July some intrepid vandal duly managed to daub it in blue paint and hack a bit off, just for good measure. A new bridge in Mon state, in the south-east of the country, was due to be named after Aung San, but that provoked waves of resentment. The local Mon argued that such a powerful symbol of the new “democratic” Myanmar should be named after a local Mon hero, not a despotic Burman nationalist.

In short, it is not only in the West that the Lady has fallen from grace. For every Dublin, Sheffield, Glasgow and Oxford that has revoked its “freedom of the city” award to her, so in Myanmar the symbols of her dynasty have been desecrated. In the West, her seeming indifference to the UN-designated “genocide” of the Muslim Rohingya minority in 2017 has provoked the rupture. In Myanmar, her seeming indifference to the fate of the Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon and other minority ethnic groups has incited the assaults on her dynastic statuary. More seriously, the NLD has also started to lose by-elections in ethnic minority areas. In sum, it is a desperately sad fact that in just three years of remarkably inept government Ms Suu Kyi has not only managed to lose the sympathy and political support of the West, but also of the minority groups of her own country. These are the very people she needed to fulfil her ultimate ambition of brokering a new relationship between her own Burmans and the ethnic minorities. As matters stand now, this is very unlikely to happen in her lifetime. Myanmar will plod on with sporadic reforms, just as Ms Suu Kyi is likely to win a second term of office in elections due to be held next year. But the truth is that the previous military government under President Thein Sein brought Myanmar closer to a lasting peace, and that’s a dreadful indictment of her own record.

Common to the grievances of the West and the Karenni, Kachin and others are the same themes, of betrayal and disillusion. In Myanmar, those who saw Ms Suu Kyi as the one leader who might have treated them as equals in a new, federal Myanmar feel swindled — there is no other word. The Rohingya, in particular, had vested their last hopes for a peaceful end to their persecution in her. Instead, since the NLD came to power in 2016 they have been largely chased out of the country, with as many as 20,000 slaughtered by the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, in the process. Western liberals and sympathisers, the legions of do-gooding human-rights activists who lauded her courageous stand for democracy and universal human rights, feel similarly cheated. Indeed, the volume of abuse now heaped upon her seems to be in direct proportion to the exaggerated acclaim that she enjoyed before, as a Nobel peace prize winner, Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience and everything else. It’s as if we were all fooled, and want our revenge.

What went wrong? Can Ms Suu Kyi have changed so much — or did her admirers and supporters just badly misjudge her? Undoubtedly, the government that Ms Suu Kyi led into office in 2016 suffered from a severe case of inflated expectations. Realistically, she only had a little room for manoeuvre from the beginning. She took office under the 2008 constitution, drawn up by the tyrannical General Than Shwe, whereby the army kept its lock on power via a block of unelected legislators in parliament, a quarter of the total number, effectively preventing any change to the constitution. The army also reserved for itself the automatic occupancy of several vital ministries, including defence, security and border affairs. The civilian government was left to tinker with crumbling schools, pot-holed roads and derelict hospitals, matters that the generals considered of little importance. Most of the budget went on the military anyway, so there was relatively little left over for the civilians to squander on these trivialities.

There were always many in the NLD who argued that the party should have resisted any participation in the army’s sham democracy until the whole constitution was ripped up. Indeed, the party boycotted the 2010 elections, the first to be held under the regime’s new roadmap to a “disciplined democracy”, for this very reason. The NLD protested against the “unfair electoral laws”, and was subsequently banned. There was further agonising over whether the NLD, and Ms Suu Kyi herself, should contest the by-elections in 2012 that eventually gave the NLD its first parliamentary seats. The decision was taken to participate, of course, but from that point on the Lady was compromised. She made her Faustian pact, but it was as poorly negotiated as Brexit. She shed her moral authority, her most precious asset, for the pursuit of a power that was always going to be severely circumscribed. The generals kept their jobs, their sports cars and fancy flats in Singapore whilst conceding merely a veneer of authority to their former opponents.

Nonetheless, it is easy to forget now how difficult these choices were to make. Few, in the end, doubted that they were the right decisions to take at the time. In the euphoria of the moment, as Ms Suu Kyi finally took power, there was an understandable willingness to suspend disbelief, to skate over these compromises and to pretend for a moment that civilian government was going to be easier than it seemed. For instance, Ms Suu Kyi’s lawyer Ko Ni had smartly devised a way round the constitutional ban on Ms Suu Kyi becoming president (because the 2008 document had barred those who had married a foreigner, such as her own husband, the British historian Michael Aris). Ko Ni simply created a new office, of “state counsellor”, giving her executive power. This left the presidency as a largely honorific post, to be occupied by a loyal NLD time-server who would do her bidding.

Ko Ni’s inventiveness suggested that the army’s constitution need not be quite such a formidable obstacle to reform as many had feared. This, however, turned out, like so much else, to be a delusion. Poor Ko Ni himself was an early victim of those delusions, shot in the head at point-blank range outside Yangon international airport in January 2017 while clutching his infant grandson. His killers, who were caught shortly afterwards, both had military backgrounds. The man suspected of ordering the assassination, however, is believed to be still at large.

Just as more was expected of her government than it could possibly deliver, so many in the West clearly misread Ms Suu Kyi herself. In her tussles with Myanmar’s successive military regimes from 1988 to 2010, during which time she was often incarcerated and almost murdered, the West pitched her as an icon of democracy standing up against a brutal tyranny. This was admirably neat and tidy to understand, politically and pictorially. The image of the frail, beautiful young woman with flowers in her hair bravely fronting up to paunchy generals in olive-green fatigues and aviator specs was extremely seductive. Middle-aged Western men, in particular ambassadors and politicians, craved to be seen with her, an essential prop for virtue-signalling. Some went weak at the knees in her beatific presence. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader who had led the push for sanctions against Myanmar in the 1990s, was almost overcome on first meeting her in the flesh in 2012. Being honoured with the Nobel peace prize in 1991 transformed Ms Suu Kyi into an instant global celebrity, and with that award came certain well-established expectations of who she must be, and how she must act. Denied any substantial communication with the outside world, Ms Suu Kyi became just as much a prisoner of our own tropes as a prisoner of conscience.

The truth, however, was messier. Yes, she demanded that Myanmar should be a democracy, but the lengthy tussle between the NLD and successive military regimes from 1988 to 2015 could more accurately be described as a civil war among the ruling Burman elite. Ms Suu Kyi herself was hailed as the leader of the fight against the military dictatorship principally because of her own pedigree as the daughter of the founder of the Burmese army. Many of those who set up the NLD in 1988 also had military backgrounds, often gravitating to Ms Suu Kyi’s side because they had fallen out with the demented dictator General Ne Win. Among Ms Suu Kyi’s closest lieutenants was Tin Oo, once Ne Win’s favourite son, but arrested and jailed in 1976. Now aged 92, he remains Patron of the NLD and an influential voice in the party. Other dissident officers included General Aung Gyi and Colonel Kyi Maung. Writers, students and journalists, such as the proud and uncompromising Win Tin, flocked to the NLD’s colours as well. But the spine of the party was military, and very Burman, and this is how Ms Suu Kyi has preferred it ever since.

Western observers preferred to dwell on her Western education, her impeccable English accent, the degree at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and her subsequent life as the wife of an academic in the archetypal liberal university city. These experiences left their mark, for sure, and were easy for Westerns to comprehend.But the Burman army has clearly exerted just as much of a pull, if not more so. Since coming to power, she has picked many of her closest advisers from the ranks of the old military regime, bewildering many in the NLD. Nowadays, laments one of her few remaining Western confidants, these people form a protective cordon around her, further isolating her from those who would seek to steer her along more liberal lines. She has now developed almost as much of a bunker mentality as her military forebears. Ms Suu Kyi spends most of her time secluded in the remote fantasy-capital of Naypyidaw, the creation of Than Shwe.

With her Burman military background come many of the characteristics and beliefs that one might expect of this officer class. First and foremost, a strident Burman nationalism. In opposition, she dutifully visited the ethnic minority states and even dressed up in local traditional costumes for the occasion. The great fissure in the country’s modern history is between the dominant Burmans and the ethnic minority groups. This split was exacerbated by fighting in the Second World War when the Kachin, Chin and others fought with the British against the Japanese invaders, whilst General Aung San and his Burman nationalist army opportunistically sided with the Japanese, to hasten the end of British colonial rule. In power, however, Ms Suu Kyi has done little to bridge these divides. Indeed, at every juncture she has sided with the Burmans and the army against the ethnic minorities. Perhaps this makes her a thoroughly contemporary figure, another quintessential nationalist-populist for our times, together with Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Nigel Farage and Viktor Orban. It certainly betrays the promise of a federal, cosmopolitan Myanmar to which she has at least paid lip service in the past. 

Ms Suu Kyi’s pervasive sense of ethno-nationalism is most obvious in her dealings with the Rohingya. In her writings from the 1980s, when she was researching a life of her father and the history of Burma under colonial rule, she analysed only too well the “diffused xenophobia” that animated the independence struggle. For Burmans, this was a struggle not just against the British, but against their supposed lackeys, mainly South Asians and Chinese, who flooded into the country to trade and prosper under the protection of the colonial authorities. “Thus,” she writes, this xenophobia “was fed by a well-justified apprehension that their very existence as a distinct people would be jeopardised if the course of colonial rule was allowed to run unchecked. The threat to their racial survival came not so much from the British as from the Indians and Chinese who were more immediate targets of 20th-century nationalism. Not only did these immigrants acquire a stranglehold on the Burmese economy, they also set up homes with Burmese women, striking at the very roots of Burmese manhood and racial purity.” The same could be said of the Rakhine people, who witnessed the unsolicited mass-immigration of South Asians from Britain’s Indian Empire, many from Bengal, into what was then Arakan in the 19th century. Many Burmans argue that the “threat to their racial survival” is as real today as it was then, if not greater. This explains the almost existential savagery of the violence against the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in Myanmar in recent years.

Understanding this threat, however, is very different from going along with its consequences, including genocide. Those forces within Myanmar that want to frustrate reform and maintain the status quo — the army, chauvinistic monks, conservative businessmen — have exploited these ancient hatreds and antagonisms to rally Burmans around an explicitly Buddhist, nationalist agenda, undercutting the NLD’s claims to a higher moral authority of universal rights. The huge disappointment for Ms Suu Kyi’s former supporters is that she has so willingly given up her corner without a fight. Having amassed enormous political capital over the decades with her people, she continues to hoard rather than spend it. Nelson Mandela, to whom she was often compared in the past, successfully faced down the militants of his own side in 1993 after the shooting of communist Chris Hani threatened to derail South Africa’s political transition. Ms Suu Kyi has, for the most part, stood idly by.

Some can only conclude that she not only understands this Burman xenophobia but actively shares it. She may not have directed the army to rape, burn and shoot the defenceless Rohingya, but she did not have to actively defend it. She has agency, and choices. With a huge reservoir of goodwill in her favour, she could have denounced the action, or she could have threatened to resign in protest. By doing so she would have forfeited some of the democratic gains that Myanmar has made since 2010, but as it is all those claims to the rule of law and democracy lie in tatters anyway. Unlike Mandela, she has taken no risks for peace.

Indeed, her manner of government is gradually becoming little different from the authoritarian regimes that preceded her. Take freedom of speech and assembly. Under her government, there has been what Human Rights Watch calls the gradual “criminalisation of free expression”. Since the NLD came to power, 44 journalists have been arrested. Ominously, 166 cases have also been filed under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, a bit of legislation that was passed in 2013 to regulate private telecoms operators, but which is now being employed indiscriminately to stop anyone “defaming” the authorities. Remarkably, only seven cases were filed under the last two years of the Thein Sein administration. As her critics point out, she might not have the constitutional power to direct the army in Rakhine state, but the civilian government could certainly amend or repeal such legislation and thus open up more space for political discussion. Yet she chooses not to do so. Most notoriously, Ms Suu Kyi has vigorously upheld the conviction of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oot, despite evidence that they were entrapped by police. The pair was originally arrested for reporting on the killing of ten Rohingya men and women.

All attempts to persuade Ms Suu Kyi to change course, especially over the Rohingya, have foundered on the granite-hard bedrock of her character. Beneath the smiles and primary-coloured longyi, she is, as one adviser observes, “extraordinarily stubborn”. This quality served her well during the many years of isolation and house arrest. In government, however, it is more of a liability. With no experience of administration and bureaucracy herself, Ms Suu Kyi is nonetheless loath to take any advice from others, especially when that advice might conflict with her own views. Proud and unyielding, she has broken with many of her old friends over the Rohingya, including the British diplomat Robert Cooper and the former American ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson. The latter resigned from a commission on the Rohingya crisis, complaining that she would no longer listen even to her old comrades. When Mr Richardson dared to bring up the case of the jailed Reuters journalists, he reports, she “exploded” with rage. All the time she is becoming more isolated from her previous sources of domestic support and sensible advice. She has fought for democracy, but governs like an autocrat.

There is little evidence that all the condemnation from the West had made any impression on her. “I never asked for any of these awards,” she says to one aide as yet another European city gives up on her. The only action that really hurt was the decision by St Hugh’s College in 2017 to remove her portrait, painted by Chen Yaning, from the main entrance to the college. This struck at a very personal level, signalling a repudiation of the relatively carefree Oxford life that she had enjoyed as an undergraduate, and later as a wife and mother of two boys. The rest, it seems, just stiffens her resolve. She regards the West as fickle, swayed by the shifting contingencies of day-to-day politics, unwilling to give her the benefit of the doubt over the long term. Don’t expect the probable reimposition of EU sanctions to make any difference to her, for instance. They will only cripple the local textile industry, which has been enjoying something of a renaissance since 2015.

As the West withdraws, so China, India, Russia and Japan, a long-standing ally, are stepping up. It is hard to imagine Ms Suu Kyi ever again being fêted in the Houses of Parliament, as she was in 2012. She will now enjoy the acclaim of her Asian allies instead. Western strategists won’t miss Myanmar; it was never a very significant piece on the geo-political chessboard anyway. But we can also learn some lessons along the way, to be a lot more clear-eyed about those whom we want to believe in.