Cracks form in Aung San Suu Kyi’s halo as Myanmar poll looms
|Aung San Suu Kyi greeting supporters in the remote central Myanmar town of Natmauk. Source: AFP|
By Amanda Hodge
June 27, 2015
In the days leading up to Aung San Suu Kyi’s 70th birthday on Friday last week, public affection for the icon of Myanmar’s long struggle for democracy took many forms — from glowing pictorial tributes in newspapers to Happy Birthday medleys on high Yangon radio rotation.
On the weekend, The Lady confirmed what most in Myanmar had already assumed — her National League for Democracy party would contest the November general elections, the closest this Southeast Asian nation will have seen to a genuine democratic contest for about 50 years.
Suu Kyi’s state visit to China this month at Beijing’s invitation reflects a common view within and outside Myanmar that she and the party she leads will be a significant force in the next government, even if she is barred constitutionally from becoming president.
Yet after two decades of house arrest and great personal sacrifice, just as Suu Kyi is on the verge of becoming her country’s most powerful politician, her reputation as an unimpeachable defender of democracy and human rights is taking a beating.
The Nobel Peace laureate’s transition from democratic figurehead to politician since her release in 2010 has necessarily involved great compromise, not only on public policy but also human rights.
Last month she was criticised publicly by fellow laureates Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama for not speaking out on behalf of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim population, most of whom are confined to vast and squalid refugee camps in western Rakhine State.
The Tibetan Buddhist leader told The Australian he had twice appealed to Suu Kyi to speak out for the minority whose predicament hit international headlines when thousands of desperate, starving Rohingya boatpeople were bounced from one hostile Southeast Asian nation to another. “It’s very sad,” the Dalai Lama said. “In the Burmese case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something.”
The reality for Suu Kyi the politician is there is nothing to be done. Though she defended her record this month, telling The Washington Post: “I’m always talking up for the right of minorities and peace and harmony, and for equality and so on and so on”, the truth is there are few votes in defending the widely reviled minority. And with the NLD on the verge of a historic election win, Suu Kyi will not jeopardise that result.
Yet within Myanmar she is also being criticised from former rusted-on supporters for political failings. Five months out from an election, critics talk of a lack of policies, of her autocratic leadership style, a fortress mentality by gatekeepers, and her refusal to nurture a second generation of NLD leaders, notwithstanding the fact even if her party were to sweep the elections she could not be president because she married a foreigner and her sons are British citizens. That is not widely understood among the Myanmar voting public, many of whom believe an NLD victory will mean a Suu Kyi presidency. How they will react to the discovery is one of many unknowns.
Kyaw Lin Oo heads the Myanmar People’s Forum Working Group, which gauges public opinion on government policy on development, peace, democracy and human rights, and feeds it back to the administration. The 38-year-old former student activist, who returned from a decade in exile in 2011, says he would have preferred to contribute to Suu Kyi’s NLD — if only they would have him.
“It’s ironic that I’m now serving the government, as are a lot of my friends who were once student activists. Many of them served time in jail but now work in the Myanmar Peace Centre or as presidential advisers,” he tells Inquirer. “I want to be used by the democratic party and the person I once supported but the people around her think I am not a real supporter.”
Lin Oo says he understands Suu Kyi’s desire to achieve tangible results after spending so many years in isolation. “But the problem is people around her just blindly follow her and she will not accept criticism. That’s old person mentality.”
Though he once thought of Suu Kyi — daughter of slain Burmese independence hero Aung San — as a national hero, he says he will not vote for the NLD now.
“A lot of our generation, and also those of the ’88 generation (those involved in the suppressed democracy uprising of that year) are upset with the NLD,” he says.
“It’s not because they contested the (2012) by-elections (in which they won 43 of 45 seats) but because their political message is very ambiguous and general. ‘Please vote for me. I will work for democracy.’ But everybody is working for democracy. Even the USDP (the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party) says that. We want to hear how you will bring the country up, how will you improve the health and education system?”
November’s election is a watershed for Myanmar, despite criticism that the polls cannot be fair while 25 per cent of parliamentary seats are reserved for unelected military commanders — a constitutional clause deemed necessary by President Thein Sein to win military support for the transition from junta to nascent democracy. Though the NLD is expected to win the most seats, Lin Oo — like many political analysts — says the party cannot replicate its stunning 1990 victory that the military refused to recognise. “Her political party — and also her personality — are not the same as in the 1990 period,” he says.
Many NLD supporters were shocked by the party’s recent decision to expel writer and provincial party spokesman Htin Lin Oo in Mandalay for speaking out against extreme Buddhist nationalism and the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. It was at an NLD literary festival that Htin Lin Oo, as an invited speaker, told the audience: “Buddha is not Burmese, not Shan, not Karen. So if you want to be an extreme nationalist and if you love to maintain your race that much, don’t believe in Buddhism.”
The comments scandalised Myanmar’s powerful Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion), which lobbied the Religious Affairs Ministry to pursue charges of “outraging religious feelings” — a crime for which he ultimately was found guilty this month and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.
His imprisonment earned the admonishment of UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who warned Myanmar against creating a new generation of political prisoners. Months earlier, former NLD Central Committee member and education specialist Thein Lwin also was expelled, for championing student protests against a controversial national education bill.
“People are questioning the NLD, political activists especially are questioning what the NLD party’s stand is on controversial issues like human rights, Rohingya, the education bill,” Kyaw Lin Oo says. “Many people feel there needs to be an alternative to the USDP and NLD, but our political culture makes that very difficult. They can’t survive without the patronage of one or the other of these two parties.”
In the stifling, tin-roofed cafe he runs in a back street in Mandalay — a Buddhist nationalist stronghold and home to the militant anti-Muslim 969 movement — former 88 generation activist and Muslim Ko Nyi Nyi says the country will vote for Suu Kyi’s party, notwithstanding her shortcomings and that of her party.
“We have no choice but to choose Aung San Suu Kyi, unless she dies,” he says. “We don’t really like her party but the problem is people confuse the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. So whenever an NLD member does something wrong people blame her.
“People in Burma hope for messianic figures and consider Aung San Suu Kyi to be one of those. So they believe if she gets involved in the Rohingya issue, everything will be resolved. If she spoke out for the writer (Htin Lin Oo) he would be released. If she spoke in favour of student activists there would be no crackdown.
“We need to wait for a time when people see Aung San Suu Kyi as just a political leader and not a messiah,” he adds, though he acknowledges that, at 70, time is running out.
In the absence of second-line leaders, there is talk of a looming leadership crisis. By contrast, the ruling USDP, also dominated by septuagenarians, has a clear succession plan.
One element in Suu Kyi’s favour is the schism within the USDP between supporters of Thein Sein and parliamentary lower house Speaker Shwe Mann, another former military commander turned social and economic reformer who harbours presidential ambitions.
At Washington’s Asia Society last month, Mann openly stated his support for Suu Kyi and said he would be happy to enter coalition government with her party.
Though Thein Sein is seen as a “clean man” — untainted by the cronyism that inevitably has crept into Myanmar’s nascent capitalist economy — Kyaw Lin Oo says most people don’t like his ruling party, seeing it as a rebadged civilian version of the military junta, and believe that reform has stalled. Certainly foreign investment has slowed in the lead-up to the November election as investors await the outcome of the poll, and inflation and unemployment are high. By contrast, Shwe Mann’s family has grown rich in recent years through its government links.
Suu Kyi herself has benefited from the support of Myanmar business tycoons, including Michael Moe Myint, a neighbour, former pilot for Myanmar dictator Ne Win and now an oil tycoon who in 2013 sold 50 per cent of his Bay of Bengal exploration rights to Australia’s Woodside Petroleum.
A story published by The Irrawaddy magazine in 2013 on efforts by Myanmar’s so-called crony capitalists to rehabilitate themselves through association with The Lady and her NLD observed that Suu Kyi “surprised many by saying that those who became wealthy during military rule should be given another chance to reform themselves”.
“Those who are considered cronies have supported the social activities of the NLD and others,” she was quoted as saying. “What is wrong with that? Instead of spending their money on things that have no purpose, they have supported things that they should support. It’s a good thing.”
It is one of many issues needling a generation of Burmese who, like Suu Kyi, sacrificed years of freedom — albeit in less comfortable surrounds than a sprawling ancestral home — in the fight for democracy.
Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English language edition of The Irrawaddy magazine and a former student dissident who spent eight years in jail for producing a political journal, says while Suu Kyi is rightly focused on coaxing the President and ruling generals into a national reconciliation dialogue, she has ignored the country’s ethnic minorities and former student groups. “I personally think she should have been more engaged with those people,” he tells Inquirer from the magazine’s small but bustling Yangon newsroom.
“She genuinely believes in national reconciliation but thinks the current government and military are more important than anyone else. The problem is a lack of team capacity and her age. She really needs to meet the people more; ethnic leaders, civil society groups, opposition people.”
Meanwhile, the USDP is building alliances with some ethnic parties to make up electoral ground against the NLD, which commands significant support in ethnic Burmese areas but less so in the seven ethnic states on the country’s periphery — many of which have longstanding ethnic insurgencies.
Still, Kyaw Zwa Moe predicts that, come November, few people will be able to stomach a vote for the military-linked government party. “People still hate this government,” he says. “That leaves them with not many choices.”