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Will Suu Kyi pose threat to a democratic Myanmar?

By Suhas Chakma
November 22, 2015

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the general election in Myanmar on Nov 8, 2015. The blasphemous question is whether Ms Suu Kyi’s supreme power in the NLD will soon pose a challenge to democratic Myanmar.

Ms Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya issue has received international censure but her democratic credentials, as opposed to her campaign against the military dictatorship, have seldom been scrutinised. The NLD lacks inner party democracy and history is against Ms Suu Kyi.

It is precisely because Ms Suu Kyi lacks a team, unlike many pro-democracy leaders. The Myanmar pro-democracy movement has been mostly about her. The founder of non-violent mass political movements Mahatma Gandhi never had to participate in governance and, within the Congress Party, democracy was entrenched. Gandhi’s candidate for Congress President Dr Bhogaraju Pattabhi Sitaramayya, was defeated by Subhas Chandra Bose in the party elections held in 1939.

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 of Burma in exile died a natural death for want of leaders of high stature, among other reasons.

Since her release from house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi has shown glimpses of authoritarianism. Seventeen members of Myanmar’s respected “88 generation” were denied NLD tickets to contest the Nov 8 general election. Earlier, reformist Dr Thein Lwin was sacked from the NLD’s auxiliary Central Committee in February 2015 for lending support to the students protesting against the adoption of the National Education Law supported by the NLD in parliament in September 2014. Ms Suu Kyi called on demonstrators to abandon plans for an ill-fated protest march from Mandalay to Yangon in January 2015 but the students refused. Those who defy or question her decisions have been purged. The statement of Ms Suu Kyi on Nov 10 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 Ms 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 past five decades.

The NLD could not forge any effective alliances 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 parliament and the 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. Ms Suu Kyi has stated numerous times that she is a politician. Should the peace process fail, resulting in renewed armed conflicts, as head of the government or the ruling party, she is unlikely to hesitate to use the army against ethnic insurgents. Obviously, the Rohingya are unlikely to be her nemesis.

Ms Suu Kyi’s rule will however not be undone by the economy. Expectations remain low and the key economic challenge of Myanmar for the economy has been a reduction of Chinese control, one of the key factors behind the loosening of the junta's grip and the 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 people of Indian origin were expelled by the architect of the military dictatorship Gen Ne Win in the 1960s. As Chinese have similar physical features to the Burmese they cannot be expelled like the Indians. Further, China holds a seat on the UN Security Council and the position of the second-largest economy in the world. The Myanmar Peace Centre established by the junta government 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.

The history of transition of pro-democracy leaders into efficient public administrators is not in favour of Ms 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 failed miserably to deliver.

The NLD won because the people of Myanmar abhor the military but the NLD has been all about Ms Suu Kyi with the second in command, Chairman U Tin Oo being 88 years old. The absolute majority of the NLD and the lack of inner party democracy due to Ms Suu Kyi’s supreme power may soon become a stumbling block to a democratic Myanmar.

Suhas Chakma is director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights.

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