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Michał Lubina  25 listopada 2020

Once the darling of the Western world, now a full-blooded leader. Aung San Suu Kyi retains her power in Burma

Michał Lubina  25 listopada 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 13 min
Once the darling of the Western world, now a full-blooded leader. Aung San Suu Kyi retains her power in Burma Surian Soosay / flickr.com

Key elections for the Burma’s fate are over. For the leader of the state, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, this was yet another „to be or not to be” moment in politics. To prevent the army from returning to power, she had to achieve a decisive victory, no matter what, even in a middle of the pandemic crisis. And she did.

Burma (and I am using this name intentionally) appeared in the global media in 1988, when mass protests were bloodily suppressed in the country. How is it possible that the military fired on civilians in a Buddhist state? The orientalist illusions that Buddhism is a peaceful religion that would have nothing to with violence have long sheltered the Burmese junta. ‘Demonstrations in Burma? This sounds like a coup d’état in Shangri-La,’ one historian sneeringly summed up the events.

A story straight from Hollywood

Then the world’s attention was drawn to a beautiful woman with an unpronounceable name – Aung San Suu Kyi (the last part reads ‘tsi’), who led the rebellion against the military, proclaiming the principles of democracy. She made references to Gandhi and Luther King and fought non-violently. She spoke English beautifully (she graduated from Oxford), so she knew how to talk to the New York Times journalists. ‘We all kind of fell in love with her,’ admitted one of the reporters she had managed to wrap around her fingers.

This was a Hollywood story. The junta, wanting to break Suu Kyi, put her under house arrest (where she spent a total of 15 years), separated her from her husband (a British Oxford professor) and her underage sons.

This cruel act, motivated by both politics and racism, destroyed Suu Kyi’s family (the husband died of cancer without being able to say goodbye to his wife, while the sons ended up with police records and in sects), but also created her legend. ‘The generals are like my free PR agency,’ Suu Kyi mocked them. A beautiful, hurt woman fighting peacefully with a gang of Third World criminals – now that’s a story!

Global media turned Suu Kyi into a celebrity – ‘an icon of democracy’, ‘the conscience of the world’, ‘a living symbol of the Declaration of Human Rights’, ‘Lady’ – they would write about her (thus avoiding the issue of memorising her name). A shower of awards and honours soon followed, including the Nobel Peace Prize (allegedly lobbied for by her husband). This is how she entered the pop culture – songs (including U2’s hit Walk On), plays and Hollywood movies were made about her.

This influenced the West becoming politically involved and taking her side (sanctions against generals). Suu Kyi has become the most famous Burmese, with the exception of the somewhat forgotten U Thant. In a convention of a battle between good and evil, the story spun around her took Burma to the front pages of the newspapers.

At home and abroad

Part of the interest in Burma was also due to the prevailing mood. The state resisted the third wave of democratisation and became an inconceivable exception. Why were the grotesque generals still clinging to power and why had they not fallen into the garbage heap of history? It will happen eventually – or so the promise was for twenty years. Suu Kyi’s slogan: ‘right is might’ will ensure her victory.

Meanwhile, everything was not the way it was perceived. The army was indeed lousy, society – repressed, and Suu Kyi – popular. The finer details, however, didn’t add up. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, the creator of the country’s independence, was also the creator of the army. It was with his colleagues that Suu Kyi fought for power. She preached democracy and understood it the Burmese way (first the citizens’ duties, then their rights); she treated it as a moral value in which the most moral ones are elected. And whenever someone disagreed with her leadership, she would call them a renegade and a traitor. Politically, the generals were strong, and Suu Kyi was weak. However, she had two aces up her sleeve: public support and support from abroad. Nonetheless, that wasn’t enough. The people on the streets and foreign powers did not win her power.

Disciplined democracy

In 2011, the generals replaced their political decor: they took off their uniforms, liberalised the economy, and loosened the screws on society. Thanks to the 2008 constitution, they were able to withdraw to the background. The Basic Law granted the army 25% of seats in parliament (a minority blocking changes to the constitution), three power ministries (internal affairs, defence, border security), a vice-president, autonomy for the army and a majority in the Defense and Security Council. If the Council, having consulted the president, decides that three national principles (the integrity of the Union, the duration and maintenance of national solidarity) are at stake, it may introduce martial law.

The military secured the legal mandate for a coup at any time. Just in case, they dotted the i’s by forbidding family members of foreigners to hold presidency (read: Suu Kyi).

By establishing a constitution that politically favours the army to the highest degree in the world (Uganda, second in this ranking, is left far behind), the generals could easily turn civilian and turn out to be democrats. They have charmingly called their system ‘disciplined democracy’.

The West – tired of waiting for change and tempted by access to the opening market – supported the reforms. Burma returned to the global stage and received a financial boost. The generals were the ones to benefit the most from the changes: they made better and better deals with foreign countries and pretended to be democratised, while the West pretended to believe them. Everybody was happy. Well, except for Suu Kyi.

Poker trick

The marginalised Suu Kyi could have rejected ‘disciplined democracy’ and gained the moral high ground. She could have become the Burmese equivalent of the Dalai Lama, calling for world peace and teaching how to live as a well-respected yet helpless politician. After all, this is what many in the West had expected of her. But Suu Kyi did not want to save the world (‘I am not Mother Teresa’), only Burma. She accepted the unfavourable playing conditions in order to change the system from the inside. In this poker game, she put it all on the line – the 2015 general election. She was not sure whether she would win, or whether the generals would cancel it.

She turned the elections into a plebiscite on the rule of the army and got 79% of the available seats in parliament. Then, in a series of secret meetings with generals, she received imprimatur to rule in exchange for not holding them accountable and maintaining the status quo. She negotiated hard for her presidency, but she had hit a dead end. Therefore, in a brilliant legal move, she circumvented the army’s veto, creating the chancellor’s position of state councillor for herself and relegating the president to the role of a puppet with a pen.

She began a difficult relationship with the generals who were only waiting for her to stumble. Unable to remove them from their influence and positions openly, Suu Kyi did so the Asian way – using a method of slow-cooked frog. Gradually, she took over sector after sector (civil service, local authorities, media, fraternisation with the regime oligarchs). But she was also aware the unwritten boundaries. The generals would turn a blind eye to her actions but made sure that the constitution guaranteeing their safety was still in place. They tolerated Suu Kyi’s rule, the more so as she had passed the patriotism test in the meantime.

A trap set by the military

In August 2017, attacks by the new Rohingya guerrilla movement, ARSA, took place. These Muslim people can be likened to Roma Gypsies; however, the hatred towards them is even greater. Their ancestors came from Bengal (it is debatable whether they came to Burma in the 17th century or at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries), which is enough for the Burmese to reject them. The persecuted Rohingya people are not wanted by the neighbouring Bangladesh nor any other country in the world. Successive Burmese governments have taken away their rights, their land and property, sometimes expelling them to Bangladesh. The Rohingya have taken up arms and have lost every time. This was also the case this time.

An ARSA attack by civilians surprised the Burmese army. The army lost face but took a cruel revenge. Over 700,000 people were displaced. And all this with full social approval. For the Burmese, the ARSA attacks were as shocking as September 11 was for the Americans, so the response had to be ruthless.

Textbook ethnic cleansing was carried out while the whole world was watching. The West was appalled and reacted with its primary weapon: Facebook posts, hashtags, proclamations, appeals and full denunciation. And then, with a question: where is the conscience of the world, Aung San Suu Kyi?

The Nobel laureate was silent for an extended period, not wanting to fall into the army’s trap. The military set a Rohingya trap for her – they wanted to manoeuvre her into supporting Muslims, so that she would lose her popularity. Suu Kyi saw right through their gambit: for several years she had been holding the middle ground, manoeuvring between the increasingly uncompromising attitudes of the Burmese and the West. This ended in 2017. She could either stand up for Rohingya and commit a spectacular political suicide in Burma, or she could support the army (and her people) and thus say goodbye to the support of the West. Choosing between her homeland or the world was simple: Suu Kyi chose Burma.

The Western media attacked Suu Kyi relentlessly, throwing her off her pedestal. The ‘fallen icon’, ‘pariah’, ‘traitor’, ‘Burmese Mugabe’, this is how they vented their frustration. Like rejected lovers, Western journalists blamed Suu Kyi, not the army. This is understandable from a media expert’s point of view. Celebrity logic runs through the cycles of worship and condemnation. Besides, who can pronounce and memorise the names of Burmese generals? But a Nobel Prize winner who had a hand in the genocide of Muslims committed by Buddhists? Now that’s going to hit the news! The ‘man bites dog’ rule has been proven true again.

In Burma, condemning Suu Kyi only helped her politically. When reading all the Western nonsense written about their country, the Burmese gathered around the flag (somewhat in the spirit: ‘they’re attacking our mother!’).

The more the West attacks Suu Kyi and makes theatrical gestures, such as taking away her title as AI ambassador and her honorary Canadian citizenship, or removing her portrait from the Oxford Hall of Fame, the better for her. Every such action meets with furious reactions from the people of Burma. As a result, the cool balance of Suu Kyi’s rule is clouded by emotions.

And the said balance is unclear. She failed to end the civil war, did not make Burma a land of milk and honey, did not catch up with or overtake Singapore, although she had once promised all this. However, she has done away with the army in public life and continues the country’s modernisation. Thanks to better infrastructure, the Internet revolution, the inflow of foreign capital, fewer interruptions in power supply, and more expenditure on health care and education, the Burmese live better. However, Suu Kyi did not start it all: the leader continues the policy of the military reformers but does not admit it because she is considered a great reformer in her country. But that’s better than nothing: she could have ruined it all.

Pandemic elections

Once again, Suu Kyi needed an absolute majority in parliament in the elections. The system works in such a way that Suu Kyi (or any other civilian) must confirm her mandate every five years, while the privileged position of the military is written into the constitution. The logic of the system makes all elections to-be-or-not-to-be for civilian governments.

The fact that Suu Kyi’s NLD (National League for Democracy) would win was certain. Entrenched Buddhist models mean that leaders are expected to be good. Even with all her authoritarian sins, Suu Kyi is definitely more moral in the eyes of the people than all the generals put together. Moreover, Suu Kyi is the Lady of Burma – the mother of the nation who is looking after their home. During the pandemic, she has personally taught safety rules and has regularly provided invaluable recommendations to doctors, officials and teachers.

This does not work for the Yangon elites who are disappointed with her, but it does for the general public. The Burmese people have not forgotten the nightmare of the army’s dictatorship. The last thing they want is the generals’ return to power. As long as Suu Kyi functions as the guarantor that the army is kept out of everyday life, she will always win. Nevertheless, Suu Kyi’s had an uphill battle ahead. 75% of the seats were at stake; the army had the rest.

Unlike minority parties, the NLD and USDP have offices all over the country, running door-to-door campaigns. They dominate the traditional media and Facebook, so moving the campaign to the Internet is favourable for them. In some districts, there will be no elections due to guerrilla actions. But these are ethnic territories, not Burmese; there are no NLD voters there. If they don’t vote, all the better for Suu Kyi. In fact, her party is being accused of contributing to this situation.

For example, the Central Election Commission, staffed by NLD and former military personnel, decided to cancel the vote in over half of the Arakan state, due to the threat of guerrilla attacks. It was from Arakan that most of the Rohingya were banished, thus losing Suu Kyi’s support in the West. She is not well-liked in Arakan either, but for the opposite reason: the Arakan people think Suu Kyi… supports the Rohingya too much.

And then there’s the coronavirus. The pandemic had spared Burma initially but is currently wreaking serious havoc. The numbers of infections are breaking records daily (and with a small number of tests performed), Yangon has been locked down, and restrictions have been introduced in relation to transport and public gatherings. Hospitals are overcrowded, and the barely-existent health service is doing poorly.

The opposition were calling for the elections to be postponed, but Suu Kyi knew that she would win – as she in the end did – and did not trust the army (if the elections were to be postponed, the generals could have tried to seize power), so she pushed for the vote. The Burmese leader has been in politics long enough to realise that winners are not judged.

The author has published six books on Burma, including the recent (available in English) A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi. A Hybrid Politician.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.