Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi: The Image And The Reality

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 9, 2016

It has come as a shock to Aung San Suu Kyi’s international groupies and fans that the Burmese freedom icon is not the ethereal Princess in the Tower of their imaginations.

Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013 By Claude TRUONG-NGOC via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013 By Claude TRUONG-NGOC via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Instead of the pure visionary of a silken and untainted transition from nearly 60 years of military rule to the sunny uplands of inclusive democracy, Suu Kyi is proving herself an assertive and determined knife fighter in the merciless cut and thrust of Burmese politics.

Suu Kyi’s response to two events in particular have troubled many of her international fans and have spawn headlines like: “Aung San Suu Kyi: Colluding With Tyranny.”

One event has been her failure to conclusively damn the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in north-western Burma, which is also known as Myanmar. The military regime followed the feelings of the country’s majority Buddhist Burmans, and refused to give citizenship to the Rohingya, even though many have lived in Burma for several generations.

Suu Kyi has been purposefully vague about whom she regards as citizens and has been largely silent on attempts at ethnic cleansing, which has seen thousands of Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh or by sea to predominantly Muslim Malaysia.

It has been unsettling for Suu Kyi’s international supporters, to whom she owes her Nobel Peace Prize and the sanctions that eventually persuaded the generals to embark on a transition to democracy, to contemplate that she might harbour racial and religious intolerance.

Equally troubling for foreign fans is what looks like Suu Kyi’s lust for power. Part of her appeal was that she appeared to be driven entirely by an innate sense of morality and natural justice. It seemed a fairy tale of chance that this very beautiful and appealing Oxford housewife – her husband Michael Aris was a professor of Tibetan and Himalayan studies at the British university – became the leader of the Burmese democracy movement and a prisoner of the military regime.

That was always a misreading of Suu Kyi, her steely toughness and blood loyalty to the visions of her assassinated father, Aung San, Burma’s first leader after independence from Britain in 1948.

Because of her marriage to a foreigner – Aris – and her two British sons, Suu Kyi was banned from assuming the presidency under Burma’s current constitution. But from soon after last November’s first reasonably free elections, when her National League for Democracy (NLD) won 59 per cent of the seats across the two houses of parliament, Suu Kyi made it clear she intended, President or not, to run the government of the country.

Migrants collect rainwater at a temporary refugee camp near Kanyin Chaung jetty, in Myanmar June 4, 2015. Soe Zeya Tun: This group of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued from a boat carrying 734 people off Myanmar's southern coast. Those on board had been at sea for more than two months - at the end with little food or water. The men in this photo were part of a group of 400 crammed into a warehouse by Myanmar police. They had arrived the day before, but while the women, children and some men had already been moved, these men were left behind. There was no sign of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR or foreign aid agencies. Just moments before this shot, the sky opened and the monsoon rains started coming down. The men were jostling with each other for space to catch water in their bottles and plates. The authorities were hesitant to grant us access at first, but as the morning wore on and the rains started, we were able to enter and start photographing and speaking to migrants. Just after taking this photo, the men were loaded into buses and trucks and driven to a camp where international aid agencies were waiting. I have worked on long and difficult assignments where I have gone days without a proper shower. But for these people it had been months without enough water. Everyone was dirty and had likely washed little while at sea. I could see just how meaningful it was for them to suddenly have a chance to drink and clean themselves with whatever small amount of water they could capture. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Reuters’ 2015 Photos of the Year —  Migrants collect rainwater at a temporary refugee camp near Kanyin Chaung jetty, in Myanmar June 4, 2015. Soe Zeya Tun: This group of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued from a boat carrying 734 people off Myanmar’s southern coast. Those on board had been at sea for more than two months – at the end with little food or water. The men in this photo were part of a group of 400 crammed into a warehouse by Myanmar police. They had arrived the day before, but while the women, children and some men had already been moved, these men were left behind. There was no sign of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR or foreign aid agencies. Just moments before this shot, the sky opened and the monsoon rains started coming down. The men were jostling with each other for space to catch water in their bottles and plates. The authorities were hesitant to grant us access at first, but as the morning wore on and the rains started, we were able to enter and start photographing and speaking to migrants. Just after taking this photo, the men were loaded into buses and trucks and driven to a camp where international aid agencies were waiting. I have worked on long and difficult assignments where I have gone days without a proper shower. But for these people it had been months without enough water. Everyone was dirty and had likely washed little while at sea. I could see just how meaningful it was for them to suddenly have a chance to drink and clean themselves with whatever small amount of water they could capture. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

That left a bad taste in the mouth of many of her fans. Did this paragon of political virtue actually lust for power? Well, yes, and for good reasons.

And so it has come to pass. On March 15, Suu Kyi’s handpicked surrogate, Htin Kyaw, a long-time close supporter and loyalist, was made president with a clear majority of votes in both houses of parliament. On April 1 the new government came into office and on Tuesday this week a bill was passed creating the position of “State Counsellor” for Suu Kyi.

The most charitable interpretation of this position is that it is akin to a Prime Minister. The reality is the position allows Suu Kyi to be the effective President and to speak with Htin Kyaw’s voice.

Adding to the perception that Suu Kyi wishes to be mistress of all she surveys was her assumption of three ministerial position in addition to that of State Counsellor. But earlier this week she gave up the posts of Minister of Energy and Minister of Education. She retained only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That, of course, allows her to be the international face of Burma, despite not being President. This week she met a string of visiting foreign ministers, including Canada’s Stephane Dion.

One of the justifications for Suu Kyi operating through a puppet president is that the vast majority of Burmese undoubtedly want her to be their country’s political leader. That she is not points to the tough, complex and dangerous campaign she and the NLD must wage if Burma’s transition to a full civilian democracy is to be achieved.

The danger here is that by end running the constitution with the creation of the post of State Counsellor, she and the NLD have fashioned a precedent that may come back to haunt them. For one thing, constitutional sleight-of-hand tricks like this tend to make foreign investors nervous.

Beyond that, the truth is that at the moment Burma remains a country where the military still has its hands on the critical levers of power. The generals can close down this experiment with civilian rule any time they please or feel threatened.

Some of the military’s power remains overt. Twenty-five per cent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military. As the current constitution requires a parliamentary vote of over 75 per cent to approve changes, the military has a veto, including on Article 59 (f), which bars Suu Kyi from being President.

The military is also guaranteed a third of the seats in provincial and regional legislatures.

The constitution requires that only serving military officers can lead the three most powerful national ministries — Defence, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs — and prevents legislative scrutiny of the military’s budget.

In addition, the National Defence and Security Council, which includes the civilian President, vice presidents and speakers of the two house of parliament, but which is dominated by the military and its ministries, can declare a state of emergency and re-impose military rule.

Less obvious as international sanctions are lifted and Burma returns to the world of global commerce, is how much of the country’s economy is now in the hands of military leaders. Over the decades of military rule the generals and their senior officers have taken control of all elements of the economy. Even though civilian private enterprises and foreign enterprises have sprung up since the military began the transition with the appointment of a “civilian” government – in reality military officers in civilian clothes – in 2011, the key elements of the economy remain in military hands.

A critical element in the progress of the transition will be whether Suu Kyi and the NLD can make the generals feel confident that she does not intend to rob them of their ill-gotten wealth or hold them to legal account for their past atrocities.

There are many in the NLD who suffered greatly under military rule. They nurse the very human thirst for revenge after years of imprisonment, mistreatment and torture or the abuse and killings of family members. Suu Kyi and other senior members of the NLD know full well that nothing will shut down Burma’s tentative steps along the path to civilian democracy more quickly than thrusts for retribution from the party or the people.

It is a very skittish horse she is riding. It can be easily spooked. She needs firm and sensitive hands on the reins and a watchful eye on the pitfalls in the road ahead.

Of one thing there is no doubt. She is her father’s daughter.

Suu Kyi went to Burma from Britain in 1988 to care for her elderly mother. She was swiftly caught up in politics and was soon appointed leader of the NLD at a time when the military was contemplating holding elections, which it believed its candidates could win. But the generals feared the ghost of Aung San, and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest before the 1990 election. Much to the military’s disgust and alarm, the NLD won 80 per cent of the seats in parliament. The generals swiftly disavowed the entire process.

I was one of the first foreign reporters to interview her in the crumbling family villa at 54 University Avenue in Yangon when her house arrest was lifted and she was permitted to have visitors in 1995. We met in her large living room, shaded from the tropical sun and torpid air. There was no furniture – we sat on a built-in bench in a bow window. Suu Kyi said she had had to sell all the furniture except essentials to buy food during her more than five years of confinement.

Yet on the wall opposite where we sat was a massive poster painting, perhaps 10 feet square, of her father, Aung San. There could not have been a more unquestionable statement of what had inspired her to set aside her comfortable life as the wife of an Oxford don and to separate herself from her husband and young children.

General Aung San started his political life in the 1930s as a student activist and founder of the Burmese Communist Party. Early in the Second World War he fled Burma and went to Japan, where he received military training. When the Japanese captured Burma, Aung San was made War Minister. However, he became disillusioned with the Japanese, whose promises to give Burma true independence or ability to win the war he began to doubt. In 1944 he contacted the British, and after receiving assurances that Burma would receive independence after the war, in 1945 he turned his Burma National Army on the Japanese occupiers.

Thus Aung San is seen as the founder of the Burmese military and he continues to be held in reverence by the generals, which has undoubtedly held their hand in their dealings with Suu Kyi.

After the war, Aung San became a civilian politician, the chief minister in the colonial administration, and negotiated with the British the terms of the 1948 independence. But on July 19, 1947, six months ahead of independence, armed paramilitaries loyal to a political rival, broke into the government offices, and killed Aung San and six of his ministers.

With Aung San gone, Burma stumbled into independence. The military took over in 1962 and are still a fixture in government.

It has often been said that the English have set up federations all over the world, but have never actually had to run one. Well, the Scots, Irish and Welsh might have comments to make about that. But it is certainly true that the Union of Burma is one of the most challenging mish-mashes of peoples, cultures and religions the British put together anywhere. Although 68 per cent of the country’s 52 million people are ethnic Burmans, there are 135 distinct ethnic groups recognized by the government.

For much of the last half century of military rule the army has been at war with many of them, especially the hill tribes in Burma’s mountainous border regions with Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh. The Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Wa and Mon have fought with dogged determination for the autonomy they were promised at the founding of the Union of Burma.

A camp near Sittwe can only be accessed by sea with boats transporting supplies . Photo: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, Rakhine State, Myanmar/Burma, September 2013

Myanmar’s abuses yield ready supply of slaves —  A camp near Sittwe can only be accessed by sea with boats transporting supplies . Photo: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, Rakhine State, Myanmar/Burma, September 2013

In recent years the military regime has negotiated cease-fire agreements with most of these armed groups, usually by making them paid paramilitary adjuncts to the national army. But in almost all cases, the peace agreements remain tentative and there is abiding hope among the minorities that Suu Kyi and the NLD will bring them the substantial self-rule they were promised.

Suu Kyi has always said a political solution for the aspirations of the minorities is a priority. However, she does not control internal security and the military continues to dominate provincial and regional administrations. The generals have their own views on the sanctity of Burmese nationhood, and they don’t include handing substantial autonomy to the hill tribes. Suu Kyi needs to make significant progress in the transition at the national level before her or any civilian government can effectively come to grips with the problems of the ethnic minorities.

And that brings us to the Rohingya and Suu Kyi’s refusal to categorically condemn the persistent violence against them by both the security agencies and local Buddhists.

For over 50 years – more than two generations – Burma has been a closed society whose main economy has been peasant agriculture. Schooling has been minimal. Forced labour akin to slavery for road and other construction projects has been habitually used by the military. Burma has always been a superstitious society where unfounded suspicions easily grow. With all forms of open communication blocked or censored, inflammatory and exaggerated rumour has been the fuel of public discourse. In this destructive communal climate, fear and mistrust of the ethnic minorities, especially the Muslim Rohingya, has become embedded among the majority Burmans. It is widely believed that the Muslims, who make up four per cent of the population, are bent on turning Burma into an Islamic state. Suu Kyi’s stature and personality alone are not enough to overcome or sweep aside these ingrained prejudices.

By keeping silent on the persecution of the Rohingya, Suu Kyi is trying to be seen as remaining impartial so that both sides respect her when the time is ripe for negotiations.

It is the same kind of role Suu Kyi is trying to play in the big game of getting the military to relinquish power. It is a part that requires strong nerves, but above all a superhuman capacity to know how far to push without knocking the whole project off the rails.

So far, she has played her hand superbly. Her father would be proud.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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