Myanmar coup: Suu Kyi's deft ability to sidestep traps proved her undoing

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, seen here with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in 2015.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Had Aung San Suu Kyi taken her cues from Nelson Mandela, Myanmar's decade-long experiment in democracy may have turned out differently.

Things could also have gone another way, had the nation's power military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, taken his own lead from General Douglas MacArthur and "just faded away" - to quote the famous American soldier - at the end of his military career.

Mr Mandela chose to serve a single five-year term as South Africa's president. He then left the presidency of the nation and of the African National Congress party to serve as an elder statesman until his death 14 years later.

That he chose to leave at the apex of his power and popularity is emblematic of that great icon of struggle, who spent 27 years in prison.

This is almost twice as many years as Ms Suu Kyi spent under house arrest.

Mr Mandela was given a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, two years after Ms Suu Kyi was awarded hers.

Ms Suu Kyi, recognised worldwide for her own struggle, was perhaps never quite of the same mould. Coming into office in March 2016 as an icon of democracy and high principle, she took to the roles of foreign minister and State Counsellor like a fish to water. The generals who ran Myanmar for most of its post-independence history, remained all powerful but moved backstage grudgingly.

In my March 11, 2016 column "The traps that await The Lady", I explicitly detailed the tripwires the receding military was laying for Ms Suu Kyi.

The most obvious one was the decision to extend the service tenures of top general Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy by five years. The extensions were ordered before the transition because the generals did not want to give her a say in the matter. The Thein Sein government's abrupt decision to give China's Citic corporation the contract to build the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was made too before Ms Suu Kyi's accession.

The contract was sitting unsigned on the files for 18 months; it could have sat there a couple more. But by handing the Kyaukpyu SEZ to China less than two years after cancelling the Myitsone Dam project with the Chinese, Ms Suu Kyi was presented with a fait accompli on a strategically significant project.

"Make no mistake, there is little love lost between the military and the nationally popular Ms Suu Kyi. Many such traps lie ahead for her and it will take all her dexterity to escape falling into one, particularly as she works to find a lasting peace with the ethnic insurgencies that wrack Myanmar," I wrote then.

Sure enough, the long-running Rohingya issue blew up the following year, after insurgents in the Rakhine State killed a dozen security officers. The disproportionate response by the Myanmar military would cause an exodus of Muslim Rohingyas, chiefly to Bangladesh.

Trapped in the instincts of the Bamar, Myanmar's largest ethnic group, and the need to give political cover to her military, Ms Suu Kyi failed to condemn the atrocities. As a result, she lost sheen internationally to the delight of the top brass. An Australian foreign minister told me that when the Rohingya issue was raised with her, "an iron veil seemed to drop in front of Suu Kyi's face". With those she trusted, such as fellow Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos Horta of Timor Leste, she was a bit more forthcoming about her vulnerabilities but the world would not know that.

And yet in 2019, she went before the International Court of Justice at The Hague to robustly defend the Tatmadaw against genocide charges in the Rakhine State. An "internal armed conflict", she said, was the real reason for the "displacement" of the Rohingya.

Her position stunned her admirers but played to the majoritarian instincts of the predominantly Buddhist nation. Her popularity soared at home, as she was perceived to be standing up to the West - a defender of not just the people but also the armed forces. Her home base was expanded in a way the military could not have foreseen.

To her critics - and there are a good number of civilians who agree - Ms Suu Kyi increasingly acted as though to the manor born. She was a teenager when her widowed mother, Daw Khin Kyi, was her nation's ambassador to India, with Pandit Nehru allotting them a huge bungalow in New Delhi's Akbar Road, which currently serves as the national headquarters of the Indian National Congress party.

Growing up in the company of Nehru's grandsons, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, whose own mother Indira Gandhi ruled India, she had the same sense of entitlement and destiny about Myanmar as the Nehru-Gandhis had about India.

Still, as the daughter of her nation's founding father and former army chief, Ms Suu Kyi was careful to not tread on military sensitivities - especially where its corporate interests were involved. Her ability to sidestep the traps laid for her unnerved the brass who probably saw it as presaging an ability to garner more personal power and securing a longer stint in office than they wished to see.

The military-written 2008 Constitution explicitly bars anyone with a foreign spouse or offspring from holding the presidency; Ms Suu Kyi's sons are British, as was their late father.

Perhaps Ms Suu Kyi actually harboured hopes of overturning the current law, a key election promise by her National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 polls.

Or maybe she just knew it was an issue that was popular with voters and had to be kept live.

In March 2016, when her handpicked ally Htin Kyaw was sworn in as the nation's first civilian president in 50 years, he vowed that he had "a duty to amend this Constitution so that it becomes a Constitution that suits our country and matches democratic values".

Visiting Singapore in 2018, Ms Suu Kyi reiterated that sentiment, saying the amendment was "one of the goals of our government... democratic transition must necessarily involve the completion of a truly democratic Constitution".

In early 2019, as the NLD looked ahead to the 2020 national poll, it submitted an emergency motion to Parliament aiming to set up a constitutional amendment committee. The military might have thought this an attempt to outflank it and while it had the means to prevent the amendment from passing, it would nevertheless be embarrassing to be seen resisting the people's will. After the Speaker of the Parliament dismissed objections to the emergency motion, military representatives boycotted the vote.

Soldiers standing guard on a blockaded road to Myanmar’s Parliament in Naypyitaw on Feb 1, after the military detained Ms Aung San Suu Kyi and others in her party. PHOTO: AFP

The November polls gave Ms Suu Kyi a landslide victory. Of the 476 seats in Parliament that are not blocked for military appointees, the NLD won 396, well above the 322 needed to secure a majority. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won just 33 seats.

Accusations of electoral fraud were immediately raised. If Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing had dreamed of using the seats reserved for the military to add to USDP numbers and thus form a government himself, these hopes were wrecked.

Negotiations with Ms Suu Kyi to solve this impasse appear to have gone on until the last minute but it seems she would not yield. And so the coup came, hours before the new Parliament was to convene, consolidating democracy.

What happens next is anybody's guess. Since the last great democratic upsurge, mobile telephony has proliferated. Myanmar's jails are not short of space and no one wants to be denied the use of his smartphone for too long; the median age in the country is just 29.

Protests in the form of banging pots and pans and giving three-finger democracy salutes have been reported; but who wants to be in prison when Covid-19 rages?

In 2013, I was in the room when Ms Suu Kyi, speaking at the World Economic Forum's annual East Asia meeting in Naypyitaw, electrified the world by saying: "I want to run for president and I am quite frank about it".

Somehow, this seems less likely today than it did at the time.