The Asian Voice

Myanmar sliding into a mist of distrust under Suu Kyi: The Nation Columnist

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attending a meeting with the Nyang-U Department of Archaeology at Bagan museum on Jan 24, 2017.
Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attending a meeting with the Nyang-U Department of Archaeology at Bagan museum on Jan 24, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - When Aung San Suu Kyi's National League from Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the 2015 election, people were full of joy and had high hopes for change. But after taking a specially created position as State Counsellor (and Foreign Minister), many complained that Suu Kyi had sided with the army and shown a lack of cooperation with democratic forces and ethnic minorities.

This is having a negative impact on her goal of establishing a genuine federal union. Ethnic resistance groups and political parties, who were once her democratic allies, now increasingly see her as taking a road paved by the military to protect their own interests, not democratise. Suu Kyi's strategy to avoid confrontation with Myanmar's generals has made ethnic groups distrust her, and bitterness is growing.

In fact, the role that Suu Kyi needs to take is not to rule but to mediate between two forces, namely the army and ethnic resistance groups and democratic forces.

Disputes over land confiscated by the military, government ministries and cronies during decades of military rule remain unsolved. Foreign investment is sliding, while unjust rules and regulations remain intact and corrupt military-appointed judges refuse to bail applications for activists who protest against them. The price of staple goods is rising, while the kyat has fallen.

One NLD MP, Sanda Min, said if MPs want to question ministries about topics of concern, they have to submit questions three weeks in advance. But they did not get proper answers. Inexperienced ministers and MPs are sitting at desks and don't know what to do. They fear making mistakes and being blamed by their leaders. So, little was achieved in the government's first 100 days.

Constitutionally banned from choosing Suu Kyi as the new president, NLD general-secretary U Win Htein said: "We have to choose a puppet president, he or she will play as we wish." Meanwhile Suu Kyi vowed, "I will be above the president". But those blunt remarks downgraded the status of U Htin Kyaw, when he was nominated as Myanmar's first fully democratic president.

It seems the ruling party's leaders did not think deeply before commenting, behaving as though they had been forced to accept a president chosen by the military.

After winning the election, Suu Kyi announced "the woodchoppers' time is over, now it is time for sculptors".

Die-hard political fighters had to hand the task of rebuilding the country to educated people such as academics, engineers and doctors. The voters heeded Suu Kyi's words: "Do not look on the person, only look for the party and vote." But after months in power, the "sculptors" have failed to improve the status quo.

With fresh by-elections near, NLD chief Win Htein admitted, "We chose educated people but they lack political experience and do not know what to do. So this time we will choose people with deeper political experience, no matter if they are high school graduates or not."

Suu Kyi's vision of "sculptors" is not working and the party has to use its strength, the "woodchoppers", again. That kind of inconsistency by the party's leadership has shown the NLD has no idea how to choose the right people.

Among those sidelined are veteran student activists from the 88 Generation. They joined the NLD before the election but were shocked when all but one of their applications to run for office were rejected.

Feeling betrayed by the NLD, they decided to form their own party for the 2020 election. So, the democratic opposition has started to split.

Suu Kyi has also praised army personnel who participated in offensives against armed resistance groups as brave soldiers making sacrifices for their country. That remark angered ethnic rebel groups, who accuse her of siding with the army and ignoring their suffering.

Suu Kyi's goal for a federal union is fading and it is proving more difficult than in the past to unite the armed ethnic nationalities, as seen in the early rounds of the so-called 21st Century Panglong Conference.

Groups that signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) are questioning the government's good faith after several of their members were detained.

Army Chief General Min Aung Hlaing has pledged that if an agreement is reached resulting in peace, then the army will withdraw from politics. But the army's offensives against armed resistance groups have been so intense that a peace agreement seems to be slipping away by the day. While Suu Kyi may want peace, the army does not appear to want to withdraw from politics.

The army propaganda is that it is fighting insurgents to establish peace. But after its 60 years of misrule that ruined the country morally and physically, the army has a terrible reputation. The military still controls the Defence, Interior and Border Affairs ministries, while unelected army officers hold a quarter of the seats in parliament and can thus veto any proposed change to the 2008 military-drafted constitution.

On Jan 15 in Mandalay, pro-military demonstrators attacked a man holding a "Stop the War" banner. Police then detained the man and a reporter who was taking photographs, but those who assaulted him went unpunished. That episode is symptomatic of the justice system today. Police come under the military-controlled Interior ministry. Every officer knows they have to take action against anyone who acts against military interests. Suu Kyi cannot do anything about it - she is only State Counsellor. She does not have the power to rein in the army.

Suu Kyi seems over-confident after winning the majority of votes and believing that her party has moral authority. Meanwhile, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association party (USDA) is supporting rallies against ethnic armed groups and endorsing offensives against any resistance. The USDA is the strongest opposition party for the NLD and is controlled by retired military officers.

Conflict between Muslims and Buddhists looks to have been initiated by an unknown group that has attacked Muslim communities in various towns and cities. Observers see this as a campaign of psychological warfare against the NLD and a way to promote the USDA and army as true nationalist entities. Suu Kyi understands this, which is why she declined to choose any Muslims to sit as NLD members of parliament. She knows that the entrenched group who once enjoyed power is still too strong and cunning.

The crucial question is, can Suu Kyi now overcome all these difficulties and unite democratic forces and ethnic resistance groups?