Speaking Of Asia

Aung San Suu Kyi's heavy burden

One year on, it looks like Myanmar's leader made a mistake going for political settlement before settling the economy.

Writing in these pages a year ago I took note of the remarkable double transition - political and economic - that was unfolding in Myanmar as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) prepared to take office after its landslide victory the previous November. Few nations have tried to do so much all at once and there was no question that the road ahead was going to be a difficult one. The old order was clearly having difficulty letting go, even as it ran smack into a new regime eager for change and tasting power after long years of struggle.

Twelve months on, it is clear that this has been no easy task, and the results a mite mixed, if not messy.

Undeniably, the charisma, and halo, of The Lady, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is called, is substantially secure in the domestic space. Equally, her lack of experience, dearth of administrative talent within her circle and a lofty sense of destiny associated with her family's role in Myanmar's modern history are also proving to be a problem.

The economy, once thought to be the next Asian Tiger, has slowed. Meanwhile, her government's thin-skinned nature as it confronts legitimate criticism has come as a surprise to those who admired Ms Suu Kyi for resolutely standing up for freedom of speech and human rights during her days in Opposition.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The inability to speak up for Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya minority, particularly, has dulled her lustre internationally. A foreign minister from the Indo-Pacific region who's had several meetings with her over the year past says Ms Suu Kyi seems unable to rise above her majoritarian Burman-Buddhist instincts when it comes to the Rohingya, who are Muslims.

 

Is this sentiment of betrayal a valid one? Yes, and no.

Part of the problem of the cult of Suu Kyi is that the world, particularly Western media, had built her up to be something she is not. Now that she's been elevated to her current heights - "above the President" - as she famously promised, they want to see her perform to their playbook.

Unfortunately, that is the last thing the strong-willed Lady will do. This is a woman who has her own ideas. True, she has her limitations, and they are severe but Ms Suu Kyi has a sense of destiny as the daughter of General Aung San, as well as a vision for Myanmar. She will not be rushed.

But it would have at least been wise to make haste slowly. One obvious mistake she has made was to prioritise a political settlement with the nation's restive minority groups over reforming the economy. Last September, her government met 17 of the 20 major ethnic groups in an effort to seek a lasting peace from the ethnic conflicts that wrack Myanmar. It was the first time since the Panglong Conference of 1947 put together by her father that an event of this scale had been organised.

Gen Aung San's fence-mending laid the ground for the unified Myanmar of today although the deal soon fell apart leading to the military intervention in 1962, which would continue for decades.

Unfortunately, his daughter's efforts at reviving what she called the "Panglong spirit" proved unsuccessful. The war with Kachin separatists continues unabated. Thousands have been displaced from their homes. Many more have fled into China, which takes a keen interest in Myanmar's ethnic issues and is said to be in close contact with several of the groups, some of which actually demanded a Chinese official presence at the talks table. In the last four months, fighting between the Myanmar armed forces and the Northern Alliance, a coalition of four rebel groups, has been especially fierce in Shan state.

DASHED HOPES FOR THE ECONOMY

In hindsight, some observers believe, tackling the economy first would have been the easier option and one where she could have shown quicker results. In the year past, the economy has performed poorly. Blessed with nature's bounties more than any other South-east Asian country, Indonesia included, the nation of 54 million, despite its years of isolation, is in a far better state than, for instance, several states in the Indian sub-continent. There was hope that this country, which once supplied doctors and teachers around South-east Asia, could be the next Vietnam at the very least.

That doesn't look like it will happen any time soon. Foreign investment is slowing and there is little chance that Myanmar will match the US$9.4 billion FDI flow it received in the year through March 2016. Exports are slowing too, largely on account of falling prices of natural gas even as the country shipped less of the commodity.

The World Bank earlier projected Myanmar could expand at a 7 per cent clip through 2019. Now, that number looks uncertain. Much of the boom is in the real estate sector around Yangon as well as the telecommunications sector, whose penetration has been impressive as a result. Consumer goods companies are also eyeing the lucrative market.

VICTORIES AGAINST THE ODDS

To be sure, Ms Suu Kyi has not been without her victories, even as she is playing against a stacked deck. According to the current military-drafted Constitution, the armed forces appoint not only the defence, home and border affairs ministers but also a quarter of both national and state legislative bodies. That ties her hands substantially.

The forces also look upon her with deep wariness. Shortly before she took power, the military extended the service tenures of the top general and his deputy by five years, essentially to deny Ms Suu Kyi a say in the issue. Likewise, departing President Thein Sein's government decided to give China's Citic Corp the contract to build the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine state after sitting on the files for a year and a half. By doing so, less than two years after cancelling the Myitsone Dam project with China, the military sought to press on Ms Suu Kyi a fait accompli on another tricky project with strategic ramifications.

Ms Suu Kyi has navigated these sinkholes fairly adroitly, executing a master stroke by having herself appointed State Counsellor, insisting on an independent foreign policy and by not pushing up too hard against the military - the reason, perhaps, why she is so reticent on the Rohingya issue.

Likewise, she has successfully kept the hardline Buddhist fringe at bay. These achievements cannot be overlooked. For its part, the military is surely aware that the Myanmar people do not wish to see a return of its regime. More will be known of her current standing with the public in the by-elections for 19 seats being held tomorrow.

One issue she needs to tackle is building a second line of leadership in her government and NLD. A complaint heard across the board is that her rule is heavily centralised in her person, leading to near paralysis in decision-making that is vexing investors and all who take an interest in Myanmar. Perhaps it is time to groom some of the younger crop. Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein has gained respect as an administrator. Mandalay Region Chief Minister Zaw Myint Maung  also is well-regarded.

This then is the situation the Lady is caught in. At the back of her mind, no doubt, is the man whose name she carries: her father, Gen Aung San, Burma's unifying hero who negotiated his nation's independence from Britain and was assassinated that year, a few days after her second birthday. She sometimes refers to the military as "my father's army".

Myanmar, in some ways, is the father she has never known. Living far away from her Oxford-based husband Michael Aris (who died in 1999), and from her sons, Ms Suu Kyi is bereft of the companionship, close kinship associations and trusted inner circle that would help her discuss her troubles threadbare with people she trusts absolutely. It is a heavy burden.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2017, with the headline 'Suu Kyi's heavy burden'. Print Edition | Subscribe