When Aung San Suu Kyi decided to take an active role in her country’s politics, she created the National League of Democracy in the hopes that she could achieve a democratic transition that would save Myanmar from the military’s ineptitude. However, from the moment she set foot in politics, the military regime has gone out of its way to make her life impossible. Besides imprisoning her for decades, they have passed a constitutional reform that blocks Suu out of any true political dialogues. These constitutional barriers not only prevented her from becoming President, but made it virtually impossible for her and her party to make any changes without the approval of the military.
Consequently, Suu had to rule her country hiding in the shadow of the military regime. Her actions were always restrained by the imperative to keep the military regime appeased. This led her to lose credibility, especially in the international sphere, as she had to defend atrocities like that of the Rohingya genocide. This pressure grew exponentially with the November 2020 elections in which Suu Kyi had to maintain the support of both the military and her largest voter groups in order to come out victorious. Despite her best efforts as well as her success in winning the elections, the junta once again abruptly reversed the results and put an end to all that Suu Kyi had been trying to build.
National League for Democracy
When Suu witnessed the aggressions and injustices perpetrated by the military regime during the 8888 Uprising, she stepped up and co-founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) as a path to democratization. Her partners were Aung Gyi and Tim Oo, and together they advocated for constitutional reform and national reconciliation in times of severe military repression and extreme internal conflicts. The party, of generally center-left ideology, is also based on the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. Years after it was founded, when Suu was asked in 1996 to talk about the founding principle of NLD, she explained “it is metta. Rest assured that if we were to lose this metta, the whole democratic party would disintegrate.” In Burmese Buddhism, metta is one of the “Divine Abidings” that can be achieved through meditation, and it means benevolence; genuinely wishing the welfare of others.
A couple of years after the creation of NLD (and while most of the party’s leadership was imprisoned), Myanmar underwent its first multi-party election in three decades, and Suu’s party won by a landslide. The National League for Democracy obtained 392/492 seats in the House of Representatives, but the military junta rejected the results, forced some elected representatives into exile, and established that State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) would remain in power until further notice.
After refusing to participate in the 2010 elections and then re-registering for the campaigns, Suu’s party won 43/44 seats contested in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and Suu obtained the seat of the Kawhmu region which she ran for. Three years later, the NLD was able to run in the general elections, and it won 79.4% of elected seats. Special attention should be paid to the “elected” comment; due to the current constitution, only 75% of the seats are dependent on elections, and the other 25% are handpicked by the military. Nonetheless, after the 2015 elections, the NLD was the majority party with 255/440 seats in the House of Representatives and 135/224 in the House of Nationalities, and Suu Kyi had the opportunity to demonstrate the type of leader she was.
Constitutional Protection of the Army
Taking advantage of their absolute control, in 2008 the State and Peace Development Council (SPDC) announced a constitutional referendum in which citizens were supposedly given the option to accept certain constitutional reforms. The NLD and other opposition parties strongly opposed the changes discussed in the referendum, but as Suu’s party held no power at the time, the reform took place with a supposed turnout of 99%, an alleged 93.81% of voters accepted the reforms. It was done seven days after a devastating cyclone and without any international supervision, but the constitution that was “voted” in 2008, remains today. This set of rules grant unprecedented protection to the military regime, and prevent Suu and her party from making any significant changes in the Burmese system.
First and foremost, it automatically concedes 25% of the seats in the legislative branch to the military. This means that 110/440 MPs of the House of Representatives and 56/224 MPs of the House of Nationalities are nominated by the Commander in Chief. Moreover, the law -according to the 2008 reforms- requires more than 75% of the seats to make any amends in the constitution, making it virtually impossible for the governing party to actually make any changes. Finally, according to Article 59, the hypothetical President must not have a single family member that is a citizen of a foreign country. These barriers were constructed specifically to prevent Suu from obtaining power, as her husband and children were of British nationality. After Suu Kyi’s party obtained the majority in the 2015 elections, the position of State Counselor was created for her to have essentially the same powers as that of a President. As the State Counselor, she is also in charge of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the President’s Office Ministry.
Unfortunately, the constitutional blockade does not end there. The Commander in Chief of the Tatmadaw -as the army is known in Myanmar- is in charge of electing 5/11 members of the National Defense and Security Council (body that controls intelligence services, border guards and the police) which include the Minister of Defense, the Minister of Interior and the Minister of Border Security. Consequently, this ultimately grants the Commander in Chief direct control over the National Defense and Security Council, which also has the power to declare a state of emergency, and can thus take control of the legislative, executive and judiciary powers.
The Tatmadaw also has outstanding power over the country’s economy. It owns two enormous conglomerates in charge of national monopolies: Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation. These conglomerates control subsidiaries like Myawaddy Bank and Myawaddy Trading, which remain among some of the largest businesses in the country. According to an American diplomatic cable from 2009, these conglomerates are “key components of the elaborate system of patronage the army uses to maintain power.” And even though the military budget was reduced from 4.3% of the GDP in 2015 to 3.3% in 2017, it still manages to obtain external revenues and operate without supervision.
With all these sources of power and control, the army must make sure that no denunciations come to light, and thus, it has gone out of its way to repress its critics. Due to Myanmar’s numerous defamation laws, only in 2019 more than 250 people faced legal charges for speaking against the army, or the ethnic tensions, in the press or social media. Almost a third of these cases were taken to criminal court for defamation, which -in most Western states- is a civil offense, but in Myanmar it is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Finally, as Myanmar faced the threat of COVID-19 in early March, a new coronavirus committee with special extended powers was appointed, which gave even more power and control to the military. According to the UN, these new liberties are being used to carry “war crimes” and abuses to ethnic minorities in the Rakhine and Chin States.
This impossible system can only be improved if the constitution is reformed, and both the NLD and Suu Kyi knew this. Thus, on March 10th of 2020, Suu proposed constitutional amendments, but this was quickly overturned by the military representatives. Unfortunately, this balance-of-power not only prevented Myanmar’s democracy from maturing during Suu Kyi’s years in governance, but also it deteriorated her reputation abroad.
The Rohingya Crisis
In the past few years, the Rohingya crisis has become a prominent topic as the United Nations has classified them as the “most persecuted minority in the world.” Their discrimination and prosecution dates back to the 15th century. During the 1430s, Muslim settlers arrived to the Arkan State, a country independent from Myanmar until the Burmese empire conquered it in 1784. Decades later, the British empire colonized Myanmar, and during this time other Muslim groups entered as migrant workers, and the Muslim population in the region tripled in only 40 years. The Burmese people saw this as an incursion of illegal immigrants, and when Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act was passed to define which ethnicities could obtain Burmese citizenship. Given the general discontent with this ethnic minority, the Rohingya people were excluded from this opportunity.
This discrimination was reinforced after the 1962 military coup, as the Rohingya people were forced to carry a “foreign identity card” that ensured they would obtain limited job and education opportunities. In 1982, the Citizenship Law was passed, which officially denied them the possibility of becoming citizens. Ever since, the Rohingya have been stateless people; illegal immigrants who can’t access social services or education and who suffer constant abuses.
In 2017, after Rohingya militants attacked the Burmese border police as a response to the perpetual discrimination suffered by their people, and the army responded with an atrocious anti-Rohingya persecution campaign. This ongoing persecution has resulted in the destruction of numerous Rohingya villages, the assassination of thousands of its people, as well as gang rapes and tortures. Before this operation, an approximate 1 million Rohingya resided in the Rakhine State, and as of August 2018 more than 700,000 had fled to Bangladesh.
Knowing Suu Kyi’s history, the world expected her to react with outrage at the sight of these horrors. However, she has never recognized the Rohingya as one of the 135 ethnic groups in the country, and has actually blamed them for the internal violence that has ravaged the country. Suu struggles to control the military, but she hasn’t condemned their actions either. In fact, in 2019, when The Gambia filed allegations accused Myanmar of genocide to the ICJ on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, she shocked the world as she announced she would fly to The Hague to defend her government’s actions.
In January of 2020, the world observed as “The Lady” defended the same people that had imprisoned her for most of her life; as she stood up against those values she had fought for. Perhaps she acted out of political strategy in the hopes of gaining more national support in the November elections (considering that the Rohingya are banned from voting), or perhaps she made an agreement with the military in which she would defend them against the world in exchange for the so-desired constitutional reforms. Whatever her reasons were, one thing is clear: Suu Kyi had pledged to fill her father’s shoes, to defend her country with her own life. Having the international community accuse her beloved Myanmar, was an attack on her persona -“She is the personification of the country and she would be the one to defend it.” It is ironic to see how selective the metta principle has become in Suu Kyi’s and her party’s values.
The case may take years, but as of now, the 17 judges reached a unanimous consensus to impose “provisional measures’ to prevent any more harm to the Rohingya people. The court has also dictated that Myanmar is to protect this group from any violence, to preserve all evidence from the events, to cease the persecution and to report the measures taken in order to improve the situation. Nonetheless, the ICJ could not force Myanmar to accept UN investigators, as Russia and China vetoed the motion in the hopes of creating closer economic ties with Myanmar.
November 2020 Elections and the February 2021 Coup
Myanmar was one of the many countries to hold elections in the midst of a pandemic as, in November 2020 its citizens got a say in who would obtain the 1,171 national, state and regional contested seats. These general elections also took place in the midst of serious economic and political crises for the country. Suu Kyi’s failure to improve Myanmar’s economy and her reluctance to speak out for minorities, or at least push for peaceful resolutions for the internal ethnic conflicts, were expected to affect the results. Regardless of the personality cult that still existed around her within Myanmar, Suu Kyi had lost almost all of her international support after she turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Rohingya genocide and the atrocities of the army against rebel groups. Thus, it was expected that she would lose representation.
Based on the results of the 2015 elections, minority parties hold 11% of the seats in parliament, but back then, they faced internal divisions. Now, they have united as a response to the discontent of remaining in a highly centralized system that perpetually attacks and discriminates against them. These parties include the Kachin State Party, the Kayah State Democratic Party, the Karen National Democratic Party, and the Mon Party, but (besides the handpicked military representatives) the biggest contender will be the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, which was formed to replace the SLORC in 2010. However, there is not an opposition party strong enough to properly oust the NLD, and consequently, the November elections will leave the next government more fragmented and divided, and less prepared to face the military’s misconduct.
Moreover, compared to the 2015 elections, minority parties faced fewer internal divisions and had instead united as a response to the discontent of remaining in a system that perpetually discriminated against them. These parties were the Kachin State Party, the Kayah State Democratic Party, the Karen National Democratic Party and the Mon Party. In the November 2020 elections, more than 5,000 candidates from 87 different parties participated. Nonetheless, (besides the handpicked military representatives) the biggest contestant remained the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which was formed to replace the SLORC in 2010.
To the surprise of the international community and of the military, Suu Kyi came out of the polls stronger than ever in November, as the NLD secured 396 out of the 476 seats, while the USDP only won 24 seats; emphasizing that Suu Kyi barely faced any competition. It is important to note, however, that her victory was not achieved by mere political and social achievements, but by systematic restrictions. In fact, more than 1.5 million people (the Rohingya people) out of the 37 million electoral body were excluded from voting in the November 2020 elections due to Suu Kyi’s and the junta’s reluctance to grant them citizenship status. Moreover, during the electoral campaign Suu Kyi’s government (allegedly) actively oppressed opposition parties, including by shutting down their websites on the grounds of fake news.
Threatened by her landslide victory, General Hlaing and the army began discrediting the elections and claiming election fraud, despite the election commission saying the vote was fair. Due to the 2008 Constitution, the military has the constitutional right to declare a state of emergency and obtain absolute power over the executive, legislative and judicial branches. In February 2021 they carried out a coup d’état and arrested Suu Kyi, reinstating military rule. The military claimed that they would form a “true and disciplined” democracy and hold elections after the state of emergency is over. However, one year after the coup, the junta continues to use outright violence on any form of opposition, with no elections in sight.
As Suu Kyi was sentenced to 6 years in prison, and due to her age and deteriorating health, it is unlikely that she will return to the political scene. As of now, the main actor that is opposing the Tatmadaw is the National Unity Government (NUG), a group of ousted NLD politicians, activists, and representatives from several ethnic minority groups. After the coup, ousted politicians from the NLD created a Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is the parliament of Myanmar). They claimed the CRPH to be the legitimate legislative authority for Myanmar, opposing the government of the Tatmadaw.
In May 2021, the NUG also announced the formation of an armed wing, the “People’s Defense Force (PDF),” and in September it launched a defensive war and nation-wide revolution against the military junta. The NUG is seeking recognition from foreign governments and the population of Myanmar as the legitimate government, meanwhile asking for international support in the form of weapons to overthrow the dictatorship. Their approach, very much based on a violent offensive, is very different from Suu Kyi’s peaceful fight for democracy. Although it has gained a lot of momentum, the NUG still lacks a clear ideology, as well as a leader that can unite and inspire people like Aung San Suu Kyi was able to do.