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 prevent her from becoming President, but make it virtually impossible for her and her party to make any changes without the approval of the military.
Consequently, Suu has ruled her country for the past five years hiding in the shadow of the military regime. Her actions are restrained as she has a large imperative to keep the military regime appeased. This has led her to lose credibility, especially in the international sphere, as she has had to defend atrocities like that of the Rohingya genocide. Moreover, this pressure grows exponentially as the November 2020 elections approach and as she realizes that the only way to come victorious out of them is to maintain the military and her largest voter group pleased.
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) in 1988 to forge a path to democratization. Her partners were Aung Gyi and Tim Oo. 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”. She continued to affirm that if Myanmar “should 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.
In 1999, and only a couple of years after the creation of NLD (while most of the party’s leadership was still imprisoned), Myanmar underwent its first multi-party election in three decades, in which more than 90 parties and more than 2,200 candidates participated. Suu’s party won by a landslide. The regime’s appalling violent reprisals after the 8888 Uprising, the decades-long authoritarian behavior and the disastrous conditions of the country had mobilized more than 70% of registered voters and it had granted the National League for Democracy 392/492 seats in the House of Representatives. But the military junta rejected the results. Regardless of strong public opposition to the regime and even stronger international support for Suu, the military junta alleged that the elections were only meant to form a constitutional committee with which to craft a new constitution that would allow for proper parliamentary elections later on. Thus, it forced some of the elected representatives into exile, and established that the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) would remain in power until further notice.
After refusing to participate in the 2010 elections (due to the constitutional blockades the army had built against them) 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 she ran for in the Kawhmu region. Three years later, the NLD overcame the constitutional barriers and it was able to run in the general elections – it won 79.4% of elected seats. Special attention should be paid to “elected”; due to the current constitution, only 75% of the seats are dependent on elections, as the other 25% are handpicked by the military. Regardless, ever since the 2015 elections, the NLD has been the majority party with 255/440 seats in the House of Representatives and 135/224 in the House of Nationalities, and Suu has had the opportunity to demonstrate the type of leader she is. Due to the common threat that the military regime posed to the Burmese people, voter turnout in these elections arrived from the entire political, ethnic and demographic spectrum. Most ethnic minorities – except for the Rohingya, who are exempted from the right to vote- voted for Suu or for minority parties that announced their coalition with the NLD in the hopes of an equitable democratic transition.
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 army ensured this would not be modified, as -according to the 2008 reforms- the law 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 without the support of the military. These barriers seem to be constructed specifically to prevent Suu from obtaining power, as according to Article 59, the hypothetical President must not have a single family member that is a citizen of a foreign country. This automatically disqualified Suu from becoming the head of government, as her husband and children were of British nationality. Consequently, as her party obtained the majority of seats in the 2015 elections, the position of State Counselor was created for her to have essentially the same powers as that of a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system as the de facto head of government. Even though the military strongly opposed the move, the NLD was able to approve the bill that created the position in the Upper and Lower House due to their newly obtained majority. 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 know this. Thus, on March 10th of 2020, Suu proposed constitutional amendments, but this was quickly overturned by the military representatives, and it does not seem like they will give up their power any time soon. Unfortunately, this balance-of-power stalemate is preventing Myanmar’s democracy from maturing, and it is deteriorating the international reputation of the country and of its leader. In reality, it is difficult to properly evaluate how much of Myanmar’s governance is done purely by Suu or through hidden military intervention, but this lack of transparency only exacerbates the detrimental effect on Myanmar’s image.
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’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: she had pledged to fill her father’s shoes, to defend her country with her own life, and 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 her 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.
Myanmar will be one of the many countries to hold elections in the midst of a pandemic and its citizens will get a say in who will obtain the 1,171 national, state and regional contested seats. These general elections will also take place in the midst of serious economic and political crises for the country. The perception of Suu’s failure to improve Myanmar’s economy and her reluctance to stand up for minorities, or at least push for peaceful resolutions for the internal ethnic conflicts, will likely be reflected in the results. Regardless of the personality cult around her within Myanmar, she has lost almost all of her international support as she has turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Rohingya genocide and the atrocities of the army against other rebel groups. Thus, it is expected that she will 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, the transparency and fairness of these elections is questionable. As of now, the Union Election Commission does not allow parties to deliver speeches and explain policies on state-owned media unless it has been pre-approved by the commission itself, which has been selected by the current government. Moreover, the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, a non-partisan, non-government election observer, has been barred by the authorities for allegedly receiving assistance from international organizations. Finally, because the Rohingya people are still deprived of citizenship, they are not given the right to vote. This will perpetuate their silence and suffering, as the elected government will continue to ignore their pleas and needs by appealing to their “stateless” status.
The campaign for these elections began on the 8th of September of 2020, amidst a COVID-19 crisis that, at the time of writing, has only caused 226 deaths and approximately 10,700 cases according to the government. It is expected that given the strong idolatrization of Suu’s persona, she will obtain a majority in the ethnic Burman heartland. Nonetheless, for ethnic minorities and for the international sphere, Mother Suu has failed to represent the whole of its people and to fit the shoes of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.