Aung San Suu Kyi

The Mirror of a Nation

Marta Bernardi
Current events

In this period, the expectations towards the transition in Myanmar reach their apex: internal and external observators believe that the ideal condition for democratic conduction is accomplished. However, the expected accomplishments seem to be light-years away with very few achievements.

Personalities prized with at least a Nobel Prize are often guests of this magazine’s pages. Usually, they can be found in the philosophy and literature sections; this month one of them will be elaborated in the current events section: Aung San Suu Kyi. Winner of the Peace Nobel Prize in 1991, Suu Kyi is a Burmese politician, famous for being the face of the democratic transaction in Myanmar. To say that she is a somewhat controversial personality would mean to use that figure of speech known to all as ‘euphemism’. If on one hand she was acclaimed – as much in her home country as abroad – for a long time as the symbol of Myanmar’s democracy, she has received, on the other hand, many criticisms and discontent lately, especially concerning the Rohingya minority within Burmese borders. All this is in one of the most complex political and social contexts in the world – Myanmar – in constant change and evolution, where nothing can be given for granted, as shown by the military coup on February 1st, 2021.

After the umpteenth seize of power by the military – the Tatmadaw – Suu Kyi was deposed from her Counselor of State position and, subsequently, arrested. Last December 6th, after a trial considered by most as rigged, she was sentenced to 2 years of reclusion, for the crimes of sedition and violation of anti-Covid norms. After this first sentence, a second came, in January this year, four years of prison, always for violation of anti-Covid norms, this time sided with the accusation of illegal possession of walkie-talkies. 

It surely is not the first time that Suu Kyi is unjustly accused to justify her arrest – and sentences – to which she was subjected throughout the years. However, while at first, her condition caused great resentment and indignation, all though these feelings undoubtedly remain, it is noticeable how they are now accompanied by a slightly more hesitant and criticizing attitude, surely because of the conduction of the Rohingya minority issue by Suu Kyi’s administration. To understand the causes of these contrasting tendencies, some clarification on the nation as well as its history is needed.

The first thing to keep in mind when we are talking about Myanmar (as it was named in 1989, the country was before called Burma) is the necessity to think in a “triangularly”: an event does not have one sole cause, but multiple, with many intertwined interests. The second thing, Myanmar was under a military dictatorship for so long that the power of the élite leading the army is profoundly rooted in the country’s sociopolitical, historical, and economic tissue. Moreover, it is necessary to underline that even the democratic transition that started in the country in 2008 – the one that brought Suu Kyi to lead Myanmar – was the result of a “concession” by the higher spheres of the army, not of a process triggered by the people. There also are two matters to add. The first factor to keep in mind regarding a part of the country’s economy, specifically the criminal one. Myanmar, with Laos and Cambodia, forms the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’, a paradise for the cultivation of opium.  It is estimated that 80% of the opium coming from the southeast of Asia comes from Myanmar’s hills and that it is mostly refined into heroin.  To have a major slice of the drug market within its borders, when the country has one of the world’s lowest development rates, profoundly affects the internal situation. The second matter regards the country’s extremely variegated ethnical composition. This differentiation was easily manipulated ever since colonial times, resulting in a deeply divided country, with many secessionist and armed groups with which the government has been in conflict from day one. The ethnical diversification is to keep in mind not only for the presence of a great number of armed groups in the territory – that contribute to the political instability of the country and allows the excessive power of the Tatmadaw – but also because the treatment reserved to one of these minorities is what threw mud to the previously immaculate image of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi – daughter of the hero of Burmese independence, General Aung San – takes over the role of bastion of democracy and human rights after the 8/8/88 protests, when over a million people gather in Yangon to protest against the military regime and its nefarious economical politics. To contrast her growing influence and quiet an influent voice that pushes for democratization, the Burmese military élite confines her to house arrest many times throughout the years, she will be free only in 2010. With the general elections in 2015, Suu Kyi finally succeeds in entering the Burmese government, with the title of “state Counselor”, created ad hoc to overcome the impossibility of becoming president – which is constitutionally prohibited as she is married to a foreign citizen – de facto becoming leader of the government.

In this period, the expectations towards the transition in Myanmar reach their apex: internal and external observators believe that the ideal condition for democratic conduction is accomplished. However, the expected accomplishments seem to be light-years away with very few achievements. On the contrary, after the opening of the country, some truths that went quiet begin to filter , like the situation of the Rohingya Muslim minority. The Rohingya people have been treated for decades as strangers in Myanmar, being at the core of a narrative that identifies them as ‘dangerous’. The conception for which the Rohingya are considered as alien-enemies is now institutionalized and deeply intertwined with the Burmese intellectual and political élite. By now, it is considered as an ontological question of national security: the presence of Rohingya people as an enemy within its borders consolidates national stability as well as the stability of its Buddhist majority.  This also includes Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). As Kyaw Zeyar Win efficiently underlined, 

Targeting the Rohingya community as a security threat has become the ‘proper’ or ‘rational’ option for most of Myanmar’s political leaders and the public in general and there is a long road ahead to change this.

So, in all this, Suu Kyi’s civil and democratically elected government was not so different from the military ones that preceded it, showing a rather intact continuity with them.  Furthermore, there is a noticeable continuity in the influence of the military apparatus, although it has somehow returned to the pre-2008 situation, during the short civil government has not seen any reduction in its prerogatives. 

Because of this, when discussing Myanmar, one will refer to the phenomenon of resilient authoritarianism. The authoritarian government of military formation was able to create a system, thanks to decades during which it had complete control of the nation, where even after democratic concessions – for example, the multiple-party elections and the possibility of having a civil government lead by a symbol of democracy – their influence does not vacillate. Tatmadaw kept its political, social, and, above all, economic power. As we have seen, right when they wanted, they took back everything they previously allowed, as if they never abandoned their role as head of state. Effectively, considering their influence and presence within the nation, one could say they never really did.

[1] Ruzza, S., Gabusi, G., & Pellegrino, D. (2019). Authoritarian resilience through top-down transformation: Making sense of Myanmar’s incomplete transition. ItalianPolitical Science Review/Rivista Italiana Di Scienza Politica, 49(2), 193-209. doi:10.1017/ipo.2019.8

[2]  Kyaw Zeyar Win. (2017) Rohingya: gli eterni “altri” del Myanmar e la strumentalizzazione della sicurezza nazionale.

[3]  Gabusi, G. (2017). Continuità e cambiamento nel Myanmar di Aung San SuuKyi.

[4]  Human Right Watch. Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi Sentenced. First Verdict in Slew of Fabricated Charges.

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