Why Suu Kyi does not measure up as a true Asian leader

Aung San Suu Kyi’s shortcomings as a leader mean she will never be one of ASEAN’s great nation-makers.

By Oliver Ward

Aung San Suu Kyi made some bold promises about Myanmar’s future on her last visit to Singapore. She was seeking increased economic ties and business opportunities between the two countries and met with influential business people. Suu Kyi ambitiously announced to them that, “in 20 years’ time, Myanmar will have overtaken Singapore” economically.

A strong government provides the springboard for economic development

Her words echo Lee Kuan Yew in 1965, when he said that Singapore would overtake Burma as the dominant economy in the region. Singapore had just gained independence and Lee saw Burma as the powerhouse economy he wanted Singapore to become.

Lee’s vision for Singapore made it the economic success story it is today. Years of military rule and ongoing mismanagement of resources has dramatically reversed the situation for Myanmar.

There were no established industries in the mid-1960s, and Lee recognised that overseas money would accelerate the availability of jobs and opportunities. This pragmatic openness allowed Singapore to prosper independently from British rule.

Myanmar is in a similar position. It returned to democracy in 2015 and needs to bring in capital and expertise to hit its growth targets. Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationship with the west is both a strength and weakness in achieving this.

She relies on British and American support to maintain her power base. Democratic institutions which voice support for Suu Kyi, like the New Era Journal, the Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma radio station, all receive funding from the U.S State Department.

Source: World Bank

The funding is not a new phenomenon. From 2011 to 2016, the UK government donated £291 million (US$357 million) to aid the Burmese transition to democracy. A report from the UK revealed that the British government had been financing democracy groups and disseminated pro-Suu Kyi information across the country since the early 2000s.

This subversive foreign activity helped drum up the wave of support that swept Suu Kyi to her election victory. A leader so indebted to Western governments will surely allow foreign interests to enter Myanmar and undermine their independence.

A strong hand is needed to build a successful policy platform

Mahathir Mohamad, the former leader of Malaysia, fiercely removed his political opponents and tightly managed his party. He was strong in the face of dissent. When he almost lost the leadership contest in 1987, he excluded opponents altogether and formed a new political grouping.

In contrast, Suu Kyi has struggled to create a robust government. Her cabinet is a mixture of youthful inexperience and ageing idealists. She is still deeply involved in a power struggle with the military which controls key posts like the home and defence ministries. Officials from the army also control 25% of parliamentary seats and the bulk of Myanmar’s civil service.

Suu Kyi vowed to amend the constitution to create a more democratic government. She has made little progress. The powerful military faction in parliament has ensured that any attempt to change the status quo has been rejected. This is devastating to Myanmar’s prospects. There is no platform from which to build economic prosperity without strong leadership.

Economic planning in Myanmar is weak

The country’s 2016 economic growth is forecast to reach 8.4% for the financial year ending March 2017. However, out in the countryside only 15% of people have access to electricity, and 92% of homes still cook with firewood.

In 1976 China was in a similar situation. Mao Zedong needed to rebuild his faltering economy and recalled Deng Xiaoping from house arrest. Deng set about opening China to the global economy and completely revolutionised its economic strategy. His approach was to innovate and focus on manufacturing consumer goods.

Myanmar needs its own Deng. The government haemorrhages money as natural resources are smuggled into China or sold to line military pockets. Suu Kyi’s government is sorely lacking a dynamic pragmatist who can carve a new economic plan and confidently manage the growing economy.

Without organising a host of defector amnesties and enticing offers to get the military on board, Suu Kyi has no hope of realising Myanmar’s economic potential. A 12-page document outlining her economic plan was released last year. It featured points like, “increase financial resources” and, “make state-run businesses more successful”. There was no insight into how to achieve these policies when Myanmar suffers from a vast infrastructure deficit.

Aung San Suu Kyi needs to stand up and lead on her own terms

Promoting democracy and foreign investment cannot act as a substitute for substantial economic policy. Appealing to the western sense of democracy and good government does not put food in the population’s mouths and electricity in their homes.

Politicians like Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohamad and Deng Xiaoping have carved out their legacies as nation-builders. They drew up plans based on long-term visions and implemented them effectively. Aung San Suu Kyi is running the risk of constructing her own legacy of economic ineffectiveness, weak leadership and pandering to foreign values. She is unravelling her activist reputation and turning it into the legacy of a weak leader to a failing state.