Minorities matter: Aung San Suu Kyi’s painful lesson at the polls

Photo: Comune Parma/CC BY-SA 2.0

The National League for Democracy took half of the seats up for grabs at recent byelections, losing out to military and ethnic parties. It is a warning to Myanmar’s increasingly desperate Lady leader.

By Francesca Ross

“One year is not a long period,” said Myanmar’s de facto president Aung San Suu Kyi in an address to the nation ahead of byelections for 19 vacant seats in the country’s parliament.

It is long enough to ignite several conflicts and displace an estimated 160,000 people. It is long enough to see painfully slow progress on the economy. It is long enough to see that the Lady cannot live up to her early promise.

“We did what we can for the sake of our country and the people in one year,” Aung San Suu Kyi said. “We know that we were not able to make as much progress as people had wanted.” She is correct; human rights and personal freedoms have barely evolved since she took office in January 2016.

Voices are starting to emerge that say she is as ineffective in private as she appears to be in public. Officials from development agencies say they enjoy dealing with military generals more than Suu Kyi. They get more respect from them than from her.

Ethnic parties emerged as a contender for electoral support

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) took nine of the available seats in a vote which saw low numbers of people bother to vote. The military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won two seats and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) added six seats to their tally.

The wins for the SNLD are a mirror to her period in office. Elections held in  2012 and 2015 did not see the emergence of an ethnic party as an opposition to the government. Members of ethnic minorities failed to support her this time as she has failed, time and again, to protect their interests.

We are also learning about her questionable leadership style which means she struggles to communicate her goals clearly. The international community remains disgusted at her reluctance to speak out against the ethnic cleansing of minorities.

“In meetings, she is dismissive, dictatorial – in some cases, belittling,” said a senior aid worker. The government, he said, has become, “so centralised, there is complete fear of her”. There is no second line of command in the NLD. Effective politicians such as Phyo Min Thein and Zaw Myint Maung are sidelined in favour of the Lady’s single-minded attempts at reform.

Her administration relies on the old ways of repression

Her new ways sound a lot like the old methods of the military. “The most disappointing feature of the NLD government is that it time and again appeared to align itself with military interests,” David Mathieson, an analyst based in Myanmar explained.

“Either through supportive statements or abject silence, without attempting to make clear any difference between their objectives and interests,” he added.

Reformers are particularly disappointed that the NLD has relied on hardline laws put in place by the previous administration. This includes at least 40 cases where defamation cases have been filed against citizens to quell dissent. Many of the accused have received long prison sentences.

Ahead of the election the former political prisoner made a public plea for support. “If you all think I am not good enough for our country and our people, if someone or some organisation can do better than us, we are ready to step down,” said Myanmar’s de facto leader.

This is an empty threat and a play at piety. She still enjoys public and political support thanks to her reputation as a campaigner against the former junta. Her tight pull on the NLD means there are no front-runners to replace her in her own party and most people still do not trust the military-led opposition.

Ethnic issues will make or break her leadership

Aung San Suu Kyi needs to learn a lesson from these elections. She can tell the world that there is no ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and shrug off the calls for action, but that does not work closer to home. The problems of the border states, and the challenge of working with the military, are well-understood by Myanmar’s citizens but there is a growing impatience at her lack of action.

She says resolving ethnic conflicts is her top priority but has failed to get rebel groups to the table for her “21st century Panglong Conference”. In fact, as people went to cast their vote Suu Kyi issued a desperate statement saying that the United Nationalities Federal Council’s (UNFC) five members would sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). This was swiftly denied by the groups involved.

Her failure to protect and advocate for ethnic minorities is behind her lukewarm support in this poll. To turn that around she needs to come up with some successes, and fast. Her halo is slipping and with it the people’s hopes for a peaceful, fair and free Myanmar. When that dream dies, so does her legend.