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Suu Kyi, more politician than icon

This is the author’s seventh article in our special series on the ASEAN

Since taking power in April 2016, State Counsellor (and effectively) Premier Aung San Suu Kyi has lost much of her lustre as an international icon of democracy and human rights, but proved to be an effective politician, a clarification she has herself insistently made in the past.[1]

The National League for Democracy (NLD) party she leads, which has been in power for three years now, has drawn much criticism abroad, and mixed appreciation at home. What led to the initial sheen rubbing off and what issues will influence the country’s next elections, scheduled for end 2020?

Loss of interest

External perceptions concerning Myanmar suggest that it has lost much of the interest and excitement the world displayed towards it during the term of President Thein Sein (2011-2016). A retired general, elected as the first ‘civilian’ president under the 2008 constitution, he created ample room for democratic forces to assert themselves at home, thus paving the way for the NLD to join the political process. He launched the internal dialogue for ethnic reconciliation, which resulted in the signing of the landmark National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) by the Myanmar government and eight armed ethnic groups in October 2015, but further success eluded him.

His government opened the economy, bringing in reforms in foreign investment, currency exchange and taxation, and adopted anti-corruption measures.[2] His well-balanced foreign policy led to a significant improvement in Myanmar’s relations with the West, ASEAN and India, without jeopardising its strategic ties with China.

In this light, NLD’s decisive victory in the November 2015 elections generated palpable optimism, with analysts suggesting that, at last, Suu Kyi had the opportunity to resolve the long-festering problems of her country and also perhaps to assist South East Asia in confronting the serious challenges it faced.[3] The caveat added by critics was that Suu Kyi could succeed, provided she managed her relationship with the military successfully, for after all, the civilian government had to operate under a power-sharing arrangement stipulated by the constitution.

Three years later, despite the simmering tensions, the civilian-military equation has performed quite well. Each side understands its precise role and adheres to the responsibilities allotted it by the constitution. A general’s daughter, Suu Kyi has always articulated her love and respect for the Myanmar army. The Burman-Buddhist bond between the two is a powerful one. The seemingly satisfactory relationship she shares with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing bears watching as it will come under stress if he decides to contest the next presidential elections.

Three criticisms

Despite managing the relationship with the military well, the Suu Kyi government has faced flak on three principal counts.

First, on the Rohingya question: none of the over 700,000 people driven from the Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh since August 2017 went back. An agreement for their repatriation was concluded between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar in November 2017, but it remains unimplemented.[4] The Rakhine Muslims, presently sheltered in refugee camps in various locations in Cox’s Bazar area in south-eastern Bangladesh, fear for their safety and clamour for basic rights and dignity in their homeland. With no credible assurances and arrangements, they have refused to return. The Myanmar government has been charged with not creating congenial conditions for their return. Continuing hostilities between the Myanmar army units and the rebels belonging to the Arakan Army (AA) in the Rakhine state have not helped.

Second, despite making ethnic peace and reconciliation its top priority, the NLD government has failed to secure real progress. The three 21st-century Panglong Conferences hosted by it did not move beyond limited agreement.[5] The crux of the matter – the induction of the Northern Alliance, composed of four armed groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), into the peace process – remains unresolved. The rebel armed groups, the eight that signed the NCA, and the Myanmar Army, are unable to find  common ground on a range of issues, namely, the implementation of cessation of hostilities, right to secession, the role of China and, above all, the lack of mutual trust.[6] The NLD government, with Suu Kyi directly in charge of the dossier, is nowhere near creating a viable basis for agreement that could be acceptable to all the warring parties, and could also win the support of China, the undeclared party to the ethnic conflict. Without ethnic reconciliation, various armed conflicts within Myanmar are set to continue. As a result, nation-building remains an incomplete mission – even more than 70 years after independence.

Third, the NLD government has deviated from the calibrated foreign policy approach of the preceding government. Shunned by the Trump Administration and censored by EU, Naypyidaw has consciously chosen to move closer to China – closer than they were under Thein Sein – in this Age of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Suu Kyi participated in both Belt and Road Forums (BRFs) in May 2017 and April 2019. The outcome: the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) has rapidly been taking concrete shape, with the gas and oil pipeline already in place and planned development of a road and rail connect, in addition to special economic cooperation zones and a deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu.

A large protest took place in northern Myanmar just ahead of Suu Kyi’s visit to Beijing in April 2019 in response to reports that Beijing had stepped up pressure on the Myanmar government to reconsider suspension of the Myitsone Dam project. (It was suspended in 2011). There is growing concern that China’s expanding footprint in Myanmar will have long-term implications for the country as well as the region.

Constitutional reform

As the NLD government begins to prepare for the next elections, it has dusted up the old issue of constitutional reform to project its continuing interest in full democracy where power rests with the people and is not shared with the army. MPs representing the army first opposed the move, but subsequently, were willing to consider making  a few minor changes. The subject remains under discussion with a 45-member joint parliamentary committee. Indications are that no agreement may be reached on changing the constitution’s amendment procedure that gives veto power to the army nor on amending the qualifications of a presidential candidate.

If the status quo is maintained, the presidency – the ultimate prize – will elude Suu Kyi even in 2020.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House. A former Ambassador to Myanmar, he is the author of India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours (Routledge, 2016), which received critical acclaim.  

This is the author’s seventh article in our special series on the ASEAN

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[1] Aung San Suu Kyi, “I always thought that I was a politician, I look upon myself as a politician, not as an icon,”
Read more at https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2013/11/28/im-no-saint-or-icon-says-myanmars-suu-kyi/#RKtyCcK7jG2Ka7DL.99

[2] For details, please see http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5g/entry-3127.html and https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Thein-Sein-recalls-Myanmar-s-reform-process

[3] Rajiv Bhatia, ‘A giant step for Myanmar’: https://www.gatewayhouse.in/a-giant-step-for-myanmar/

[4] Rajiv Bhatia, ‘Diplomatic dimensions of Rohingya crisis’, https://www.gatewayhouse.in/diplomacy-of-rohingya-crisis/

[5] The first conference was held from 31 August – 4 September 2016. This was followed by the second conference in May 2017. Of the total 20 ethnic groups, 15 were present; while 8 of them were signatories to the NCA, seven were yet to sign it. At the macro level, agreement was reached on 37 of the 41 principles proposed. This was assessed as an initial step only. The third conference was held from 11-16 July 2018. At this forum, Suu Kyi called on all ethnic groups not participating in political discussions to begin doing so. However, the military insisted on its minimum condition: only an ethnic group that signs the NCA can take part in the dialogue. Please see https://teacircleoxford.com/2018/06/06/stalemate-and-suspicion-an-appraisal-of-the-myanmar-peace-process/ and http://www.kachinlandnews.com/?p=29039

[6] Rajiv Bhatia,  Waiting for reconciliation in Myanmar,  The Hindu, 14 June, 2017, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/waiting-for-reconciliation-in-myanmar/article19033013.ece