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20 April 2017, Gateway House

Suu Kyi’s year in power

Myanmar’s first democratically elected government in decades completes a year this month, but it has not won widespread appreciation on many counts. Critics have highlighted the areas of darkness, but ignored its many achievements

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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April is an important month for Myanmar. Its first democratically elected government in decades completes its first year in office—but not to resounding applause. The criticism being expressed of the party in power, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has to do mainly with their handling of the Rohingya issue and tardy resolution of the ethnic conflict, besides Suu Kyi’s alienating personal leadership style.

Reacting to this with some asperity in a televised speech on March 30, Suu Kyi said: “I have said since the beginning that I will try my best, and if people think my best effort is not enough for them and if there are any other persons or organisations who can do better than us, we are ready to step back.”[1]

The first issue that has drawn widespread disapproval is the plight of the Rohingyas. Muslim nations, human rights organisations, the western media, the UN Human Rights Council, and elements within Myanmar have combined to project how the icon of democracy, Suu Kyi, failed to stop and condemn the atrocities committed by security forces against Muslims in  Rakhine state.

That the Rohingyas have been subjected to brutal suppression cannot be contested, but critics tend to ignore the complexity of a problem that has defied solution for decades. The NLD did not create it nor is its government directly in charge of security and border affairs, which is handled by the military under the constitutional power-sharing formula. To expect Suu Kyi to play the role of the government’s public critic, while serving in office, is unrealistic. Her endeavour has been to urge restraint so that conditions become conducive to devising practical solutions. She set up the Kofi Annan Commission to study the problem in depth and suggest long-term solutions. She has also spoken of the need to stop violence in the region. This is a practical approach, especially as much of the Bamar majority community is under the sway of anti-Muslim sentiments today.

The NLD government identified ethnic reconciliation as its Number 1 priority, but critics point to the lack of progress made here after it began on the task with fanfare at the 21st Century Panglong Conference in August 2016. The principal obstacle relates to the four armed ethnic groups[2], active in the China-Myanmar border region: they refuse to a ceasefire and to surrender their arms, without which the Myanmar military will not permit their inclusion in the dialogue. The Chinese government, which has considerable influence over these groups, has not restrained them, even while assuring Suu Kyi of its interest in the stability of Myanmar. The result: the NLD government gets all the blame from those who prefer not to criticise the real culprits–the armed groups, the military, and Beijing.

The third area relates to Suu Kyi’s personal style of leadership. Critics say that she has authoritarian tendencies, refuses to delegate or tolerate dissent. Her televised speech perhaps says it all. It bears recalling that Suu Kyi played a pivotal role in opposing a ruthless military dictatorship and bringing (partial) democracy to the country at huge personal risk. It was a struggle that began in 1988 and ended in 2015, spanning an entire generation. Her leadership style evoked much admiration then. It could still deliver results now if the political elite and civil society leadership show wisdom and internal cohesion.

To look at all that the government has achieved in the past year, the NLD deserves praise for handling well its most important relationship: the military. Had it been done differently, this rare experiment in co-habitation may not have endured this long at all. Suu Kyi seems to be taking the long-term view of assuring the generals that the people’s elected representatives are capable of governing the nation and, therefore, the right thing for them to do is return to the barracks.

The economy has also continued to perform satisfactorily. Myanmar has maintained a high growth rate. Foreign investments have been flowing in, with development projects under way. The media has continued to flourish, enjoying the freedom that it had begun to taste during the tenure of the previous leader, President Thein Sein. In the past year, a few cases of tough action against journalists were reported, but it was understood that the government had operated within the realms of the law.

And, how has the Suu Kyi government performed in managing foreign relations? The democratic government intended to follow and refine Myanmar’s traditional policy of friendship with all, promoting a subtle balance among its key partners. This worked well initially, but, with the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election, Myanmar lost a valuable ally and Suu Kyi a close friend. Hardly anyone in the Trump administration has displayed an interest in Myanmar so far.

ASEAN members–Malaysia and others–have been seriously upset with Nayphitaw over its handling of the Rohingya issue, but ASEAN itself has been in disarray, dealing with China’s assertive postures in the South China Sea. India, which received both President Htin Kyaw and Suu Kyi for high-level discussions on separate occasions, is engaging Myanmar in the task of reinvigorating the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). But, at the political level, the excitement is missing, with no sign of Prime Minister Modi making an early visit to Myanmar.

The only major relationship that is getting strengthened steadily is with China. The Myanmar president returned from his recent visit to China where the long-awaited agreement on the Kyaukphyu-Kunming oil pipeline[3] was finalised, with the new pipeline now activated. Together with the gas pipeline that is already operational, this represents a major economic and diplomatic gain for China. In return, Beijing will probably not insist on restarting the Myitsone Dam project, which remains highly unpopular in Myanmar. It is worth noting that Suu Kyi will participate in China’s OBOR Summit in May. In short, Myanmar’s pivot towards China is in progress. Notably, Beijing has expressed little criticism of Suu Kyi’s policies or her leadership style.

During the 1990s, critics of the Myanmar military drove the nation into China’s lap while earlier in this decade, the Obama administration, India, Japan, EU and others succeeded in creating ample room for the South East Asian nation to practice strategic flexibility. It is unclear if these critics realise how easily the Suu Kyi government can be destabilised, a development that could disrupt the fragile geopolitical balance in the region. It is important to keep this in mind this month, the month of Thingyan, the water festival of fun and forgiveness that marks the start of a new year for Myanmar.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador to Myanmar.

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[1] Radio Free Asia, 31 March 2017, <>

[2] These are: the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army. They receive support and encouragement from the United Wa State Army (UWSA), an over-20,000 strong armed group opposed to the military.

[3] Zhangrui, Myanmar president pledges to build better relations with China, CCTV,  11 April 2017, <>
Shepherd, Christian, China says accord reached at last with Myanmar on oil pipeline, Reuters, 10 April 2017,  <>