Twenty-four hours ago Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) were ousted from power by the military (Tatmadaw) in an early morning coup d’état. Journalists in Myanmar reported that phone and mobile services went dark, military vehicles were seen on city streets, and the state television network MRTV was unable to broadcast.
The military declared a state of emergency that will last for a year and power has been vested in Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Myanmar, some have suggested, is returning to a place of national darkness–an era of military rule that has not been seen for a decade.
For years, it was Suu Kyi who embodied Myanmar’s hope for democracy, and in November of 2010 when she was released from her long house arrest, the international community carried her torch as a symbol of what was possible. The prospects for a democratic Myanmar opened the foreign aid taps. The country went from being just the 79th-largest recipient of aid in 2010 to the 7th largest recipient of international aid by 2015. Suu Kyi’s star shined almost as brightly as investor hopes for an untapped market. She had become such an untouchable international icon, bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.
However, those high honors and the international acclaim heaped upon Aung San Suu Kyi were misplaced bets. Voters in November 2015 went to the polls for the first time in more than 50 years and they gave the NLD enough of a majority to form a stand-alone government, and the international community believed that this was a path to economic liberalization, the transition to democracy, and national reconciliation for a deeply divided Myanmar. Under the Lady’s leadership and her tragic missteps, none of these things happened. In the aftermath of yesterday’s coup d’état, it is important to understand the underlying motivations and evaluate Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationship with the military and with the Burmese public.
In fairness, Suu Kyi had always faced an uphill battle with the military. The 2008 Constitution gave the Tatmadaw sweeping power and the ability to dictate the control of potential reform, with a quarter of the seats in the national and regional parliaments as well as a majority of seats on the powerful National Defence and Security Council. In her defense, she gave the Anti-Corruption Commission of Myanmar (ACC) more authority, which in turn boosted its international reputation, but because of constitutional restrictions that granted the military immunity from external prosecution, it found itself without a real mandate.
Still, Suu Kyi made several fundamental errors. First, in the attempt at initiating much-needed reform, she immediately handed off responsibility to people loyal to her, without any real concern about their competence or integrity.
For example, Than Myint, the Commerce Minister claimed to have a graduate degree from Pacific Western University, an unaccredited school that was sued by the state of Hawaii then closed. The Cabinet in Naypyidaw was filled with NLD loyalists rather than practitioners or accomplished policymakers. In July of 2019, Industry Minister Khin Maung Cho stepped down amid allegations of corruption. Charges came after he failed to invite tenders for the procurement of raw materials for Burma Pharmaceutical Industry (BPI), a state-owned drugmaker. Earlier in 2018, Planning and Finance Minister Kyaw Win—also with a fake college degree—resigned after an ACC corruption investigation into his activities was nearing completion. These foibles in character to Suu Kyi loyalists are major concerns for others, as her leadership style was seen as dictatorial and unwilling to properly delegate authority. Suu Kyi had such control over NLD legislators that many feared voting against the government.
Perhaps it was Aung San Suu Kyi’s greatest challenge and second-biggest mistake that she did not challenge the Tatmadaw on its own audacious corruption. The Lady was unwilling to use some of her political capital and international star power to pressure the military to heel. Instead, she tried to appease the military in the hope that she could get a national peace agreement, which has also failed to materialize. The military has its corrupt tentacles into major sectors of the national economy through two entities, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), as well as a set of domestic private business enterprises, known as “crony companies.”
This network of companies creates autonomy for the military and an additional source of revenue that funds its operations. A United Nations Human Rights Council report found that the Tatmadaw profits through armed conflict, by plundering timber and precious gems such as ruby and jade. It is unsurprising that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who has taken the reins of power in Myanmar stands to benefit, as he was one of the MEHL’s largest shareholders. MEHL controls many of the precious gem licenses, of which it has leased to crony companies. Further details of military corruption have been released by the activist website Justice for Myanmar, which was blocked last September for posting so-called “fake news”.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s biggest mistake was believing that she could, through her now-famous brand of nationalism, dismiss accusations of genocide in the country or the grave human rights situation which exploded after a 2017 crackdown by security forces sent more than 700,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh. When accused by the Gambia, on behalf of over 50 Muslim nations, of genocide, Suu Kyi was defiant. She did not even utter the word Rohingya. Genocide? No. Merely “intercommunal violence” or “disproportionate force.” Her testimony extinguished whatever was left of her international reputation and credibility as a human rights icon. In fact, she lectured Westerners and foreigners for failing to understand the complexities of Myanmar’s ethnic history. The 1991 Nobel laureate actually defended the same military that had held her captive for more than 15 years. In fact, she was unwilling or unable to muster much of any criticism of the Tatmadaw since she took power in 2015, even calling some of the generals in her Cabinet “rather sweet.”
In a very real sense, Suu Kyi and the NLD were always on borrowed time. Min Aung Hlaing has always had a sense of ambition, recently playing up his role as a politician. But after the NLD won a larger majority than in 2015 and his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was humbled in the November showing, Min Aung Hlaing made his move. They no longer needed to carry on with the clumsy narrative of a flawed, corrupted election or hide their distaste for Suu Kyi.
The result is that the old Myanmar is the new Myanmar.
The promise of change under Suu Kyi has completely dimmed. In fact, much is worse. Suu Kyi also failed to advance the cause of press freedom, allowing two Reuters journalists to be jailed for violating the Official Secrets Act. Worse, Suu Kyi’s government increased usage of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, which has been used to muzzle or jail critics. Many of Myanmar’s minorities, who had high hopes for the Suu Kyi, are now left in the lurch. Although she held several peace conferences, they only exposed the growing rift between herself and the military. Instead of trying to appease it or make peace with it, Suu Kyi should have boldly confronted it. Most of the old signs of national stagnation are still present, such as Myanmar’s poor corruption perception, which is ranked 137th for 2020 on Transparency International’s index.
Clearly something has changed in Myanmar. While Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation in Myanmar—honed by fanning the flames of Buddhist nationalism—remains unimpeachable, her ability to use it to her advantage is now gone. The Lady’s mistakes are now the military’s gain.