As hope for a bright future dims, what are the prospects for Myanmar?

As criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi mounts, Joshua Kurlantzick asks how much is she to blame for the problems Myanmar faces

Most of the promises Aung San Suu Kyi had offered to the Myanmar public two years ago seem hollow. Khin Maung Win / AP Photo
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Roughly a year after Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party took control of Myanmar’s parliament, the country’s euphoria has melted away. When the NLD won a sweeping electoral victory in November 2015, the country’s first truly free and accepted national elections in decades, it gained a massive majority in parliament. Myanmar citizens swept onto the streets to celebrate. The military, which had ruled the country as a junta or a quasi-civilian regime between 1962 and 2015, publicly affirmed that it would accept the results of the election.

Ms Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was kept under house arrest for years, had offered a broad slate of promises to the Myanmar public. She had vowed to aggressively push for a lasting peace deal with the country’s many ethnic insurgencies, some of which have been fighting the government for decades. She had promised to protect threatened minorities, such as Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. She had expressed her desire to build a developed country, telling people on the campaign trail in 2015, “we don’t want to be a country which needs to ask other countries for help”.

Yet in the past year, most of these promises have seemed hollow, and Myanmar’s stability appears to be disintegrating at an alarming rate. Human rights groups contend that the security forces are engaged in a scorched-earth campaign in Rakhine against the Rohingya. Some Myanmar and international activists have turned on Ms Suu Kyi, claiming that she has ignored looming rights abuses in the country and failed to rein in the still powerful military.

In many respects, the situation has not markedly improved in the past year. Ms Suu Kyi led an initial national peace conference last summer, bringing together delegates from ethnic insurgencies and other powerful leaders, but representatives of the most powerful ethnic militia, the United Wa State Army, walked out of the talks early on.

Although Ms Suu Kyi said that the conference was intended to kick-start dialogues that would eventually produce peace deals, in the past year conflict has actually increased in many outlying regions. Bertil Lintner, a veteran analyst of Myanmar politics, recently concluded that: “Myanmar’s frontier areas are now suffering from some of the most intense fighting seen since the 1980s.”

Meanwhile, the prospects for clearer civilian control of the armed forces, which would require changes to the Myanmar constitution, seem very murky. Ms Suu Kyi has vowed to “give birth to a genuine democratic union”, which probably means removing ministries from control of the military and cutting the overall powers of the armed forces. But she has not made much headway in actually changing the charter. And many Myanmar observers believe that the armed forces are trying to undermine any constitutional reform. One of the most prominent advocates of constitutional changes, NLD law adviser Ko Ni, was murdered by a gunman in cold blood just outside Yangon airport in January. Several former military officers reportedly laid the plot for his killing.

Perhaps most important for many Myanmar people, Ms Suu Kyi’s government has not offered a clear strategy for how to maintain high economic growth, satisfying investors, and also improve the fortunes of a broader range of citizens. Then there is Rakhine State. After an attack on police posts last October, reportedly by a group of Rohingya militants, the armed forces have allegedly waged an even more brutal campaign in the state, already one of the biggest hotspots in Asia. The United Nations’ special adviser for human rights declared earlier this year that abuses against the Rohingya “may amount to crimes against humanity”, since violence seemed “widespread as well as systematic”. Just since last October, it is estimated that more than 60,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine State, mostly into Bangladesh.

How much is Ms Suu Kyi to blame for problems in a deeply divided country that was ruled for decades by a brutal junta? To be sure, when the NLD took over parliament last year, they inherited the titles of government but only modest control of many institutions. It remains unclear whether civilian leaders can give effective orders to senior military commanders — about Rakhine State or anywhere else in the country.

Yet Ms Suu Kyi has seemed unwilling to push the army– her leadership has often been deficient. In many interviews, like a recent one with Fergal Keane of the BBC, she acts as if she is still opposition leader, with no power or ability to use her leverage to win allies in the armed forces and prod military leaders to gradually concede, the way presidents did in Indonesia during that country’s transition to civilian rule in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

She has proven at times to be highly inflexible, and seems not to have undertaken the type of preparation for governing that other former opposition leaders, like Nelson Mandela, did before and after becoming heads of government. She reportedly makes decisions in an extremely centralised way, not allowing for much input into her thought process.

This inflexibility and stubbornness probably served her well as a beleaguered, isolated opposition leader whose party was nearly destroyed by the junta and needed a rock-solid rallying point.

But now, when she needs to listen to advisers and make deals, her approach could hurt her. Her initial peace conference was a stilted, overly formal affair featuring long speeches from government representatives – hardly a good start for real dialogue with the ethnic militias.

She seems unwilling to admit that she could change her positions on issues related to Rakhine State or other areas, or to bargain. “In meetings, she is dismissive, dictatorial – in some cases, belittling,” a senior aid worker told The Guardian. The Myanmar chapter of PEN, an organisation that advocates for writers’ rights, has recorded a rise in cases of online defamation in Myanmar during Ms Suu Kyi’s year in power.

More than simply avoiding taking a tough stance on rights abuses, she often seems willing to basically absolve the security forces, which could encourage them to commit more abuses. With Keane she denied there was any ethnic cleansing going on in Rakhine State. Ms Suu Kyi has appointed a commission to investigate the situation in Rakhine, but she has not visited the state, and her commission is largely toothless.

She initially hesitated to say any thing about the assassination of Ko Ni, according to The Irrawaddy, a leading Myanmar news outlet. Her government has actually mocked reports of widespread rape in Rakhine State as “fake news”, all but justifying any actions there by the security forces.

Keith Harper, the Obama administration’s envoy to the United Nations Human Rights Council between 2014 and 2017, wrote earlier this year that Ms Suu Kyi had “utterly failed” to address the crisis in Rakhine State.

The NLD’s economic strategy has wavered as well. Although she has more power over the economy than the military, her whole party had no governing experience, and little background in economic management. Her economic programme has no clear vision and the World Bank’s progress report on Myanmar, released in January, recorded slowing growth during the last full year.

One year on, then, Myanmar’s joy has dimmed greatly. Ms Suu Kyi could still learn, and other countries in the region, like Indonesia, show that even powerful militaries can slowly be tamed and separatist movements can be ended. But right now, the prospects of any of these changes in Myanmar seems dim.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations