Why Myanmar couldn't rise to meet the world's expectations

Some say the country’s real, long-term problem is the military, to say nothing of the image of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Military representatives line up to cast vote to amend the 2008 Constitution at Union parliament Tuesday, March. 10, 2020, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Parliament members began Tuesday cast vote to amend the country's rigid Constitution, including a section that bars Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to become president, at parliament session. The voting process will take up to 9 parliament days. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)
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Myanmar's atrocious treatment of its Rohingya minority has justifiably led to the country's public image taking a battering, as has that of its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Now it appears to some that Myanmar's transition to democracy, which Ms Suu Kyi personified to her former admirers, is also in trouble.
Last week, her ruling National League for Democracy party began a series of votes that aimed to amend the 2008 constitution, which allots 25 per cent of parliament's seats to the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, and gives them an array of other powers, such as control of three crucial security ministries and the effective ability to declare a state of emergency.

What nearly everyone underestimated was just how strong ethno-religious nationalism would prove

But because the NLD could not win the votes with the necessary parliamentary supermajority of above 75 per cent, none of them passed.

The Tatmadaw, who had run the country as a military dictatorship from 1962-2011, said “no” to the lot of them, including an attempt to change the clause that bars Ms Suu Kyi from the presidency (she is disqualified due to her late husband and her children being foreign nationals – a factor meant solely to target her). Making it clear that the armed forces were not going to relax their cast-iron grip on the constitution they themselves had drafted.

They even rejected changing the country’s description from a “disciplined democracy” to a “democracy”.

This certainly looks like a blow to Ms Suu Kyi’s ambitions, which are considerable. She has ruled the country as “state counsellor” since 2016, but she is not the head of government.

That is the president, a job she not only wants but appears to feel she, as the daughter of the country’s independence hero, General Aung San, is entitled to.

It is not necessarily so bad for the NLD. “Although we lost the vote to amend the constitution, we won politically,” said Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the party’s information committee. “The result is good for them and the outcome is good for us.”

He was referring to the NLD’s chances in the parliamentary elections that must be held later this year.

epa08282489 Members of parliament from National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, wearing protective face masks arrive to attend the Assembly of the Union (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) at the parliament building in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 10 March 2020. Myanmar parliament begins the voting on amendment proposals to the military-drafted constitution to reduce the involvement of military's role in parliament.  EPA/LYNN BO BO
Members of parliament from National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, wearing protective face masks arrive to attend the Assembly of the Union at the parliament building in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 10 March EPA

Whether the Tatmadaw’s rejection of constitutional changes is a setback to the transition to democracy that the world was expecting is another question. In his second volume of biography on Ms Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Generals, published in 2016, Peter Popham wrote: “If Suu determines that no other reforming work can be done until the constitution is changed, Burma could find itself seriously stuck. That would damage her reputation, both at home and abroad.”

My old colleague Peter was prescient. For Ms Suu Kyi’s reputation has suffered precisely because of this. Human Rights Watch recently published a commentary that declared that “the NLD’s push to amend the constitution rings hollow following four years of unwillingness to tackle attainable reforms. Despite its parliamentary majority, Suu Kyi’s party has failed to amend or repeal repressive laws that criminalise speech and peaceful assembly. Instead, it has intensified attacks on free expression, strengthening restrictive legislation and prosecuting growing numbers of journalists and activists.”

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Su Kyi attends the Myanmar Ethnics Culture Festival in Yangon on February 1, 2020. (Photo by Sai Aung Main / AFP)
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Su Kyi attends the Myanmar Ethnics Culture Festival in Yangon on February 1, 2020. AFP

The key here is what the world was expecting, both in terms of Myanmar’s transition and as to how Ms Suu Kyi would rule. We all know how wrong everyone was about the no-longer-saintly Ms Suu Kyi.

But perhaps many commentators and foreign policy experts were wildly optimistic – to the point of foolishness – about what kind of country Myanmar was on course to become.

In 2011 I wrote a long report for this newspaper to mark the one-year anniversary of the first elections to produce a sitting parliament in Myanmar since 1960. Kurt Campbell, when he was US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, lauded what he called the “dramatic developments under way” in the country. The Financial Times was even more upbeat about its trajectory, claiming that Myanmar was “at freedom’s gate”.

I quoted Burmese figures who did not share the euphoria, such as the academic Maung Zarni, who told me that “the real, long-term problem is the military, because it sees itself as an extra-legal organisation which has the constitutional mandate to serve as the real power behind the legislative and the executive.” When I closed the report with his view that “absolutely nothing foundational in Burmese politics has changed”, I wondered if I had been a little too pessimistic.
But Mr Zarni’s assessment of the Tatmadaw and its unwillingness to cede its political, commercial and military place in the country has proved correct. What nearly everyone underestimated was quite how strong ethno-religious nationalism would prove.

Far from elections unleashing a pent-up wave of enthusiasm for the kind of “freedom” that Western liberal reformers associated with the transition, it turned out that voters in Myanmar wanted something rather different. They have not been inclined to punish politicians who demonised Muslims and referred to the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, because sadly plenty of them agreed. Ms Suu Kyi’s denials of genocide and defence of the armed forces have only made her more popular at home.
Western admirers heard Ms Suu Kyi praising universal values, and assumed the Oxford-educated former icon was talking the same language as them. But as Michal Lubina, author of The Political Thought of Aung San Suu Kyi, puts it, for her “Western-based institutional understanding of democracy, with checks and balances… plays a secondary role” to “traditional Burmese Buddhist thought patterns”.
Unity, based on the language, culture and religion of the majority Bamar (or Burman) ethnic group, comes first. If this comes at the expense of minority groups and the rights of individuals, neither Ms Suu Kyi nor Myanmar’s voters appear to mind very much. The dominance of this political culture, and the permanent entrenchment of the Tatmadaw, may not have been the transition Ms Suu Kyi’s former admirers were expecting. But if she is in tune with her countrymen – and all signs are that she is – then “democracy, Myanmar-style” may be the reality for years to come.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum