Suu Kyi needs international support now more than ever
The last time I saw Aung San Suu Kyi was in 2018, a year or so after the Rohingya crisis had erupted. The Tatmadaw — the Myanmar army — had behaved with characteristic brutality and Daw Suu was being blamed for not restraining them or condemning their actions in public. I explained my take on the matter in Arab News and elsewhere shortly afterward. I reviewed the entwined course of the Myanmar state and army since 1945, the complex historical context and the way in which the generals had sought to maneuver Daw Suu into a position where they could act with impunity while she took the blame. This was a deliberate strategy, not just to shield the army but specifically to undermine Daw Suu’s international standing, her greatest asset. I warned that the choice was not between two sorts of democracy — the deeply flawed one we had or the perfect mirage that her Western critics recommended — but between Daw Suu and a military coup.
Many commentators at the time thought this line of argument “unconvincing” (to quote a phrase from an article in The Times of London this week). Now they admit it may have had some force. I bet they do. I only wish they could also bring themselves to say that they were wrong. But perhaps that is too much to ask.
The modern Myanmar army is the product of two men with very different visions for their country. The first was Aung San, Daw Suu’s father. He had been a leader of the anti-colonial movement in Rangoon (now Yangon) in the 1930s and had escaped to Japan at the outbreak of the Second World War as one of the famous Thirty Comrades. By the force of his personality, his intelligence, pragmatism and organizational ability, he emerged as the leader of the fledgling armed force that fought against the British in Burma (as the country was then known) on the side of the Japanese. When the tide of battle changed, he switched sides. As he cheerfully admitted to Field Marshal William Slim, his vision was of an independent, socialist but democratic Burma. He was prepared to align with whatever imperial power could help him achieve that. He won the first free elections in Burma in 1947. However, he had told the British governor he feared elements in the military would seek to assassinate him. His prediction came true (in circumstances that remain mysterious) that July. You used to be able to see — and perhaps still can — the bullet holes in the walls of the council chamber in the Secretariat Building in central Yangon.
His rival was Ne Win (a nom de guerre), the secretive, xenophobic, intensely superstitious and brutal authoritarian who had also trained under the Japanese. He became army chief of staff in 1949, took control of the government in 1958 and launched a coup in 1962 that destroyed what was left of Burmese democracy. It was he who brought down what came to be known as the “Bamboo Curtain,” isolating the country from the outside world, pursuing a policy of self-sufficiency, building up the army into a fearsome and predatory force of internal control, and ruling increasingly by whim.
Ne Win’s formal rule came to an end with the eruption of 1988. But his spirit lives on. Aung San was a voracious self-educator. If you visit his house — now a museum — in Yangon, you will see the breadth of his reading and of his sympathies. In 1947, it was Aung San who brought together in Panglong leaders from key Burmese ethnic communities to agree on the shape of a future state. He promised them federation, representation, equity and prosperity. Would he have delivered? He would certainly have tried. Ne Win, in contrast, believed in a violently centralized and harshly repressive state and spent much of his time in violent conflict with the very same ethnic communities Aung San had sought to reconcile within the framework of a more capacious understanding of Burmese identity.
Daw Suu is her father’s daughter. She remains a Burmese nationalist, a devout Buddhist, a political pragmatist and, after the sort of international education and experience that her father never had, just as intellectually driven. In 2016, she launched the second Panglong Conference, designed to bring the ethnic communities that were in open or not-so-open conflict with the government back into a new political dispensation, which would complete the work her father had laid out 70 years before.
In 1988, she became a politician by accident, dealing with the fiendish complexities of Myanmar politics in an atmosphere that remained pervaded by fear of the army. Like her father, in 2003 she was the subject of an assassination attempt. Unlike her father, she survived. Five years later, the army maneuvered her into a position where she had to agree to a constitution allowing them to retain key positions and autonomous powers. It was this that allowed them to go on the rampage in Rakhine — and indeed in Kachin State and elsewhere — and constrained her from doing anything about it. The army also sought to undermine her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), by encouraging a current of vicious ethnic nationalism and religious chauvinism and promoting their own puppet party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). They may have believed this would work and international criticism focused on Daw Suu would mean outsiders wouldn’t care that much anymore anyway.
They were massively wrong on the first count. In the general election last November, the NLD swept the board with some 80 percent of the votes, translating into 138 parliamentary seats (out of 224) in the upper and 258 (out of 440) in the lower house — to the USDP’s 7 and 26, respectively. In both houses, 25 percent of seats are reserved for army appointees, giving them a block on constitutional change. But, as in 1990, they had once again underestimated their deep unpopularity among the ordinary people of Myanmar. And it may have been this realization — that they could never hope to challenge the popularity of Daw Suu and the NLD within a democratic framework — which led them to launch their latest coup, on a ludicrous charge of “electoral irregularities.”
We know from the way they have voted in successive elections since 1990 that the ordinary people of Myanmar (including many military families) do not want military rule, with its brutality, ignorance and greed. They know the army is interested only in its own power and status. And they are devastated by what has just happened. They want a return to proper democracy — however imperfect it may be in practice. They wanted that in 1958, 1962, 1988 and 1990 too.
As in 1990, the army had once again underestimated their deep unpopularity among the ordinary people of Myanmar.
Sir John Jenkins
That is the legacy of Aung San. And it is his daughter’s life ambition. What has happened to the Rohingya is savage. It has also happened over the last 70 years to the Karen, the Kachin, the Shan, the Chin, the Mon and many others. The blame for this lies firmly on the shoulders of the generals, who are the heirs of Ne Win. Daw Suu, like her father, wanted and wants something very different. Given the obstacles in her way, she has made extraordinary progress. She has also had extraordinary international support. She needs it again. We can predict what the reaction of Beijing and Myanmar’s other neighbors will be. That makes the responses of Washington, Tokyo, Delhi, Seoul, Canberra, Paris, Berlin and London even more important. Now is not the time to abandon hope.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.