18 July 2017

Defiant and defensive, Suu Kyi struggles to bridge Myanmar's divisions

YANGON Aung San Suu Kyi's first anniversary as Myanmar's de facto leader should have been the celebration of a glorious beginning. The year started with the handover of power on March 30, 2016, by the military-backed government of President Thein Sein to her National League for Democracy. Months earlier, the NLD had swept national elections, winning nearly 80% of contested parliamentary seats.

Yet the state counselor, as composed and elegantly attired as ever, displayed a curious blend of defiance, defensiveness and rare humility on her government's anniversary. In a televised address from Naypyitaw, the capital, she acknowledged public criticism of issues ranging from the inexperience of cabinet ministers to human rights and a perceived lack of economic progress. But one year was "not a very long time," she said. "When we speak of changing the system, we need to understand that it involves changing the old system that has been deeply entrenched in our society for over 50 years."

Her stance reflected the extraordinary divide in the country today, which has seen widespread public euphoria surrounding the NLD's rise shift into a more tentative mood. While activists and media have complained bitterly about backsliding on issues such as freedom of speech, the business community and other elites have slammed bureaucratic holdups and ministerial incompetence as well as delays in key legislation.

Ethnic groups have accused the new government of mishandling the peace process and have launched fresh offensives against military forces. Former NLD supporters have expressed anger about their lack of input and what many see as over-centralized decision-making. And diplomats have cited concerns about the government's human rights record, not just in terms of sectarian issues but also the military's counterinsurgency campaign and an overall erosion of freedoms -- as well as the government's proposed new "law concerning foreigners," which contains onerous reporting and visa provisions for expatriates.

Still, as anyone traveling in the country can discern, support levels for the state counselor remain high among the vast rural population in areas dominated by Myanmar's Burman, mainly Buddhist, majority. "She is our mother," said San Than, a noodle vendor on the outskirts of Yangon, in early March. "Any problems Mother Suu is having, that is because of the old government, old ways -- she must fight it."

The remark sums up the enduring popular sentiment. In by-elections on April 1, the NLD government won only nine of the 18 seats it contested. But the losses were confined mainly to ethnic minority areas, which account for half of Myanmar's 14 states and regions.

One senior Western envoy in Yangon spoke of a "multidimensional disconnect" -- between urban and rural; minority ethnic and Burman; elites and the lower rungs of society; and more broadly, between international and domestic responses.

Reinforcing such divisions, Suu Kyi's anniversary as state counselor, similar to a prime minister in a semi-presidential democratic system, was marked by a series of setbacks.

From the international perspective, the most pressing problem for Suu Kyi -- and potentially for investors worried about reputational risk -- is the escalating controversy over human rights. Just days before the anniversary speech, the United Nations Human Rights Council called for an investigation into abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State, where more than 120,000 languish in detention camps and 75,000-plus fled a military crackdown starting in early October. The crackdown, triggered by attacks by Muslim militants in Rakhine that killed nine border police guards, generated reports of widespread torture, rape and arson.

On March 24, the U.N.'s top human rights body voted to send an international fact-finding mission to Myanmar to look into atrocities against the Rohingya. This was after a U.N. report asserted that Myanmar's armed forces had "probably" committed crimes against humanity.

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