Aung San Suu Kyi Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi

In just under three years, Myanmar’s 1991 Nobel Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from triumphant former political prisoner — feted around the globe as Southeast Asia’s Nelson Mandela — to her country’s de-facto leader (or is she?) and a spectacular disappointment to those same supporters.

The Rohingya crisis, that has seen up to 800,00 ethnic Muslims flee from majority Buddhist Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh has shattered her international reputation. Now the jailing of local Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, for their part in reporting on actions of the military in torturing, raping and killing Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine State, has only added to the opprobrium of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her continuing silence over the sentences has exacerbated that even further.

Yet in many ways the blasts of outrage and “shock” heaped upon the only person, by some distance, the people of Myanmar want leading their country, have been done without any understanding of the fiendishly complex bind that Aung San Suu Kyi, and indeed the people of Myanmar find themselves in.

With the special title of “State Counselor” created for Aung San Suu Kyi, due to a constitutional block on her taking the nation’s nominal top role of president, she is the country’s de-facto civilian leader. Yet she and her National League for Democracy (NLD) remain hamstrung by the 2008 Constitution, written by the military that ruled the country with a repression matched only in the region by North Korea.

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The constitution effectively makes the military the senior partner in a power sharing arrangement that gives the the military control of all security portfolios (Defence, Border, Protection and Home Affairs (police) and the the annual budget (Home Affairs). The constitution also guarantees the military 25% of seats in all the country’s parliaments. At a federal level this makes any change to the constitution, set at 75% support, effectively impossible. Checkmate.

Still, Aung San Suu Kyi has not helped matters. Surrounding herself with what are widely acknowledged as a weak set of head-nodding advisers, she rules the NLD autocratically.

Perhaps Aung San Suu Kyi’s biggest mistake has been her bizarre inaction on the country’s rule of law and reform of Myanmar’s antiquated (the laws used to convict the young men are 156 years old), unreconstructed and still military-dominated legal system. Legal reform was not so long ago a cornerstone of Aung San Suu Kyi’s platform and she led the rule of law committee in parliament from 2013 until the 2015 NLD election sweep. 

In the Reuters case those chickens have come home to roost. Although, understandably, she said would let the Reuters court case run its course and the journalists may yet appeal, so she remains silent on the issue. Her failure to act on the rule of law in Myanmar shows an almost complete lack of understanding about the foundation of any true democracy — a strong independent legal system that can build strong independent institutions such as regulators and ombudsmen.

While the Rohingya crisis has caused understandable outrage in the West and amongst human rights groups, it is very popular at home to a citizenry socialised by a tightly controlled state media until only a decade ago, as well as anti-Muslim Buddhist monks. The military’s narrative was that the Rohingya are trying to take money, jobs and land, by “out-breeding” Buddhists of all ethnicities.

Conversely, residents of Yangon (Myanmar’s former capital and commercial centre) say they have been surprised at how unpopular the decision to jail the two Reuters journalists has been. Social media has been swamped with comments and there have even been a couple of spontaneous protests in a city where protests are still viewed with suspicion.

That plays straight to the ballot box and there is a general election late next year. The NLD’s simple majority requires that it wins 66% of seats available but byelection results have already shown it increasingly faces stronger and more focused ethnic state parties in places like Shan, Chain, Kachin and Karen states.

Reuters now has a strategic legal decision to make: whether they tread the halls of the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, for a credible promise of a backroom deal for pardon (a get-out-of-jail pass most often associated with political prisoners and journalists that tend to being handed out n Myanmar’s January 4 National Day and during the mid-April Myanmar New Year known as Thingyan).

But again, Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision on whether to “ask” her president to grant a pardon is fraught with considerations of blowback from a military with which she has very shaky relations. The army haunts her at every turn, and it’s critical that is understood.