September 30, 2017
The Big Read Aung San Suu Kyi
Myanmar’s new regime flounders over Rohingya crisis
Critics say an unwillingness to deal with the refugee crisis fits a broader pattern of faltering reforms and indecisive leadership
by John Reed in Naypyidaw
A year ago this month, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, was welcomed to The White House on the slipstream of a historic election victory and an outpouring of international goodwill.
The Lady and President Barack Obama in The White House
The former political prisoner, whose party had triumphed in a 2015 election, promised a fresh start built on the “true strength of our diversity”, for a country blighted by multiple ethnic insurgencies and decades of military rule.
Then President Barack Obama hailed “a new way of doing business and a new government”, as he lifted sanctions.
A year later, Myanmar’s international reputation, and that of its 72-year-old leader, are in tatters after a brutal military campaign by security forces in the western state of Rakhine that has made homeless nearly half a million mostly Muslim Rohingya over the space of a month.
The refugees streaming into Bangladesh have brought stories of mass killing, rape and torching of villages by security forces, which human rights campaigners say may amount to ethnic cleansing.
The most serious crisis since Myanmar began its transition to democracy in 2011, the conflict has left Aung San Suu Kyi caught between an international community demanding accountability and her own public, which is in a jingoistic and unforgiving mood.
It has also reinforced the fragile state of Myanmar’s incomplete democratic transition, which left the military with three key ministries, a quarter of seats in parliament and control over the army and police.
Burmese and foreign business people, diplomats and others interviewed by the Financial Times, some of whom spoke anonymously because of political sensitivities, are now voicing doubts as to whether Myanmar’s leader will be up to the task.
Worse, they fear that the Rohingya crisis could push Myanmar’s transition from five decades of military rule badly off course. For some of her critics, Aung San Suu Kyi had already proved to be a flawed leader on other counts before the Rohingya crisis erupted.
“In my view, Myanmar’s transition has birth defects — especially the constitutional arrangement of mixing elected government and the guardianship of the Tatmadaw [military],” says Ko Ye Myo Hein, executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies in Yangon. “If the elected civilian government cannot make attempts to change the game, the transition will die a slow death, in the graveyard of hybrid regimes.”
In her first speech on the crisis , in an auditorium with many empty seats in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s golf resort-like capital city, Aung San Suu Kyi said her government deserved more time, pointing out it had been in office for just under 18 months.
“We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she told diplomats and journalists in English, in a speech in which she sounded at times chiding, at others pleading. “We would like to talk to those who have fled, as well as those who have stayed.” The remarks gave the impression of a leader either out of touch with events in the western borderlands — which were being broadcast in real time on international news channels — or powerless to control them.
Amnesty International accused the Burmese leader of “burying her head in the sand”, while Human Rights Watch said her assertion that 50 per cent of Rakhine’s Muslim villages were intact after the violence amounted to a “failing grade”.
In her speech, Myanmar’s leader likened her country to a human body, urging the international community to address it and its problems as a whole, and “not just little afflicted areas”. She said: “It is as a whole only that we can make progress.”
Taking Myanmar as a whole, there are signs that suggest the patient is in a poor state indeed — and some of this is due to factors within her control. Local and foreign observers of Myanmar’s leader, including some who have known her for years, say she is a centralising micromanager who is failing to deliver on several counts.
After a growth spurt that accompanied a surge of inward investment amid the initial steps to democracy, the economy has slowed.
“Either she’s not letting them [her advisers] do their jobs, or she’s not listening to them,” says Khin Zaw Win, an analyst and former political prisoner. “She is obstinate, very self-centred, and undemocratic, but people worship her.”
When Aung San Suu Kyi took power last year after a landslide victory for her National League for Democracy, her administration faced a daunting agenda: calls to reform the 2008 constitution that gives the military the upper hand over civilian governments; pressure for federalism from restive border regions; the need to retool an economy stunted by five decades of isolation.
She took office in the new role of state counsellor because her foreign family members bar her from the presidency. She took three other ministerial jobs, foreign affairs, education and energy, but has since relinquished control over the last two.
Myanmar’s leader put her primary emphasis on a peace process meant to continue the legacy of her father, the Independence leader Aung San, and resolve decades-old insurgencies with minority groups in states that fringe Myanmar’s largely Buddhist, Burmese-speaking heartland. The Rohingya issue is not part of that process.
On the economy, the government claims to have notched up some achievements: bringing down inflation and the budget deficit, and taking a tough line on official graft that was rampant under the former military regime.
“They have been absolutely serious about corruption, especially at the high levels,” says Sean Turnell, an Australian academic who is advising the state counsellor’s administration.
At the central and state government level, however, Aung San Suu Kyi was saddled with a legacy of bureaucrats who served the old regime. In choosing her own ministers, businesspeople and diplomats say she has prioritised loyalty and opposition credentials over fresh blood or real-world experience in areas such as business or law.
“The average age of the executive leadership is pretty high, which means they come with a socialist mindset,” says one international banker active in Myanmar. “She has gone for people who she believes are loyal to her and not corrupt, but the pace of economic reform has suffered because the executive leadership is weak and the bureaucracy is loyal to the former government.”
Because of her long exile, then 15 years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is herself strikingly short on basic work experience — apart from a junior UN job she held as a young woman.
The new administration’s limited skills base, combined with the tough line the “Lady” is taking on corruption, has made some ministers either unequipped to tackle spending projects or loath to promote them for fear of accusations of being on the take.
“They don’t have any data sources to evolve policy, so they aren’t very confident making decisions,” says Aung Tun, a consultant to international development agencies in Yangon.
Meanwhile, civil society groups and Myanmar’s Muslim community, who make up about 4 per cent of the population, have criticised Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration for doing little to calm the country’s sectarian tensions.
Myanmar saw deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2013, before her administration took power, and some worry that violence could recur in the event of a bombing or other attack inside the country by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the militant group whose attacks on police posts and an army base last month prompted the brutal crackdown.
The Burma Human Rights Network this month published research saying that conditions for the Rohingya had worsened in the four years since, and alleged “ongoing systematic persecution” of Muslims well into the current period of pseudo-civilian rule, including a sharp rise in villages erecting signs declaring themselves “Muslim-free”.
“They need some kind of action against ultranationalist groups, who are very dangerous for the transition process,” says Aung Ko Ko, head of Mosaic Myanmar, a civil society group that promotes tolerance between Buddhists and minority Muslims and Christians.
The de facto leader has called for tolerance but in last week’s speech (as in past ones) used cautious language that did not refer to specific religious or ethnic groups, presumably to avoid estranging ethnic Bamar Buddhists, who form the core of her support.
Some observers of Aung San Suu Kyi say the assumptions underpinning western support were flawed from the beginning: the outside world put too much faith in a figure with the instincts of an old-school Asian dynastic leader.
Even so, they say she is Myanmar’s best hope for now. “We’d be really dumb to throw away the democratic transition in Burma over the situation in Rakhine, over which she has very little control,” says a senior diplomat in Yangon.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters believe she is being judged too harshly given her lack of influence over the military. “The context of our country’s situation is different from other countries around the world,” says U Nyan Win, a senior official with the NLD in Yangon. “We can’t control what’s happening on the ground, especially in battle zones.”
Members of the leader’s circle, speaking privately, say the outside world — in pressuring her to speak out more forcefully on Rakhine — is underestimating the fragility of the democratic transition in Myanmar, where the military could still retake power.
However, others discount this, pointing out that the military already has enough real power, not to mention the economic benefits from companies they control. The question is whether the crisis will deliver a blow to investor confidence, already shaky to start with.
Aung Tun Lin, chair of the Myanmar Tourist Guides Association, says foreign tour groups have cancelled roughly 15-20 per cent of pre-booked tours due to what he describes as “fake news” about Rakhine. His group says tourism brings more than $2bn annually in revenues, or 3 per cent of gross domestic product.
Business people say the crisis could also dent foreign investment. “You wanted to make a $100m investment in Myanmar?” says a western executive in Yangon. “In your annual report, you’re going to have to defend that position.”However, most multinationals were steering clear of Myanmar. The biggest foreign investors have been from China, Japan and other Asian countries, most of which have hesitated to criticise the military campaign.
“In terms of economics, the effects won’t be as great as people expect,” says Mr Turnell, the adviser. “Western investment mostly hasn’t been here anyway.”