ONE year on from the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s (Myanmar) once-revered iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is offering to step down after acknowledging the public’s frustration with the slow pace of reforms and development.
“When I joined politics, I said ‘I promise one thing; that I will do my best.’ That’s all. I can’t do better than that,” Suu Kyi said in a televised speech on Thursday, as reported by The Age.
“So if you think I am not good enough for our country and our people, if someone or some organisation can do better than us, we are ready to step down.”
How times have changed since the party swept to victory on a wave of optimism with Suu Kyi proudly at the helm. In a rare vindication of history, a former political prisoner had managed to secure her freedom and rally party members to stage a remarkable comeback against the corrupt and violent regime that was responsible for her capture. It was truly the stuff of Hollywood.
With an entrance into politics of this magnitude, the expectations for Suu Kyi and the ruling NLD were high, to say the least. With such overstated optimism surrounding the administration, disappointment was almost inevitable. But Suu Kyi’s party has not just been disappointing, some feel it has been actively working against some of those hard-fought idealistic values for which it rose to power.
“Expectations were extremely high for change, even as observers understood the constraints the NLD faced,” Derek Mitchell, former US ambassador to Burma from 2012 to 2016, told TIME.
“That said, people do question whether the NLD, and Aung San Suu Kyi herself, have made the most of their first year in office.”
Voices of dissent are becoming more vocal both in and outside of Burma as opinion of Suu Kyi as an aloof leader, above public scrutiny and highly anti-media, grows.
Often choosing to remain silent on key issues and lacking the ability to articulate her government’s policies, Suu Kyi’s distant approach has been accused of compounding the myriad of problems facing the country, such as the Rohingya crisis, armed conflicts between ethnic groups, and a struggling economy.
“Many voters feel frustrated,” Myo Zaw Aung, an MP in Suu Kyi’s NLD party told Reuters.
“People had sky-high expectations for the NLD, but actually, the change can’t be that dramatic. They are not seeing an obvious change at the grassroots level,” he said.
The problems Suu Kyi and her party inherited from its military predecessors were massive with deep roots in the country’s history and culture.
Clashes between Buddhism and Islam, citizenship claims of the Rohingya minority, and ethnic violence that has kept the country in civil war for over 70 years, are issues all previous governments have failed to manage, let alone solve. To expect the NLD to conquer them in a year was perhaps a tall order, and the party has been accused of overzealous optimism and of underestimating the challenges ahead.
Suu Kyi and the NLD had no experience in government before coming to power last year. The party’s main focus was to replace the military government. Once in power, however, their lack of strategy and policy knowledge became evident.
“It (the NLD) had no articulate and developed set of policy alternatives and no carefully conceived strategies of implementation,” Robert Taylor, a scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto University, said.
The party’s two priorities after taking office were the fraught peace process to resolve the decades-long civil war, and the flagging economy that had been shackled by years of isolationist military policy.
After moving the Myanmar Peace Centre, a base setup by the previous government to manage the peace process, from Yangon to the capital Naypyitaw, the administration was accused of slowing momentum and quashing any progress that had been made previously.
Teamed with the NLD’s lack of new initiatives to drive the process and absence of a clear direction, the process began to backslide, leading armed conflict in the northern states to intensify under the new administration’s floundering efforts.
Pulled in many directions
The economy has also faltered over the last 12 months. Once thought to be the next Asian Tiger, development slowed once it became clear Suu Kyi was to prioritise political settlement over economic growth, and her apparent micromanaging and lack of delegation slowed momentum.
She has taken on a multitude of roles within government. As state counsellor – a role equivalent to that of a prime minister – and foreign minister, with all of the travel and time constraints that come with it, Suu Kyi is being pulled in many directions.
Without the team or the impetus to delegate, this convoluted approach has essentially left many areas falling short.
All of her governance has also been conducted against the backdrop of a tense, power-sharing environment with the very military she condemned whilst in opposition.
Burma constitution enshrines the political power of the armed forces by reserving a quarter of parliamentary seats for those in the military. It also requires more than a 75 percent majority to enact amendments, essentially giving the commander-in-chief a veto to any attempts to change it.
The military also remains in control of vital ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defence.
The Home Affairs Ministry controls all levels of general administration, further diluting the ruling party’s ability to implement policies effectively.
While the NLD came into power with aspirations for great change, it appears it takes time to make such changes in the culture instilled during the previous rule.
“Dialogue and discussion, explanation and response, disagreement and discord, are at the heart of an effective government,” Taylor explains.
“The military administrations that shaped Myanmar’s current bureaucracy discouraged, if not prohibited, this process.”
Considering the decades-old slogan of the bureaucracy, “Ma lou’ ma pyo’ ma sho’” – “don’t do any work, don’t take any actions, don’t get fired” – the lack of progress in changing this is probably unsurprising.
But Suu Kyi has been accused of suppressing discord and disagreement given her government’s thin-skinned nature as it confronts legitimate criticism, further suppressing potential for constructive dialogue.
With the country’s previously insurmountable inherited problems and a tense environment fraught with suspicion and distrust, Suu Kyi was handed a role that would have challenged even the most adroit of politicians.
Add to this the almost saint-like reputation she garnered before taking office, and disappointment was almost inevitable.
“Economic underdevelopment, civil war and degradation of virtually every institution save one – the military – over the past 50 years cannot be wiped away by a single election,” former ambassador Mitchell told the Nikkei Review.
“Nor can the legacies of social division, mistrust and corruption created in their wake.”