IT’S BEEN just 18 months since the historic election that brought democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to power in Burma (Myanmar), but it would seem the international favour she once enjoyed has begun to flag.
Scrolling through major media outlets today you might come across headlines like: “Up to 150 children under five die each day in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar” (The Guardian); “Aung San Suu Kyi: Turning her back on Rohingya?” (AlJazeera); or “Suu Kyi defends slow progress of Myanmar’s peace process” (The Straits Times).
None paint a particularly rosy view of the achievements of the woman who helped the National League for Democracy (NLD) secure a landslide election victory in October 2015 after 50 years of military rule.
When Suu Kyi came to power, she promised change, peace, and unity.
She also said at a press conference a month after polls, “I would promise everybody is living in this country proper protection in accordance with the law, and in accordance with the norms of human rights.”
The problem is it’s these terms she set herself that are being challenged. In late 2016, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled northern Burma amidst, according to Human Rights Watch, a wide range of human rights violations that included arson, extrajudicial killings, systematic rape and other sexual violence.
Suu Kyi’s government denied and refused to condemn the crackdown and in May 2017 rejected a decision by the UN to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity.
Former US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell said on his departure in March it was time for the NLD to make a “course correction” and questioned whether they could effectively navigate the obstacles it faced.
He said some of the complaints levelled against Suu Kyi and her party included ineffective government, a lack of respect for and communication with civil society and media, a top-down leadership style, Suu Kyi’s failure to speak out or resolve violence and human rights violations, and lack of a clear economic policy or vision for the country’s future.
It may of course have been unrealistic to expect even a person so universally respected as Suu Kyi could turn around huge national problems with almost all institutions, infrastructure, economic policy and the peace process to end the civil war.
And it would also seem that the locals themselves, at least in Yangon, seem to understand things take time.
“People see positives in Aung San Suu Kyi,” Yangon church leader Lian Thang told Asian Correspondent.
“But the people need themselves to change and have discipline in every area of life. The peace process will take time. To change the mind of people it will take time as well. The people like and support Aung San Su Kyi but to change old habits is still in the process.”
Local priorities also seem more focused on issues like rubbish, sanitation and transport than the treatment of the Rohingya or delays to the peace process.
“People complain most about the traffic in Yangon,” said business consultant Andrew Rogers, 46, who has lived in Yangon for four years.
“It doesn’t seem like anyone has much sympathy for the Rohingya. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone anywhere defending them.”
Thang said Suu Kyi had shown enough compassion for the plight of the Rohingya and the history “was very bad and tough”.
The reality, however, seems that most Yangonites may have other pressing concerns, and they are often not the same ones that are presented in the international press.
People may have more freedom to say and do what they want without fear of repercussions but the reality is that living in a busy and growing city is not without its challenges and that is often what occupies public thoughts.
“Public criticism of the government and the army through social media is fairly common,” said Rogers. “That was harder before. But my guess is that most are concerned with the practical issues.”
Translator Phyo Phyo who recently returned to Yangon from abroad said she was far more concerned about how she’d adjust back to the pollution, traffic and water problems than anything political.
Yangon-based education consultant and expat Melody Green said, “Most people I know outside Burma refer to issues raised by the media regarding the Kachin and most particularly the Rakhaing, but when you live in this parallel planet you know the reality for most Yangon residents is not these issues of conflict but the every day issues of life in a city with poor infrastructure and constant challenges of the sort most outsiders could not fathom or understand.”
She said it was very easy for most people to live in Yangon with little thought to the rest of the country with issues such as travel, heat and supporting their family enough to deal with.
“Those who do talk of the wider issues do so because they are linked to those places by tribe, family or through some sort of relationship. Other than that it is those who have been overseas and who are a little westernised.”
For example, Kachin-born Ja Seng Mai is a Yangon resident with concerns about both local and regional issues. In Yangon she has concerns about traffic flow, road improvements, education, as well as teacher education and better control of corruption and lawlessness.
But family connections to Kachin mean she is also aware of the issues there.
“Most people in Yangon support her (Aung San Suu Kyi) but Kachin and Rakhine people reject her … Kachin people really loved her and stood for her but now she does not stand for them. She has not been true to her words.
“So many are dying. She seems not to care. People are saying that she should give back her Nobel Peace Prize.”
While it seems true that Suu Kyi still garners a lot of public support (in Yangon at least), whether she has the ability to deliver on the hopes and promises of the nation, still remains to be seen.
“In Burma there is a way of saying ‘explain’ that literally means to ‘speak show’,” said Green. “I see that she (Suu Kyi) has said a lot but we are still waiting to see much of these promises really shown or demonstrated.”