From admiration to dismay in Myanmar

Most disheartening to many of Suu Kyi long-time supporters has been her record on human rights.

From admiration to dismay in Myanmar

The scene would have been unlikely a year ago. Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets to protest a decision by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to name a new bridge after her father. “Recognise the will of the local ethnic people,” protesters chanted last month as they marched along the waterfront of this historic city in southern Myanmar.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate once celebrated as a champion of democracy, was insulting the Mon people, the dominant ethnic group in the area, protest leaders said, by naming the bridge for a Burmese leader infamous here for steamrollering over their rights. “This is not a democratic process,” said Min Zarni Oo, general secretary of the Mon Youth Forum. “This is a big issue for the local people. The government doesn’t value ethnic diversity.”

No one expected governing to be easy for Suu Kyi, who became the country’s de facto leader a year ago after her party won a landslide election that ended more than a half-century of military rule. Even so, her first year has been a disappointment to many. She made it a top priority to end the long-running ethnic insurgencies, but her anaemic peace effort has proved fruitless so far, and fighting between government forces and ethnic groups has increased.

The world has been shocked by reports that the military has carried out atrocities, including rape and murder, against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in western Myanmar, but Suu Kyi has said little on the matter and done even less. Her government’s growing suppression of speech on the internet seems perverse for a onetime democracy icon who spent 15 years under house arrest. Among the public, patience is wearing thin. “She doesn’t have support like before,” said Zar Zar Oo, 31, a vendor selling bottled water at the Yangon train station.

In a televised speech to the nation commemorating her first year in office, Suu Kyi struck a defensive note, acknowledging her government’s lack of progress and saying people could choose another leader if they were unhappy with her. “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,” she said. In parliamentary by-elections last weekend, her National League for Democracy won only nine of 19 seats.

Suu Kyi, 71, cites building roads as one of her biggest accomplishments. Party spokesman Win Htein said her government had doubled spending on health care and education, though he provided no details. And the economy has continued to grow as the country emerges from isolation under military rule. But Richard Horsey, a political analyst and former United Nations official, said that the growth had slowed and that foreign investment had dipped significantly. Washington’s lifting of economic sanctions last year has yet to translate into stronger trade, investment or job creation, he said.

In Yangon, people are waiting for Suu Kyi to deliver results, said Myat Suu Mon, 28, a department store clerk. The cost of taking the rundown bus to work has doubled, she said, while her pay has remained the same. “In reality we don’t see things changing here.” Zaw Htay, Suu Kyi’s spokesman, acknowledged that progress has been slow, but said the government faced complex problems, such as ethnic conflicts and clashes with the Rohingya, that had been years in the making. “It’s very complicated,” he said in an interview. “We are not magicians.”

Indeed, Suu Kyi faces daunting challenges. In rebuilding the country, she must overcome decades of mismanagement and profiteering by previous military governments that enriched the generals and their cronies. Though her party has majority in parliament, it is hamstrung by a power-sharing arrangement dictated by the military-drafted constitution, which gives the army control of key ministries and enough seats to block any constitutional amendment.

Suu Kyi is barred by the constitution from serving as president because her children are foreigners, a prohibition she circumvented by creating the office of state counsellor for herself and declaring that the president would report to her. She also named herself foreign minister. Supporters say her ability to get along with the military is a significant accomplishment. But critics suggest she suffers from Stockholm syndrome, becoming too cozy with her former captors. They say, her imperious approach alienates potential allies and contributes to the country’s growing crises. She rarely takes questions from the news media or speaks out on major issues.

Perhaps most disheartening to many of her long-time supporters has been her record on human rights. While she released dozens of political prisoners held by the former regime and repealed laws against political dissent, she left in place a law that is increasingly used to stifle criticism of public officials.

Under the Telecommunications Act, defaming someone online is punishable by three years in prison. Suspects can be held without bail while they await trial. The previous government used the law seven times. In the year since Suu Kyi took office, 47 cases have been brought, according to Maung Saungkha, who was once imprisoned under the law and now tracks its use.

The biggest stain on Suu Kyi’s record may be her government’s brutal treatment of the Rohingya, and her tepid response to it. Government soldiers have been accused of widespread killing and rape of Rohingya in Rakhine state. A United Nations report concluded in February that the army and police had slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children; gang-raped women and girls; and forced as many as 90,000 people from their homes.

Deadly crackdown
The deadly crackdown, which the government says was a response to attacks on police posts by Rohingya insurgents, has been roundly criticised by human rights groups, the United Nations, Pope Francis and even 13 of Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel laureates, who wrote a letter calling it “a human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

Although Suu Kyi has no direct control over the military, she has played down the reports of atrocities and stood by the military. “I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on,” she said in a rare interview with the BBC last week. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.”

She did appoint a commission led by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, to examine conditions in Rakhine, but reviewing the military’s conduct was not part of its mandate.

Suu Kyi has said her most important goal is negotiating peace with armed ethnic groups, and in August, she convened a peace conference with great fanfare to resolve the conflicts in northern Myanmar. But the meeting produced no cease-fire agreements, and analysts say there is more fighting now than there has been in many years.

Zaw, Suu Kyi’s spokesman, said senior party leaders had been warned that naming the bridge for her father, Gen. Aung San, would turn the population against them. They went ahead anyway, and last weekend it cost them the parliamentary seat in Chaungzon, the township across the bridge from Mawlamyine. “It was a mistake to name this bridge,” Zaw said. “It is a good lesson for NLD leaders.”

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