A year after winning power, Aung San Suu Kyi is struggling to transform Myanmar

The lady.
The lady.
Image: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
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Yangon, Myanmar

Chinlone isn’t merely Myanmar’s national sport. It is a veritable public art form performed by small groups of pot-bellied men, spiky-haired teenage boys and even Buddhist monks in their elegant saffron robes. They dance around in ragged circles, legs flailing, waists contorting, with an occasional tap of the forehead.

Almost every inch of the body, save the arms, is marshalled to stop the dainty chinlone ball from hitting the ground. The scoring is based on the skill and grace a team exhibits in keeping the ball in the air. The only opponent, really, is gravity.

Perhaps Myanmar’s finest chinlone player at the moment is a 71-year-old woman: Aung San Suu Kyi. The political party she founded in 1988, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept elections last November, winning 77% of the seats, and bringing to an end more than four decades of brutal military rule. But Suu Kyi is playing a high-stakes, political version involving a Myanmar-sized chinlone ball, interwoven with every known challenge of statecraft.

There are some promising signs, but only a diehard optimist could pretend it’s going well for Suu Kyi so far, a year after the elections, and six months after the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner formed her government.

To be fair, transforming the world’s youngest democracy is a huge task. There’s turning around an economy lacerated by half-a-century of mismanagement. There’s negotiating an end to the world’s longest running civil war. There’s managing relations with Myanmar’s two mighty neighbors, China and India, and the fast-growing ASEAN bloc. And she must do all these things with the cooperation of a powerful military that ceded authority very reluctantly and still controls a quarter of parliament.

But if her first few months in power are any evidence, the cloak of infallibility that firmly wrapped Suu Kyi during her years in opposition and as a political prisoner is already beginning to fray. Her motley government of ageing revolutionaries and young first-time parliamentarians has little experience in the difficult and messy business of running a country. Democracy—like chinlone—requires tremendous practice, it seems. And though she has been able to make a little progress, for a nation that has survived on hope for so long, incrementalism may not be enough. Suu Kyi has much work to do, and not too much time to do it.

Barely a blueprint

Kyaw Htway is up every morning at the crack of dawn. He washes himself, prays at the small Buddhist shrine in his living room and then lights up one of Myanmar’s rather pungent cheroots. By daybreak, the burly, middle-aged man is outside, lounging on his tricycle rickshaw in a long-sleeved shirt and a straw hat.

Most of Kyaw Htway’s day is spent ferrying passengers in and around Thaketa township, a working-class neighbourhood in Yangon, the country’s commercial capital. “At 6.45, I get my first customer and then I continue riding,” he said in an interview inside his ramshackle two-storied wooden house. “While the other trishaw drivers are resting during the hottest time of the day, I am still riding.”

There is only one reason he rides in the oppressive midday heat, even at the height of summer. “That’s because I want to get more money for my children’s education,” he said. “In every part of the world, if you are not educated then you will not make enough money.” The father of two speaks from experience. A school dropout, he works 12 hours every day just to make $4. It’s barely enough to support his small household.

But like millions of Myanmar’s working class, Kyaw Htway is dreaming of better days.

“I have a lot of hope that things will come true,” he explained. “With the coming of the new government, a wave of foreign investment will come into the country. Many companies will come, and they will build many factories here.”

“I want our new government to focus on giving job opportunities to our young people,” he said.

It’s not an unreasonable demand. For the past three years, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates Myanmar’s economy has been expanding at an annual average of over 8%. The country’s infrastructure sector is growing, foreign direct investment is strong, natural resource exports are holding up, a manufacturing base is taking shape and the service sector is robust.

In 2016, the economy is expected to grow at 8.4%—the fastest anywhere in Asia.

“We expect the 8%-plus growth path to continue, not least on the back of the positive outcome of the elections which has boosted confidence of investors and consumers,” said Winfried Wicklein, ADB’s country director in Myanmar.

But there are important caveats. For one, this growth is off a very low base. And much of it springs from policies put in place by the previous government. Meanwhile, there are massive bottlenecks that still need to be fixed.

“The country is suffering from decades of economic mismanagement and these challenges certainly cannot be resolved overnight,” said Erin Murphy, founder and principal of Inle Advisory Group, which advises businesses on Myanmar.

“Myanmar has incredible infrastructure deficiencies, including power generation, transportation, and supply chains,” she added. “It also suffers from capacity challenges, including skilled and trained workers, and government officials with significant governing experience.”

Bureaucratic red tape, layers of unnecessary laws, and the high cost of approvals and operations simply add to the morass. The result is that Myanmar is one of the most difficult countries in Asia for opening and running a business, according to the World Bank’s 2015 rankings.

There’s also a yawning urban-rural divide that separates the country into two almost entirely separate entities. Myanmar’s burgeoning cities are choking with cars and motorcycles, and many homes have electricity connections and proper sanitation facilities. In the hinterland, where 70% of Myanmar’s population lives, life is very different: 29% of households use bullock carts, 92% of kitchens use firewood or charcoal for cooking, and only 15% of homes have access to electricity.

Suu Kyi’s government offered a first glimpse of its plan to rebuild the economy four months after it formed. There wasn’t much to see. The government’s “Economic Policy of the Country,” a three-page document with a 12-point wish list, is light on actual policies or plans.

First on the wish list: Simply to “increase financial resources by using a transparent, good and strong public financial management system.” The second is to “make state-run businesses more successful, to privatize some state-run businesses that can be changed, and to support small and medium enterprises that will improve the economy.”

“The document provides some clues on the direction that the NLD government wants to take the economy,” said Alexander Jaggard, the Myanmar representative of Mekong Economics, a consulting firm, “but we won’t be able to know more about how they want to go about doing this until they publish the specific policies for each point.”

In October, the NLD government passed a long-awaited investment law, which intends to provide a framework for domestic and foreign investments. Significantly, the legislation was moved through parliament just weeks after Suu Kyi’s visit to the US, where the Obama administration decided to lift long-standing economic sanctions against Myanmar. But yet again, details are fuzzy. It is likely to take at least three months before the fine print will be released.

The lack of clarity is inhibiting investment. In the first four months of the NLD government, foreign direct investment into Myanmar fell to $380 million, from $2.6 billion during the same period last year.

Even Suu Kyi acknowledges the economic stagnation. “We openly admit that the economy has not developed as rapidly as we’d expected,” she said at a meeting with the business community on Oct. 22.

There are two main reasons why the government hasn’t moved swiftly to capitalise on Myanmar’s economic resurgence.

The first, according to Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who advises the NLD, is the lack of data. “We had very little access to information on the economy,” he explained, “It took a few months to even figure out, ‘where are we’?”

The other is the simple fact that, so far, Suu Kyi’s main focus has been working with the country’s military leadership to advance Myanmar’s perplexing peace process.

Jousting with the generals

Although resoundingly defeated in Myanmar’s election last November, the generals weren’t entirely outsmarted.

Chapter 3, Clause 59(f) of the 2008 constitution states that the president, “one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power.” It was put there for a reason: Suu Kyi was married to the late British historian Michael Aris, and their two sons hold British passports.

Despite the weight of her electoral victory, Suu Kyi chose not to force the issue. Years of jousting with the generals had taught her better.

Instead, Htin Kyaw, a childhood friend and close aide of the NLD leader, became president. The low-profile 69-year-old’s primary qualification for the job is his absolute and complete loyalty to Suu Kyi. Within days of taking office Htin Kyaw signed the bill making Suu Kyi “State Counsellor,” a sort of prime minister who bridges the executive and the legislature. In reality, though, she holds the most powerful office in Myanmar.

It was a deft move, but Suu Kyi—who is also foreign minister—cannot hope to outmaneuver the military brass forever. The influence of the generals pervades nearly every institution of the state. Under Myanmar’s current constitution, key cabinet posts, including the home, defence and border ministries, remain under the military’s control. Suu Kyi wants to change this situation, and has previously promised to amend the constitution to make the country’s government more democratic. Even the General Administration Department, which forms the backbone of Myanmar’s civil service, remains under the control of the military chief.

Suu Kyi, therefore, must find a way of working with the men in uniform, not in spite of them.

“The main thing is dealing with the army,” said Sithu Aung Myint, a widely respected columnist and political observer, based in Yangon, “because if the relationship (with the military) is broken, we will forego the developments we are enjoying now and things will go back to the old situation.”

Thus far, the accord has held and, by some indications, even strengthened. On July 19, for instance, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made a surprise visit to Suu Kyi’s home in Yangon. The two smiled and posed for photos with Buddhist monks in the same house where the military had Suu Kyi imprisoned for years.

“The current relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the still politically powerful military is generally good, in particular it seems the personal relationship with General Min,” said Amarjit Singh, a senior analyst at IHS Markit Country Risk, a consultancy.

Aung San Suu Kyi with general Min Aung Hlaing
Aung San Suu Kyi walks with commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, general Min Aung Hlaing.
Image: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

Despite this early promise, the relationship between this government and the country’s erstwhile political masters is still very tenuous. And there continues to be substantial sources of friction.

It is a relationship born out of necessity, said Larry Jagan, a long-time Myanmar watcher and former BBC World Service journalist, but the two don’t entirely trust each other.

“They are working closely together on the peace process, and understand they need each other for this,” he said. “There have been several secret meetings between them on this since the beginning of May—the key area of disagreement remains peace first or constitutional change.”

Fighting to stop

“I call the Myanmar peace process the thebokau peace process,” explained Aung Naing Oo, before attempting to describe the sponge gourd, a cylindrical cucumber-like fruit with a dense, fibrous inside.

“When you look at the fabric inside, it’s so intricate” he continued, with a hint of an American accent, “You don’t know which is the beginning, which is the middle, and which is the end.”

Aung Naing Oo should know. Since 2012, the rangy former guerrilla has been among those trying to hammer together a peace accord to stop a civil war that has been smouldering for nearly 70 years across 20% of Myanmar’s territory.

The salt-and-pepper-haired Harvard graduate, who spent over 20 years in exile, was a senior member of the Myanmar Peace Center, an organisation created by the previous military-backed transitional  government to coordinate and lead the peace process.

The origins of the conflict date back to the British-supervised Panglong Agreement, which promised autonomy to regions dominated by some of Myanmar’s 134 ethnic minorities. The deal was signed on Feb. 12, 1947 between leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin minorities and the Burmese government of Aung San, a leader of the Bamar majority—and Suu Kyi’s father. Five months later, Aung San was assassinated, spiralling the country into chaos and military rule. The generals ignored the Panglong Agreement, pushing into non-Bamar regions and unleashing a series of uprisings. Last October, the military-backed government struck a ceasefire agreement with eight armed ethnic groups. However, remaining groups refused to join the pact, and it is now up to Suu Kyi to bring them into the fold.

“There’s no one reason why this particular group or that particular group doesn’t want to sign. It can be geopolitics, it can be because some of the leaders are ideologically driven,” said Aung Naing Oo. “Or they are conflict entrepreneurs, you know, making money out of the conflict.”

Decades of fighting have fueled a massive conflict economy, which Aung Naing Oo estimates at between $20 billion and $30 billion. It includes narcotics, timber, jade and other precious stones, illegal taxation, arms, human trafficking and every other commodity that can be traded in and around a war zone.

A legion of militarized outfits—the Myanmar government recognizes 16 armed ethnic organizations, though other estimates are as high as 21—feed off this economy. On top of that, there are numerous militia groups, ranging between 10 and 700 members in size, which together account for some 50,000 fighters, according to a government estimate from a few years ago.

At some point, they all need to be disarmed, in all likelihood under the framework created by the nationwide ceasefire agreement. Suu Kyi has to build consensus between a constellation of armed outfits with different goals and interests. She will also have to negotiate with the military, while simultaneously preserving public support for the peace process. And she can’t take too long because the generals may not have much patience for a protracted democratic solution if armed ethnic groups continue to fight them.

To its credit, the new government has already made its first big move. On Aug. 31, the NLD government convened the “21st Century Panglong Conference” in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city, to kickstart the peace process under its watch. It gathered together representatives from 17 ethnic armed organisations, members of parliament, military officers, diplomats and civil society delegates. Even the United Nations general secretary, Ban Ki-moon, made an appearance. But three armed groups were barred by the military, and a fourth—the United Wa State Army, the largest armed group in the country—walked out of the conference because of an administrative mix up.

The conference delivered very little in terms of a tangible outcomes, other than getting the warring parties to sit at a table together in the first place. And from here, the process is extremely hazy.

“The problem is there is no road map,” Jagan explained. “A national ceasefire has to be negotiated with those groups that did not sign last year’s agreement before real comprehensive political dialogue can begin.”

As with the economy, Suu Kyi and the NLD have so far failed to present much of a plan.

A star fades?

On Dec. 10, 1991, a then-18-year-old Alexander Aris told a seated gathering inside the Oslo City Hall in Norway, “I stand before you here today to accept, on behalf of my mother Aung Sang Suu Kyi, this greatest of prizes, the Nobel prize for peace because circumstances do not permit my mother to be here herself.”

Ten thousand kilometers away, Suu Kyi was then in her third year of house arrest in Yangon, a confinement that would stretch for nearly a decade-and-a-half over 21 years.

Suu Kyi Rangoon
Aung San Suu Kyi, then Myanmar’s main opposition leader addresses crowd of supporters in Rangoon (now Yangon) on July 7, 1989.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Karp

Her son continued: “Firstly, I know that she would begin by saying that she accepts the Nobel Peace Prize not in her own name but in the name of the all those men, women and children who even as I speak today continue to sacrifice their well-being, their freedom and their lives in pursuit of a democratic Burma.”

“Theirs is the prize,” Alexander read on, with his mother’s portrait behind him, “and theirs will be the eventual victory in Burma’s long struggle for peace, freedom and democracy.”

High hopes accompanied that lofty rhetoric, but today, the international community, which had always lionized Suu Kyi, has been scathing in their indictment of her stance on the Rohingya.

Counted among the world’s most persecuted minorities, Myanmar’s one million Rohingyas have been repeatedly denied citizenship and other basic rights by successive military-led governments. Some 120,000 Rohingya, who are Muslim, are confined inside settlements that have been compared to concentration camps. To escape these ghettos, thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine region have risked their lives attempting to illegally reach other South Asian countries. Hundreds have died trying, while many more have been systematically targeted and killed by Buddhist mobs, with the alleged cooperation of police and a section of the clergy.

Rather than end this cycle of persecution and violence, Suu Kyi is being accused of pandering to Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. Her government has steadfastly refused to even use the term “Rohingya.”

“We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognized as among the 135 official ethnic groups,” a government spokesperson told the New York Times in May. “Our position is that using the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems.” A month later, the Suu Kyi administration banned government officials from using the word altogether. The state counsellor’s argument was that her government needs “enough space to solve” the Rohingya crisis.

In August, Suu Kyi announced the formation of a nine-member commission, led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, to look into the Rohingya issue and publish a report in a year’s time. “The Myanmar government wants to find a sustainable solution on the complicated issues in Rakhine State. That’s why it has formed an advisory commission,” the government said in a statement. The move didn’t go down well with many in Myanmar. When Annan visited the restive Rakhine state in early September, the Ghanaian diplomat was greeted by raucous protesters.

Later in September, when Suu Kyi made her first trip to Washington after taking office, the spectre of the Rohingya crisis followed her to the White House. Although president Obama’s decision to lift US sanctions against Myanmar was the big takeaway, it wasn’t entirely missed that a group of 46 non-governmental organisations wrote to the US president, reminding him of the plight of the Rohingya and other human rights abuses.

It didn’t help that US senator Bob Corker also released a statement, after meeting Suu Kyi on Sept. 14, which said: “…I am somewhat appalled by her dismissive reaction to concerns I raised this morning about the problem of human trafficking in her country.”

Since early October, the Rohingya crisis has deepened after insurgents attacked guard posts along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. In the subsequent military crackdown, Myanmar troops have been accused of burning, looting and even rape in the restive Muslim-majority Maungdaw area.

“She understands the complexity of this matter—and the broader need for reconciliation in Rakhine state,” said Jagan. “While putting the issue in the hands of the Kofi Annan commission, appears in part a delaying tactic, she hopes that a fresh outside view might help come up with a concrete strategy to at least improve communal relations in Rakhine.”

Again, no actual plan.

A question of skill and stamina

Gauging Suu Kyi’s success thus depends on who you ask.

“Aung San Suu Kyi was held as this Joan of Arc figure and was such a beacon of hope for the Myanmar people that, in any other country, she was almost bound to fail,” argued Mekong Economics’ Jaggard. “My initial impressions are that in some areas she has done reasonably well, and in others not so much.”

But a sense of inertia is already permeating Myanmar’s young government. In particular, the new government’s decision to focus on the peace process above all else could have unintended consequences.

The NLD’s focus on national reconciliation, said Murphy, is “possibly to the detriment of creating micro and macroeconomic reforms. The NLD wants to do things right and set a perfect foundation for the country to develop but it appears that the perfect will become the enemy of the good.”

And of everything that is stacked up against Suu Kyi and the NLD, her biggest enemy may well be time.

“It’s a bit like so far so good,” said Jagan. “But there are already murmurings of discontent amongst the business community and intelligentsia—the public generally remains very loyal—about inertia and no clear leadership.”

“The real test will be the next six months,” he added.

For now, Suu Kyi’s Myanmar-sized chinlone ball has still to hit the ground. The question though, is how long will her skill and stamina last?

Additional reporting by Thurein Win. Cinemagraphs by Rohan Chakravarty.