Rome Was Not Built in One Day: Neither Will Myanmar

By Elisa Chavez

“Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar’s great hope, fails to live up”. On March 30th 2017, analyses of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership began circulating international press. Most of these had a critical and disappointing tone. She had just completed one year in power – Myanmar’s very first year with democratic rule. The evaluation of her first year by most international media seemed to be that Aung San Suu Kyi had failed to lead Myanmar to peace and prosperity, and her leadership skills for this mission should be critically questioned.

Yes – this past year was supposed to be a blank slate for Myanmar: a fresh start for its people, and a new era of freedom, peace and democracy. Yet it seems to be a common tendency nowadays to underestimate the challenges at hand, and to forget to differentiate between a newfound hope of the people and the reality of the apparatus that is supposed to serve them. Hope was reborn among the people with Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory, but she did not inherit a blank slate to design a smooth and well-oiled democracy on. Her government took over a system infected by rot and corruption after half a century of military dictatorship and mass killings.

On that Thursday evening, March 30th, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to Myanmar on nationally broadcasted television. After admitting that progress on both economy and peace had been slower than hoped for, she underlined a major underlying obstacle in her work. “We are now trying to change a system which existed for over fifty years,” she said. But then she continued, “We can see our goals clearly and we are marching to reach them. The goals are national reconciliation and peace.”

Ending 43 years of apartheid in South Africa took three years of negotiations even after extensive preliminary work and discussions. Achieving a peace treaty after more than half a century’s worth of civil war in Colombia was a four-year process, and those of us who observed it can testify to all the hiccups and drawbacks along the way. So why is the international community now criticizing Aung San Suu Kyi for not achieving peace and reconciliation in Myanmar during her first year in power, after 70 years of one of the most complex civil wars in history?

Admittedly, much of the international criticism on her failures this past year has also been directed towards other factors, besides the lack of advance on democracy and peace. Critics in the media have pointed out the lack of economic development and a silence on pressing human rights issues. A group of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates publicly sent her a letter, calling her out on not speaking up for one of Myanmar’s most persecuted minorities; the Muslim Rohingyas.

For years, the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have been marginalized from society and denied citizenship with the accusation that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This conflict has come to the forefront of the international agenda today, as the Rohingyas are considered to be the world’s largest stateless group and the international community are now using the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ to describe the military’s treatment of them. Although there is a clear distance between Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD)-party vs. the military, she has received much criticism for being largely silent on the military aggression and persecution of the Rohingyas, especially because she was once not only Myanmar’s, but also one of the world’s prime defenders of human rights.

Has the once outspoken human rights activist really gotten cozy with her previous captors?

When you are the de facto leader of your country and stay silent on horrific human rights breaches continuously being committed – even by your own military – of course, it needs to be pointed out and criticized. But when that very same military has had that country under a dictatorship stronghold for over half a century, killing or imprisoning all those who oppose them – including yourself – does it really seem like a great idea to reach for the arm when they finally offer you a hand?

Aung San Suu Kyi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview that, “People keep saying I’ve changed. I used to be confrontational. But I haven’t changed. It’s just that the circumstances have changed.” Instead of accusing Aung San Suu Kyi to have a case of Stockholm syndrome, the international community should instead analyze Myanmar’s government apparatus today as a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to understand the domestic political circumstances in which she is in. In most countries, civil society and international actors can expect to deal with one communal actor when negotiating with a government. But in Myanmar today, they are forced to constantly assess who they are dealing with when negotiating with the government – the civilian or the military one. The differentiation that needs to be made depicts the deep split between the two bodies that together compose the current government. And the dynamics between these two is intrinsically complex, to say the least.

When the previous military government announced they were going to allow democratic elections and Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won with a landslide, the world – as much as Myanmar – expected the military to respectfully make way for the newly elected civilian government by withdrawing. It has, but only to a certain extent.

A self-drafted constitution is one of the biggest insurances the military has to retain its formidable power in the government, barring Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, from the presidency – among many other things. Within the first 6 months of the NLD-led government, concern already began surfacing within the country as civil society and the people were noticing the military’s continued presence and power, hampering democratic decision-making and progress. Since then, concern has only continued to grow. Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly identified the constitution as a hindrance to the peace process and expressed that this should be on the agenda of the next Panglong (Union Peace) Conference.

Some of the latest rumors is that the military will try to block her chances of this when trying to negotiate peace with the ethnic armed groups, by provoking more violence and polarization. And if we are to believe that actions speak louder than words, these rumors are starting to be real trends. Since Aung San Suu Kyi announced the date of the next Panglong conference at the end of May, the military sparked aggression with several ethnic armed groups. By declaring war on the peace process, the military is strengthening its grip on power while diminishing hers. This is just one example of the multi-layered facet of challenges and difficult dynamics within the two-headed government.

It appears one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s tactics, as she also has hinted at herself, is to constantly compromise and very carefully pick her battles with the military, so that the positive change towards a healthy democracy and national reconciliation can be a thorough and genuine one, instead of flawed and weak – even if it comes at the cost of being slow. A crucial ingredient that will allow for a healthy democracy in Myanmar is indeed time.

If the international community weakens Aung San Suu Kyi’s image by criticizing her capabilities to lead and change the country, it will only destroy the slim chance Myanmar has gotten now at real peace and democracy.

Instead, if there was ever a time to petition for Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and success, it is now. She has to rebuild a country torn apart by decades of gross mismanagement and corruption to a peaceful democracy, but the still present and powerful military continues to limit her ability to freely rule a country who put its faith in her.

The country has shown time and time again that its people have an unlimited capacity for resilience and hard work. So, if they just decide to work together, instead of feeding into a provoked polarization by losing track of the big picture, a new dawn is sure to come for peace and democracy in Myanmar.

The people – as much as the international community – have endless reasons to be hopeful for a new dawn in Myanmar. But we also mustn’t forget: Rome was not built in one day, and neither will Myanmar.