Aung San Suu Kyi and the Junta’s Trap: NLD Must Resist Military Influence Over Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy’s efforts to bring about change in Myanmar face obstructions, despite their victory in the 2015 elections. As long as the military is entangled in government and the economy, Myanmar’s most pressing issues will remain unaddressed. This bolsters the opposition and puts the former junta in a position to succeed, as it had originally devised during the ostensible democratisation.

In a geopolitical epoch of violence and instability across the globe, the partial democratisation of Myanmar stood out as an isolated constructive event. Since ascending to power in the 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) have managed to secure positive coverage from foreign governments and the press, briefly diverting attention away from the country’s ongoing internal conflict, appropriately branded a genocide against Rohingya Muslims. During the NLD’s victory lap, the country saw exponential growth in tourism, the lifting of punitive sanctions, and became the darling of investors abroad, with foreign ­direct investment (FDI) reaching $4 billion in 2015.

Yet, despite these wins, Suu Kyi and the NLD are continuously being tripped up by a series of traps laid out by the junta during the transfer of power. Once seen as a potential catalyst for peace, Suu Kyi has instead begun to fit the mould of an apologist. Her perfunctory remarks regarding her country’s conflict are anodyne, so as to not produce an outcry or action from the junta. Such ­actions on her part are confounding, given that Suu Kyi’s legacy is rooted in standing up and speaking out against the ­junta. This is not to mention their ramification of undermining her power and position within the country.

Nevertheless, such politicking is to be expected in a young democracy. However, the issue illuminates the junta’s desire to obstruct the NLD’s reform efforts. Over the course of NLD rule, the military has managed to embed itself into every facet of the economy. Its massive business ­empire is represented by the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and the Union of ­Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), names befitting state-owned enterprises, but which really serve to fill the coffers of the military’s elite. Such ve­sted interests will continue to hamper Myanmar’s efforts towards full democratisation and sow the seeds of a deep state.

Suu Kyi has put herself in a precarious position by publicly prioritising peace in her capacity as state counselor. On the one hand, the junta’s control of 25% of the legislature (not including seats held by its lackey, the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP]) and its veto power makes any potential concession to rebel groups impossible. The military’s refusal to grant media access to Rakhine, home to many Rohingya Muslims, lends credit to the charge that the military’s handover of power does not include checks and balances by the civilian government, as would be proper. 

Of the little news that does manage to leak outside of Rakhine, stories of ­systematic rape and murder display the military’s indifference to international opinion, an attitude that has recently manifested in the ranks of the NLD. While the military has dealt with a global public relations problem for several decades, Suu Kyi, as the new face of Myanmar, faces the brunt of criticism, which strengthens the USDP. Stories from Rak­h­ine have been verified by multiple outlets and Suu Kyi’s adamant refusal to accept a United Nations probe eviscerates transparency, a core tenet of democracy.

The internal conflict and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya extend bey­o­nd issues of human rights and security. Suu Kyi’s decision to publicise her priority of bringing about peace was a crucial ­mistake, as any attempt will certainly meet resistance from not only the junta but by members of the NLD as well, who see little political benefit in solving an ­issue their electorate remains relatively indifferent towards. 

The NLD’s win in 2015 may have been a rout, but unlike junta rule, it is not permanent. The economy and an ageing infrastructure that is stalling the country’s economy remain the top issues for most Myanmarese citizens; not the conflict over the Rohingya. Plenty of sectors have seen substantial growth in the past two years alone, and continuing that economic momentum is necessary for the NLD to maintain its super-majority in the next elections. The NLD has shown no real progress in economic policy, and one could point to the military’s entanglement in commerce as the reason. The MEC and UMEH possess interests that span the tobacco, alcohol, banking, and insurance industries, as well as a lucrative gem monopoly. This not only deters foreign investment, but also presents a significant conflict of interest as the military wields undue influence by stifl­ing competition and breeding an oligarchy. Until the veil of secrecy over the MEC and the UMEH is pierced with adequate pressure, Myanmar can expect its FDI to plummet.

Nevertheless, should Suu Kyi backtrack from the peace process, she runs the risk of heightening the concerns of the international community, which, under eno­ugh pressure from an assortment of NGOs and governments, may impose sanctions once again. Such an action would impede Myanmar’s economic momentum, especially in tourism, and scare off foreign investors and their capital, which is needed to rebuild and expand crippled infrastructure in Yangon and beyond. However, sanctions may also prove to be fruitful, and exert external pressure on the military
No one is in a better position than the junta, who would certainly prefer to see Suu Kyi fail organically, sans coup. If the NLD is unable to bring about the necessary reforms and satiate the demands of its electorate in the coming years, the military-backed USDP may be able to gradually turn over enough seats to limit the NLD from fulfilling its manifesto. While the junta took efforts to enact ­economic reform, and proved competent in that regard, a restoration of its gove­r­n­ment has proved to be an unsustainable exercise.

One sliver of opportunity for Suu Kyi may be represented by the courtship of India and China, both of whom are ­vying for a position of influence in the country. By engaging these powers, Suu Kyi may be able to seek advice on the ­civilian–military harmony that both ­nations exude. China’s famed strategy of providing loans for big infrastructure projects could check off a much-needed reform on the electorate’s priority list. However, while, enticing, comparatively, Chinese foreign policy hints at a feigned indifference towards particularities of democracy and dictatorship. As for India, a continuation of attempts to procure joint military cooperative agreements could prove useful, as it appeases the Myanma­rese military by strengthening its counter-insurgency capabilities, but is also indicative of a relatively successful democracy that harmoniously balances several minority groups. India would stand to benefit if it could cement itself as a ­primary influence in the country, steering it out of the hands of an eager China. ­India’s sensitive diplomacy and newfound economic interests in Myanmar should compel it to utilise its clout and enact much needed reform of the military’s grotesque and inhumane tactics.

One significant step remains for ­Myanmar to complete its permanent ­democratisation: a full partition of the civilian government and the military, with checks and balances applied by the former. While Myanmar’s democracy ­remains fragile and susceptible to the whims of the military elite, Suu Kyi’s ­career was built on speaking out against the junta. To forego that responsibility now and preserve power in a simulacrum democracy that appears to be losing more legitimacy each day, will result in no progress towards peace and only threatens the NLD’s foreign and domestic reputation. Suu Kyi’s historical legacy could be tarnished and it could shift from that of a Nobel Peace laureate and respected ­activist, to a failed leader and a casual observer of genocide. 

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