Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Lady and authoritarianism in Myanmar.

(for record and learn)

Andrew Selth: The Lady and authoritarianism in Myanmar

A strong or simply authoritarian leader? National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves to supporters in Yangon during her election campaign in October 2015​. (Photo by Steve Tickner)
Over the past few years, there has been a significant shift in public perceptions of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. While still lauded by many as a champion of democracy, she is increasingly being accused of arrogance and inflexibility. Since the sweeping electoral victory of her National League for Democracy last November, some observers have even suggested that she could replace one authoritarian regime with another.
     Suu Kyi has always had her critics. She has been described as imperious, if not autocratic, and accused of refusing to listen to contrary advice. She has been uncomfortable with internal party debate. Disgruntled NLD members claim that she has denied others in the democracy movement opportunities to influence its membership and direction. They say she has resisted grooming a successor and blocked others with leadership ambitions.
Objective reasons?
Since being released from house arrest in 2010, she has revealed other personality traits that do not accord with her public image. She seems to have lost sight of goals such as universal human rights, which she espoused as a prisoner of conscience, and stands accused of putting the pursuit of power above principles. For example, she has declined to speak out against the abuse of Myanmar's Rohingya community and, in the national elections, the NLD refused to field any Muslim candidates.
     During the polls, Suu Kyi effectively reduced all other NLD candidates to proxies by restricting their roles and activities. She reserved the right to make major policy announcements herself. Although denied the presidency by the 2008 constitution (because her two sons are British citizens), she has stated that she intends to be "above the president," who would "have no authority." She planned to "run the government" herself and to "make all decisions."
     It is always risky to speculate about the mindsets of public figures. Also, not all reports coming out of Myanmar and claiming to represent Suu Kyi's views can be relied upon. It is possible that, as her detractors claim, she has always had an authoritarian streak that is now revealing itself. However, without trying to justify any of her actions, it is worth considering -- particularly as she prepares to take control of government from April 1 -- whether there might be objective reasons for her to adopt a strong personal leadership style.
     Several possible factors spring to mind. First, after 1988, while the world elevated Suu Kyi to the position of democratic icon, sang her praises, awarded her prestigious prizes and granted her honorary degrees, "The Lady" (as she became known) always saw herself as a politician. She was happy to accept her international status -- indeed, she shrewdly exploited it -- but her sights were set firmly on the goals of her own freedom and, ultimately, those of her compatriots.
     Second, she has always believed that she has a special role to play in Myanmar's history. She told her husband when they married in 1971 that, if forced to choose, her country would come before her family. In 1988, she made that decision. As the daughter of Myanmar's independence hero, General Aung San, she feels a deep sense of personal destiny that has helped her overcome enormous difficulties in her quest to become the country's president.
     Third, over the past 25 years, Suu Kyi has been feted by presidents and prime ministers, and invited to address world assemblies. She has essentially dictated the policies of major powers and international organizations toward Myanmar. Both at home and abroad she has been surrounded by crowds of admirers. In such circumstances, it would be easy for her to believe that she had a unique role to play in Myanmar's national development.
     Fourth, Suu Kyi knows that, ever since Myanmar regained its independence in 1948, its governments and political parties have been weakened by factionalism, personality clashes and policy disputes. The armed forces (or Tatmadaw) were able to preside over the modern world's most durable military dictatorship largely because they had strong leadership and a shared ideology, and exercised tight discipline through an effective organizational structure.

Andrew Selth: The Lady and authoritarianism in Myanmar

     Fifth, another reason why the armed forces remained in power in Myanmar for so long was that they placed a premium on loyalty and institutional cohesion, even at the expense of expertise and other qualities. When he ruled Myanmar, for example, Ne Win reversed an old saying to emphasize "a good man first, a smart man second" -- good in that case being someone who would never question the Tatmadaw's ethos or challenge its leaders.
Harsh realities
Sixth, Myanmar is a volatile mix of ethnic, religious, political, economic and social groupings. These groupings compete with each other, and most are riven by factions and personality clashes. There are also dozens of non-state armed groups. The potential for public protests, sectarian violence and civil war is high. This is why the Tatmadaw claims that only a strong central government and firm controls can guarantee Myanmar's unity, stability and sovereignty.
     Seventh, Suu Kyi knows that the success -- possibly even the survival -- of her government will depend on a modus vivendi with the armed forces. This has already required major concessions on the part of the NLD. Having negotiated an agreement with the generals, she cannot afford to have them doubt her ability to implement it and to keep control over her party members, many of whom resent the Tatmadaw's continuing role in national politics.
     There seems little doubt that factors like these have influenced the way in which Suu Kyi thinks about the business of government and views her own role, now that she is finally in a position to exercise real power.
     Also, she has changed over the years. She is no longer the reserved wife of a British academic who stood nervously on the Shwedagon Pagoda platform in 1988 and called for an end to military rule in Myanmar. For a quarter of a century she has endured physical threats, psychological torture and public abuse to emerge as a tough, experienced political warrior on a mission to change her country. She is also a global figure of considerable stature.
     Suu Kyi's strong leadership style may simply be a reflection of her character, as her critics are claiming. However, it could also be, at least in part, a calculated strategy to help cope with the harsh realities of power in Myanmar and the enormous challenges faced by the new government. She could view such an approach as the best way of keeping the Tatmadaw's support, binding her fractious party together, managing a host of contentious issues and delivering the results that are expected.
     Whatever the factors influencing her personality and behavior, Suu Kyi is determined to play a dominant role. She rightly claims a popular mandate to do so. To most voters in 2015, she personified the NLD and the need for far-reaching reforms. Her insistence on negotiating with the generals herself, taking major policy decisions, vetting party appointments, anointing a loyal follower as president and giving herself four out of 21 cabinet positions all suggest such a plan.
     Given Myanmar's deeply troubled past and highly uncertain future, a strong hand on the tiller might be what the country needs right now. However, there are real risks in taking such an approach. While she is still very popular, Suu Kyi's attitude and behavior are already causing concerns, including in the NLD. Many new members of parliament want to play a greater role in government than simply endorsing decisions made by their leader. Some foreign commentators have even labeled her a "democratic dictator" in the making, who may precipitate the very crises she is trying to avoid.
     That may be stretching the point, but there would be serious consequences if Suu Kyi cannot keep her party, the armed forces and the Myanmar people in the boat as she leads them into uncharted waters.
Andrew Selth is adjunct associate professor at Griffith University and the Australian National University.


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