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Suu Kyi's inconvenient truth and the origins of Myanmar's coup

Charismatic leader has played a complicated role in her country's history

Demonstrators hold up signs during a protest against the military coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon in February 2021.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- It was the first time in four months that the whereabouts of Myanmar's charismatic leader could be confirmed.

The occasion came on May 24, when Aung San Suu Kyi made her first appearance in a courtroom in the capital of Naypyidaw. A photo released by state-run media shows her seated straight-backed and masked alongside Win Myint, who was president in the government that Suu Kyi led as state counselor, and others.

Suu Kyi was detained by the military on Feb. 1 as it staged a coup, charging her with six crimes, including leaking state secrets and illegally importing radio equipment. Conventional court hearings have been held online, and face-to-face meetings with defense lawyers have been prohibited. Before she appeared in court, she was allowed to deliver a message to her National League for Democracy, telling members that "the party was created for the people, and it will continue to exist as long as the people exist."

Simply catching a glimpse of Suu Kyi and hearing her voice is enough to encourage the nation's democrats. The military has been cautious in this regard. So why did it allow Suu Kyi to make her address? A hint came in the preceding days.

On May 21, the country's election commission, appointed by the military, mentioned the possibility of disbanding the NLD at a meeting of 59 of the country's 91 political parties. In an interview with a Hong Kong television broadcaster aired the next day, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing discussed a policy of "transferring to a civilian administration." It was the first time he was interviewed by foreign media since the coup.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Win Myint and Dr. Myo Aung appear at a court in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on May 24, 2021.   © MRTV/Reuters

Citizens in Myanmar continue to protest, but the peak of the resistance has passed. The military, judging this to be the case, appears to be moving toward an exit strategy that includes holding fresh elections within two years and forming a government led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

In mid-April, pro-democracy forces formed the parallel National Unity Government, with Suu Kyi as State Counselor and Win Myint as president, just as in the previous NLD government. But other ministers are in hiding, working to send out information through Facebook.

They have also declared the formation of a "People's Defense Force," but the chain of command is not clear. As bombings that target military and government facilities continue, Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy to Myanmar, said people are arming themselves and protesters have started shifting from defensive to offensive actions, using homemade weapons and training from some ethnic armed groups, according to news agency AP.

Armed conflict does not fit with Suu Kyi's consistent advocacy for nonviolence. Killings of government officials and USDP personnel have become more frequent. The connection to the defense force is unclear, but indiscriminate attacks could dampen international sympathy for the pro-democracy movements.

These leaderless conditions lead one to consider Suu Kyi's role, the good and the bad, in Myanmar's recent history.

She came to the fore in 1988 amid student-led democracy demonstrations, participating in the formation of the NLD. As the daughter of Gen. Aung San, the "founding hero" who led Myanmar to independence from the U.K., she attracted enthusiastic support from the beginning.

In 1989, Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest. One year later, after the NLD won 80% of the seats in a general election, trouncing the military's puppet party, the military refused to transfer power. Since then, Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has endured 15 years of house arrest and become a symbol of the country's short-lived democratization.

In 2010, the NLD boycotted the first general election in 20 years, leading the USDP, the successor to the former military regime, to take 80% of the seats. After the government of Thein Sein unexpectedly pursued democratic reforms, Suu Kyi ran in the 2012 special election and became a member of the National Assembly. The NLD took power in the 2015 election when it again won 80% of the seats, and it won by the same margin in the 2020 election. The military then claimed "massive electoral fraud" and engineered the coup.

Aung San Suu Kyi in Tokyo in 2019. Suu Kyi has not groomed a successor nor shown any willingness to work with other pro-democracy forces. (Photo by Wataru Ito)

A pattern emerges when reviewing the course of Myanmar's democratization over four general elections and three decades: stagnation, rapid progress and setbacks. "Eighty percent" appears to be a magic number of sorts. Whether the NLD or USDP, parties win elections overwhelmingly.

One reason for this is single-seat constituencies, which operate under a winner-take-all system and result in many votes going to losing candidates. Despite its resounding defeat in the 1990s, the military laid out the same system in its 2008 constitution. In 2010, when the NLD boycotted the election, the USDP won an overwhelming victory. In 2015, it won 28% of the vote but only 8% of the contested seats. As a result, authorities are already hinting at a shift to a proportional system.

The electoral system alone cannot explain the trend. A lack of a third option is another factor. "The structural impediment to Myanmar's development is that the conservative segment of society, which is neither the military nor advocates of democracy but rather somewhere in between them, has not become a political force," said Yoshihiro Nakanishi, an associate professor at Kyoto University.

Parties offering voters a third option exist. They include the National Democratic Force, which split from the NLD in 2010 and participated in the election; the People's Party, which was founded in 2018 by Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the "88 Generation Students Group"; and the People's Pioneer Party, founded in 2019 by business owner Thet Thet Khine after she left the NLD.

However, all three parties failed to win seats in the 2020 general election. "The decision made by many in the privacy of the voting booth is still on which party has a nation-wide presence and mobilization power to fulfil election and political promises," said Moe Thuzar, a fellow at ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

One factor behind this is Suu Kyi's on-and-off exclusivism. The NLD did not participate in the 2010 election because Suu Kyi was under house arrest and could not stand for office. However, the NDF, once a part of the NLD, argued that political parties should participate in elections. Suu Kyi called on her supporters to refuse to vote, rather than support the NDF. Ko Ko Gyi wanted to run as a member of the NLD in the 2015 election but was not allowed to. Thet Thet Khine left the party after criticizing Suu Kyi for acting arbitrarily and without consultation.

Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of student protests in Myanmar in 1988, speaks in Yangon in 2015. He is reported to be "deeply disappointed" with Suu Kyi.   © Reuters

Suu Kyi has not groomed a successor, nor has she shown any willingness to work with other pro-democracy forces. Her concentration of political power has helped the NLD to win, but then its overwhelming victory created a sense of crisis within the military, leading to the coup.

Looking back on the coup, the biggest mystery still puzzling everyone is why Suu Kyi refused to allow the military to investigate electoral fraud. In multiple rounds of talks with the NLD four days before the coup, the military is said to have demanded the replacement of election commission members, an investigation into irregularities and a delay in convening the Assembly. The NLD rejected each demand.

There are only two logical explanations. Either NLD leaders were convinced that there was no wrongdoing, or they thought some kind of trouble would occur if they agreed to the investigation. What is clear is that they always knew a coup was possible. Immediately after the upheaval, the NLD released a statement entrusted to them in advance by Suu Kyi calling for resistance. Late on Jan. 28, Suu Kyi destroyed her own mobile phone to prevent the military from seizing it, Reuters reported, citing a close associate.

Why did Suu Kyi not seek to avoid the coup when she clearly anticipated it? She certainly should have known the danger of turning down the military's demands. The military's actions in overthrowing the civilian government and using force to suppress protesters is unjustifiable, but Suu Kyi cannot be said to be free of responsibility for the current circumstances, which include the deaths of more than 830 people.

Ko Ko Gyi, who started his own party after being refused entry to the NLD, endured 19 years in prison under the former military regime. Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation and the Japanese government's representative for Myanmar national reconciliation, shared a story on his blog about Ko Ko Gyi's visit to Japan in 2017. According to Sasakawa, Ko Ko Gyi told him, "Suu Kyi said, 'The 88 generation was the woodcutters who cleared the forest, and their role is over. I will follow the path you have cleared.' I was deeply disappointed and saddened to think that she had forgotten our efforts."

Suu Kyi's role as the democratizing leader may also be coming to an end. Suu Kyi and the NLD are not the only actors in Myanmar's progress toward democracy.

Pro-democracy movement can no longer rely on charisma. If its thinking does not change at some point, democracy advocates will never reach their ultimate goal.

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