Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Leadership is extremely important in Myanmar. It has been more than two years since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took control of the country after being elected by the people. We’ll discuss her successes and failures over the past two years, and over the 30 years of her struggle for democracy. What legacy will she leave the country? Ko Thwin Lin Aung, director of Genuine People’s Servants (GPS), and analyst Ko Thiha Thwe join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
Tuesday [June 19] marks the birthday of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the first elected leader in our country in several decades and faces tough challenges. What do you think are her successes and failures?
Thwin Lin Aung: She joined politics in 1988 and has achieved subsequent successes. She won strong public support inside the country. She was respected as a democracy icon by the Asian community. She even became a democracy icon on the international stage. These are undoubtedly her achievements, but precisely before 2012. Now, though we can’t say definitely that her popularity is waning, we have started to see things that make us doubt her halo since 2012, especially since 2015. On the home front, we doubt she still has the trust of ethnic groups. On the international front, we have started to doubt her diplomacy with international countries since 2015.
KZM: So it is after the National League for Democracy [NLD] government took power? Our country is riddled with challenges — in other words, the bad legacy of successive military governments. Ko Thiha, you are well acquainted with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. How would you assess her leadership?
Thiha Thwe: Speaking about how Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has overcome challenges, I would like to note one thing. As everyone knows, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will make any sacrifice, even her life, to do what she believes in. She left behind her family and devoted her whole life to Myanmar politics. Because of her determination she was said to have an iron will. She continuously held up the 1990 election results and fought the military dictators on the political battlefield. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ‘s greatest success, or the most significant success, is that the military used every trick in the book along the way to stop her from holding the position she has achieved today. She overcame those challenges. People thought Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was stubborn and would never relinquish the 1990 election results. She unexpectedly abandoned the 1990 election results, changed her strategy, made a surprise move and contested the 2012 by-election and overcame the final barrier of the other side. It was a significant and surprising success. It was the result of public support for her, and of her popularity with the people. Though she has achieved the great success of having overcome their final barrier, there have been setbacks. In the past, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was decisive in her actions. But now I would like to point out her two failures. The first is her failure to persuade the Tatmadaw [army]. Second, there are a lot of shortcomings in selecting candidates for the cabinet. Many hoped she would change the cabinet decisively and build a better team, because we have seen that she is a decisive person by nature. She might have a lot of difficulties convincing the Tatmadaw. In order to improve ties with the Tatmadaw, she can’t run the country as her own property. We can understand that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will have difficulties in persuading the Tatmadaw. We believe she will continue to try her best to convince it to join the reform process. However, there will be negative impacts for the NLD government and for democratization if reforms are stalled.
KZM: It takes both sides to achieve national reconciliation, so military leaders must also take part. Ko Thwin Lin Aung, after the many years of military rule we have lived under, national reconciliation is key to solving the country’s problems. For the sake of national reconciliation, the NLD government has had to appoint officials of the previous military government. Might this have an impact on the capacity of the NLD cabinet? How do you think the NLD is balancing this? She has been criticized by her own party members for appointing former generals to her cabinet.
TLA: Though the NLD government didn’t mention it in its election manifesto, it is clear that one of its top priorities since taking office is to reconcile with the Tatmadaw. We can’t know exactly what the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are thinking. But from what we have seen, the government is rather weak in assessing the Tatmadaw. I think the government has overestimated its ability to persuade the Tatmadaw. As a result, there has been little progress, contrary to our expectations. Speaking of selecting her cabinet members, she apparently believes that they will respond similarly if she takes a constructive approach. But in reality it hasn’t happened. Those people do not change their ways, and so there is less progress. I think it is time Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reviews her objectives in various sectors to see if she has achieved them or not. The state counselor is focusing her efforts mainly on peace. It is an important issue. So she should take a look back and see to what extent she has been able to realize her objectives, and consider taking different approaches if there is no progress.
KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wants to build a free and democratic nation, for which she is working. But speaking of her cabinet members, we have heard that some ethnic leaders and pro-democracy activists who participated in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising have complained that they feel Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has become distant from them and doesn’t collaborate with them. Ko Thiha, what do you want to say about that?
TT: Her government is the first civilian government. And as it has to work with the Tatmadaw, she might have to take certain things into consideration, such as national reconciliation. She seemed to think that her allies would understand her. But as she focuses more on her relations with the Tatmadaw, she makes herself more distant from her allies; they are not her followers, but leaders in their respective fields, and they feel like they have been left behind. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently spoke, before or after President U Win Myint took office, about collective strength. It is the solution for our country. According to my understanding, collective strength is horizontal negotiation. There is a need to pave the way for ethnic leaders and 88 Generation student leaders like Ko Min Ko Naing, U Ko Ko Gyi and Ko Mya Gyi to work in their appropriate fields. Sometimes she may not share their views, but there are ethnic leaders who have achieved a certain level of success in their regions and who have supporters. If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can take the strength of those people, she will be able to move faster on the path she is taking, and it will be easier for her to persuade the Tatmadaw. The more she stands in solitude, the harder it will be to convince the Tatmadaw. It would be better to convince it with collective strength, I think.
KZM: Her allies have constructively called for cooperation. According to my understanding, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father is her main role model. He was the one who inspired her to become what she is today. There were three people, I think, who inspired her. Her father, General Aung San, India’s Mahatma Gandhi, and United States civil rights leader Martin Luther King. All of them were assassinated. But inspired by those three, she is building the nation, and Myanmar people believe so. But then the Rakhine issue broke out and many problems arose. Some critics, especially foreigners, have started to say that she is indulging in power. Ko Thwin Lin Aung, what do you want to say about this?
TLA: As I said earlier, it is still too early to judge. She took office in 2015, and it has been just over two years. So it is difficult to judge. But there has been such criticism, and there are also some reasons for that criticism. Does she really indulge in power? Or is she making compromises with high expectations for the sake of national reconciliation? Or is she just restraining her allies for fear that some of their actions might impact her reconciliation efforts [with the Tatmadaw]? We need to consider a lot of factors. But then there has been criticism that she has neglected her old allies and is compromising with the other side. So we should take time and assess these things.
KZM: What do you think, Ko Thiha Thwe? I have done some social media analytic journalism with my team about what netizens said on the birthday of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on social media like Facebook and Twitter. We found that the majority of people still have trust in her. They have sympathy and understanding for her, most of the people. This is different from the criticism of international critics. What do you want to say about criticism against her?
TT: My understanding is that power concentrates around Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has poor channels to let power flow. She can be compared to a mother. No matter how much a child has grown up, a mother thinks her child is still too young to handle tough problems. The tougher the problems she faces, the more she has to think about how to delegate power. She has to think and make decisions on their behalf. So power concentrates around her. Its negative effect is that her subordinates dare not make decisions on their own initiative. So the administrative system has become slow and administrative problems have arisen. All of us trust Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Many people trust her, and the Tatmadaw also trusts her to a certain extent.
KZM: The party was election both in the 1990 and 2015 elections with overwhelming public support.
TT: Yes it was. Likewise, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should have a certain level of trust in her cabinet and delegate greater power. Then the administrative system would start operating again. But for the time being, because of her serious concerns about the capacity of her cabinet members, the power is stagnant around her. Because there is no proper flow of power, the administration is slow and has delays, I’d say.
KZM: Myanmar has just struggled free from dictatorship or military rule. There are a lot of challenges facing the country. One of the challenges is how well her cabinet members will be able to accomplish their jobs. What do you think, Ko Thwin Lin Aung and Ko Thiha? Speaking of the leaders in our country, we have General Aung San, then U Nu, and most of their successors are military leaders — General Ne Win, Senior General Than Shwe, General Sein Lwin, Senior General Saw Maung, and U Thein Sein also is an ex-general. They have left a large legacy. General Aung San left independence as his legacy. Though he could not provide equality, prosperity, he did manage to leave independence. What legacy do you think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will leave? I see that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been trying for the past 30 years.
TLA: It depends on the main problems our country is facing. She should leave a legacy that will be a solution to those problems. That legacy will not be a new one, but it will be just like the one General Aung San left. She should try to bring about greater understanding between ethnicities and then build reconciliation with the Tatmadaw. Mutual understanding and unity should be her legacy. Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe said many support her, but the problem is that most of those supporters are ethnic Burmese people. This has unconsciously further increased the divide between Burmese and non-Burmese ethnicities. So she should leave a legacy of mutual understanding.
KZM: General Aung San said hard work and unity were the keys to both the country’s independence and prosperity. Of course stability is necessary. Ko Thiha, what legacy do you expect?
TT: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi focuses on national reconciliation — building up the country with harmony. Because national reconciliation is failing, the country is experiencing conflict and will therefore not be able to do much nation building. So she takes the neutral approach and takes the side of neither the ethnic groups nor the Tatmadaw. She mediates and talks about leaving a legacy of reconciliation. I know that national reconciliation is her dream. So I will watch to see if her dream comes true. At the moment it is still far away.
KZM: Ko Thwin Lin Aung, Ko Thiha Thwe, thank you for your contributions!
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.