Suu Kyi and Public Patience

By Lawi Weng 29 June 2016

“We need to stay patient and tolerant, and let her get on with it, since she is new and inexperienced.”

Such are the words uttered by many in Burma who were happy to see the veteran pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi assume de facto leadership of the new government at the end of March.

This is the first properly civilian government—baring the military’s continued control of three key ministries and a 25 per cent chunk of all parliaments—for over 50 years. Weaknesses have emerged, and the challenges are great after so many decades of misrule.

Right after the transfer of power, the new government enacted a 5 percent tax on mobile phone usage. Many in the country, including myself, were unhappy with this move, but most stood by the prevailing sentiment of tolerance because they wanted to see a strong civilian government.

The previous government of President Thein Sein had tried to impose such a tax in June last year, but a public outcry prompted them to postpone implementation till after the end of the fiscal year on March 31—precisely coinciding with the entry of the new government.

That the Burmese people have now accepted the tax with few audible complaints seems attributable to the vastly greater popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi—with whom the new government is so closely associated—compared to Thein Sein and his colleagues from the military.

Lawi Weng is a Senior Reporter for The Irrawaddy English edition.
Lawi Weng is a Senior Reporter for The Irrawaddy English edition.

Also notable was the rather muted response of the public to extended power cuts in Rangoon and elsewhere during this year’s hot season (March-May). Less frequent outages had caused uproar during Thein Sein’s tenure.

How fair are such reactions?

Thein Sein, whatever his baggage as a former regime loyalist, laid out a path for peace with Burma’s various ethnic armed groups that Suu Kyi and the new government has largely chosen to follow, for better or worse.

The new government inherited the assets of the Myanmar Peace Center, formed under the government of Thein Sein to facilitate peace negotiations, and has effectively rebranded it as the “National Reconciliation and Peace Center,” hiring several of the same advisors used by the previous government.

The structure for negotiations with ethnic armed groups laid out in the nationwide ceasefire accord (NCA), signed in October last year, has also been adopted by Suu Kyi.

The Union Peace Conference envisaged in the NCA has been smartly re-labeled the “21st Century Panglong Conference,” to echo the Panglong Agreement reached between her father, independence hero Aung San, and the leaders of some of Burma’s ethnic minority groups in 1947.

“Political dialogue”—one of the keystones of the NCA, in which a settlement on federalism and ethnic rights would be discussed—has not yet undergone re-branding.

In all this, the approach of Suu Kyi and her colleagues owes much to the military-backed government of Thein Sein.

Ethnic armed group leaders have largely adopted a wait-and-see approach to the peace process in recent months, yet many of them have been willing to support the new government’s initiative—verbally at least—out of concern for a future resurfacing of military power.

However, Suu Kyi has yet to gain full support from Burma’s military on the peace talks, with the military insisting that armed groups such as the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army fully disarm before taking part. Suu Kyi has been pushing a more inclusive line, inviting all groups to the table.

In her reform efforts, Suu Kyi has to be constantly mindful of the military. She would not make any dramatic moves without their consent.

But she should also be mindful of the international community, which may not maintain its current overall tolerance regarding the failure to address ongoing human rights abuses by the military and branches of the government.

Discrimination towards, and the denial of citizenship to, the Rohingya in particular will continue to perpetuate a bad image of the country and the government to the outside world.

In other news, the US State Department has decided to downgrade Burma in its annual Trafficking in Persons report, placing it among the worst offenders in human trafficking—due largely to its failure to curb forced labor practices and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Many in Burma may downplay these issues—particularly the Rohingya—citing the peace process with ethnic armed groups as far more urgent.

But the new government must take comprehensive action against all human rights violations in Burma, if the tolerance of both the public and the international community are to be truly earned.

Otherwise, tolerance may go to the wind, and the country may be vulnerable to new forms of authoritarianism.