Guest Column

A New Politics is Taking Shape in Myanmar

By Ye Myo Hein 9 December 2021

As the anti-coup resistance gathers increasing momentum, the most frequently asked question in the Myanmar political community is does the incarcerated Daw Aung San Suu Kyi endorse the current revolutionary movement? Given her trademark political philosophy and longstanding belief in non-violence, this is a question well worth asking.

There is a prevailing perception around Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that, as a champion of non-violent struggle, she would not agree with the more militant line of revolution that the anti-regime movement has embraced. As a self-proclaimed politician who set aside the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and her natural alliances with student and ethnic leaders, some have speculated that she would not hesitate to jettison the current revolution if she deemed it necessary. A more pessimistic perspective is that as a daughter of General Aung San, the founder of the Myanmar military, she would neither rule the military out of the political game nor stand together with the armed rebellion against her father’s army.

Charismatic Politics of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Throughout her detention following the junta’s February 1 coup, rumors about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have regularly circulated among the public, and there have always been heated debates about the veracity of these rumors. It started from day one of the coup, when a letter by Suu Kyi spread widely on social media. In that letter, which was said to have been written in anticipation of the coup, she urged people “to respond wholeheartedly and to protest against the coup by the military”. That letter triggered a debate on social media as to whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi actually wrote it, or if it was just bait by the military to provoke people to take to the streets and violently protest the coup. Due to Suu Kyi’s persistent talk of negotiation and reconciliation, some people did not genuinely believe that she would call for protests against the military takeover.

Similar questioning occurred when the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) formed the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government structure, comprising ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) MPs, ethnic political representatives, protest leaders and civil society activists. Based on the precedent of her strained relations with the former National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), a government-in-exile formed by some elected MPs after the 1990 general election, some doubt that she would be willing to fly the flag of the CRPH/NUG if she has a chance to get back into the game.

This month, another Suu Kyi letter was leaked, which sent the message through her lawyers that neither the CRPH nor the NUG is entitled to use the name of the NLD, while the newly-founded Central Working Committee, which mainly includes NLD members in exile, is not authorized to issue statements on behalf of the NLD. The veracity of the letter is hard to prove, as her lawyers have been banned by the junta from speaking to the media, diplomats and international organizations. Public Voice Television, an official mouthpiece of the NUG, said the letter is fake, but it has gone viral in the Myanmar rumor market.

In Myanmar politics, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is undoubtedly an unrivalled charismatic leader, especially among the majority Bamar people. This popularity was clearly reflected by the NLD’s landslide victory in the 2020 general election, despite her party’s weak performances in terms of administrative reform, economic development and the peace process, and amid growing international pressure on her. In the public eye, Suu Kyi still holds a ‘God-like status’ which contributed greatly to the NLD’s overwhelming victory in the 2020 poll.

Even now, her popularity has not waned among the people. From the beginning of the anti-coup protests, chants of her name echoed along all the streets of the country. When the rumors of her release spread one night, people poured out into the streets in order to welcome her. It is not a coincidence that the majority Bamar-populated regions where civilian resistance groups have been very active, such as Sagaing and Magwe regions, are also her party’s strongholds: the NLD won 207 seats out of 210 in the Union and regional parliaments in those two regions. Her detention and the unjust charges filed against her by the military regime provoked more public sympathy and support towards her. So far, the brand of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remains popular in Myanmar’s political market, despite significantly diminishing international appeal.

However, the 76-year-old has been held incommunicado since being detained, with only her expression of concern, via her lawyers, about the fate of the people and the brutality they have faced at the hands of the military, reaching the outside world. On December 6, she was handed a four year jail sentence by a junta court on the first of the series of charges filed against her. Despite coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reducing the four year sentence to two years of house arrest, she still faces ten other charges that could see her jailed for the rest of the life. Disconnected from the outside world, she will not be able to guide or influence the ongoing political struggle against military rule.

The Dream of the Future

Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at the Panglong Monument, while attending the 70th anniversary Union Day celebration in Panglong, Shan State on February 12, 2017. (The Irrawaddy)

At the same time, the military’s coup and its accompanying brutal violence has triggered a new political trend in the streets and jungles of Myanmar. Without any political leadership after the coup, the popular resistance against the junta has ferociously escalated over the last ten months. That stunned the analysts who predicted that the military would eventually prevail over a haphazard resistance movement led by young people. So far, the junta has repeatedly failed to bring Myanmar under its full control and now the regime’s strategy has switched from how to control the country to how to survive.

Unlike the 1988 pro-democracy uprising in which the familiar faces of Myanmar politics jumped in to take the reins of the movement, new faces, especially young people, are most active in the anti-coup resistance. These Generation Z youths are resolutely putting their lives on the line to fight not for political power, but for their freedom, their rights and their future. A young activist who has been taking part in the struggle since February told the author that “he could not even bear the thought of the shattered future of the country under deeply-entrenched military rule”. In Myanmar, the fight against military domination has been like a relay race where the baton is passed from one generation to the other, but the young activist firmly believes the current struggle is tantamount to an apocalyptic battle for the future of the country.

During the protests that have followed the coup, the protesters have always chanted that “we are young people, we have a future”. They are enthusiastically attached to, as Thomas Jefferson said, “the dreams of the future better than the history of the past”. Those dreams for the future have been increasingly catalyzing the new politics in the resistance movement. In a country overwhelmed by the personality cult of a charismatic leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the movement has boldly claimed to practice collective leadership. The NUG has been trying to build up an inclusive collective leadership, appointing members of ethnic minorities to top positions and expanding the participation of women and the youth. It also severs the link between the people – mostly the Bamar majority – and the Myanmar military they once endearingly called the Tatmadaw [Royal Armed Forces]. The military is now experiencing its hardest battles in areas that were once its primary sources of recruitment, such as Sagaing and Magwe regions. The CRPH officially announced the abolition of the controversial 2008 constitution, which firmly enshrined the military’s prerogatives, and the drafting of a new constitution is in progress.

The most promising phenomenon in the current struggle is that the barbaric violence of the junta has awakened the Bamar majority, who had not previously experienced such atrocities in their areas, to the plight of the long-persecuted ethnic minorities under the military’s brutal oppression. It is an opportunistic moment for cross-ethnic solidarity that could constitute a basic foundation for the future new nation. On August 25 of this year, the fourth anniversary of the start of the military’s 2017 campaign against the Rohingya was commemorated with numerous online events, statements of solidarity and apologies. Some NUG cabinet members have issued personal apologies to the Rohingya for ignoring their suffering, and the NUG published a statement in which it mentioned Rohingya people “are entitled to citizenship” by law, in accordance with “fundamental human rights norms”. In this way, the movement has progressively encouraged the people to emerge from the political quagmire of the past and to envision an inclusive political future for Myanmar.

The Necessity of Ideology

However, along with positive progress, the current movement still has several drawbacks. Among them, is the urgent need to develop an overarching, broad political ideology to accommodate the divergent political interests and agendas of the various political and ethnic groups. Although a new politics is taking shape, so far, it is principally driven by what it is fighting against but not what it is fighting for. The entire dynamic of the current revolution has been pivoting around the fierce fight against the coup and junta, but not around a clear political vision. Until now, there seem to be some disagreement among the key stakeholders on that vision due to differences in political interests and agendas. A guiding ideology could potentially proffer a clearly-shared vision and weapons of thought to the movement, as well as provoking long-term commitments and inspiration among the diverse actors.

Despite rampant distrust and diverging political approaches and agendas under the shadow of historical acrimony, the incessant negotiation, deliberation and trust-building among the different political and ethnic groups will likely gradually create a guiding ideology of the movement. Currently, dialogue in the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which includes ousted MPs, ethnic armed groups, civil society and strike committees, is ongoing, although at a slower pace than expected and some groups are still reluctant to join the NUCC. But this venue could be the primary dialogue platform to fill the ideological vacuum. Recently, the NUCC announced that it has “reached a draft agreement on federal democracy”. It is a positive sign, although there is still a long road ahead.

An inclusive collective leadership can only be reinforced if a broad and visionary ideology is formulated. A guiding ideology is, thus, crucial to crystallize the new nascent politics into a more concrete form. In other words, the formulation of an inclusive and visionary guiding ideology would be the driving force in this new politics, rather than the blessing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Based on its present manifestation, this new politics has not obviously arisen from top leaders and elite politics, but from a new political generation and experience of a painful revolution. It is being animated by the dreams of the future and motivated by the creation of a new nation that is totally free from the yoke of military domination. Its foundation also lies in inclusive politics, cross-ethnic solidarity and mutual understanding and empathy, in contrary to the old politics of exclusion, animosity, domination and oppression. In the present uncertain situation, it is still unclear as to what extent the new politics can be fully configured and implemented, and whether it will be fully developed or will wither in the long term. But one fact is increasingly clear and that is that a new politics, predominantly crafted by the new generation, is gradually taking shape and gaining momentum in Myanmar.

Ye Myo Hein is the executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies and a fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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