Guest Column

Myanmar’s Emerging Landscape Looks Beyond Suu Kyi

By Mon Mon Myat 17 June 2021

It is not a new tactic for military chief Min Aung Hlaing to keep State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as “a perfect hostage” after she experienced over 10 years of freedom.

She, of course, is perfect because of the popular belief that she alone can save the nation. She is also perfect because she is a bargaining chip to be used by foreigners and a few citizens in Myanmar eager to find a “third way” between the NLD (National League for Democracy) and the military to establish a compromise between democracy and dictatorship. But the two options are incompatible.

Power within Myanmar’s military is very personal. Military chiefs from Saw Maung (1988 to 1992) to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing use the same tactic: locking up Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies to weaken the opposition. Why do they have such ill feelings toward her?

The author Dr. Michal Lubina points to various reasons why the generals dislike Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a political opponent. First “regime survival of Than Shwe’s (and other generals’), personal animosity towards Suu Kyi, gender biases and her hybrid Burmese-ness, so different from their own xenophobic nationalism” cultivated within the hyper-masculine military.

Dr. Kyaw Yin Hlaing, another academic, over a decade ago introduced the informal “Third Force” political alliance, arguing that western sanctions on Myanmar were not achieving their desired effect. “If the NLD and the junta could not find a way to work together, Myanmar people should think about unlinking political changes with Aung San Suu Kyi,” he wrote.

He highlights the Third Force argument in his essay, Political Impasse in Myanmar, published 10 years ago, saying the people must look beyond Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD to achieve democracy.

“This argument is based on the assumption that the military is too strong to be toppled by force and, as a result, the people must consider fighting for political freedom by playing the political game within the institutional framework set by the military itself,” Dr. Kyaw Yin Hlaing said.

The Third Force group provided technical input to many political parties, including the NLD’s breakaway parties, to play in the political game within the framework of the regime’s 2008 Constitution. In this context, the author Mael Raynaud sees a “hybrid system” made of elements of democracy and dictatorship in the military-drafted Constitution and ultimately in the pseudo-democratic regime of President U Thein Sein.

The political approach of the Third Force was very controversial among political activists and analysts in Myanmar. The late politician and writer, Maung Wuntha, told me in 2011: “This group wanted to move forward Myanmar’s politics without Aung San Suu Kyi.” Seemingly it was on the same page as the military regime.

The junta put Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for more than 15 years and held the 2010 general election without the NLD. After this, it successfully formed a quasi-civilian government, something the junta took all credit for during its transition to democracy.

Senior General Than Shwe’s regime (1992-2011) regarded Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as “a dead tiger” when it released her in 2010. The dead tiger, however, revived quickly. She won a parliamentary seat in a 2012 by-election and the NLD won a landslide in the 2015 general election. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi formed the first civilian-led government in 58 years within the framework set by Gen. Than Shwe’s regime.

Although Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s authority is still considered omnipotent, the narrative has become more diverse, initiated by different political entities, since 2010. A new landscape has emerged and at the highest levels, a call for that elusive third force is again heard.

The interval between one political regime and another”

The researchers Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter wrote about Myanmar’s transition after 2010 warned of instability during “transitions from certain authoritarian regimes toward an uncertain ‘something else’”. They defined transitions as “the interval between one political regime and another”.

The Feb. 1 coup showed that interval is over. The regime is now heading towards a new cycle of military rule which many fear will last decades. The continuing popularity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is seen as a threat to the military elite.

This depressing scenario seems to confirm the Third Force’s logic about “unlinking political changes from Aung San Suu Kyi”. But if U Thein Sein’s government (2011-16) and its think tank formed with Third Force members were able to “unlink political changes with Aung San Suu Kyi” after 2010, would the February coup have happened?

Dr. Elliott Prasse-Freeman sharply criticized the role of the Third Force in Myanmar’s politics in his research paper Power, Civil Society, and an Inchoate Politics of the Daily in Burma/Myanmar in the Journal of Asian Studies in 2012.

He wrote: ”Promulgating a different mechanism for change, the Third Force subtly asserts that the entire oppositional political project should be abandoned and that a broad civil society sector (comprised of grass-roots and elite groups) should fill the void, collaborating with the state. This is short-sighted because it ignores mass democracy, and replaces it with the technocratic skills of the “Third Force.”

Today the Third Force’s logic, as first described in 2010, has proven unsuccessful. It underestimated Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity. Without mass support, no genuine change is possible. U Thein Sein’s “Third Force” government was able to sustain only one term despite trying to lure international legitimacy and foreign investment and build an image as a peacemaker. The NLD’s landslide victory in 2015 interrupted the goal for political change without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Unfortunately, the interval without the military dictatorship lasted only 10 years.

A new hybrid approach in the spring revolution

Military hostility towards Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is even more intense this time. She is now facing prison sentences with several charges, including inciting public unrest, breaking the Official Secrets Act and corruption, that could put her in prison for the rest of her life. House arrest alone seems not to assuage the military, so it wants to throw her in prison. It reveals the generals’ mounting hatred of the 75-year-old who has won the people’s hearts for decades.

The military should look beyond Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD this time. That might be the elusive third way. The coup has turned a dispute between the generals and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi into a war between the pro-military elite and civil society.

The military believes the longer it shuts out the opposition, the longer it can hold power. But locking up all political opponents does not seem to work in the 21st century. As the regime has not enough capacity to lock up or terrify the whole population, its attempt to rule has failed because of the “ungovernable” mass.

Perhaps the landscape has made a significant leap from one man or woman dominance, whether a dictator or a democratic leader, to community-led initiatives. A combined strategy of nonviolent protest and armed resistance is a hybrid approach emerging from the spring revolution.

These community-led initiatives were derived from collective action by student activists, factory workers, civil servants, social activists, elected MPs and many others who do not want to live under military rule.

Dr. Zaw Wai Soe, the civilian National Unity Government’s health and education ministerial appointee, told Mizzima media: “Today’s revolution is the people’s revolution. Neither nationality nor parties matter…. I’m not a member of a political party. I’m taking part in this revolution not for one party or one nationality but for humanity and the basic rights of people.”

Thirteen years ago, Thakin Chan Tun, a veteran politician, told The Irrawaddy: “The Burmese political conflict is between the rulers and the subjected people. The opposition, particularly the NLD, is only a tool of the democracy struggle.

“During the struggle period, there is no third group. They are merely apologists for the rulers, rather than advocates for the subjected people.”

Will the subjected people now look beyond Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to achieve genuine democracy? They are not looking for a “compromise” with the military but the voice of the people expressed in the 2015 and 2020 elections and now being expressed in the protests of the subjected people.

Mon Mon Myat is an author and a PhD candidate at the Peacebuilding Program at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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