Foreign Policy Blogs

The Realism of Aung San Suu Kyi

suu kyi


Incumbents are in trouble these days. The opposition is winning, from Argentina’s Macri, Venezuela’s MUD to Nigeria’s Buhari. But the opposition who takes power rarely is able to maintain its grip on it for more than a few months; France’s Hollande and Egypt’s Morsi are examples. Politics is not what it used to be: power has become more elusive than ever before.

When oppositions win by significant margin, the  tendency is for sweeping changes. The previous regime’s symbols are torn down. Its leaders are investigated, arrested and prosecuted for corruption. Policies are thrown out the window. New constitutions are drafted and the previous regime is kept out of politics.

Instant action to prove that all of the previous regime’s wrongdoings will be wiped off and that the new government will turn a brand new chapter is the norm. This has happened in Sri Lanka since the Mahinda Rajapakse regime was toppled by Maithripala Sirisena on January 8th. Over the past year, Sirisena has realized that turning the page is never as easy as they promised on the political stage.

However in stark contrast to the situation in Sri Lanka, Myanmar has taken a different path thanks to Nobel Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) won 77% of the upper and lower house seats that were contested. In the end, the NLD won 124/224 in the House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw) and 255/440 in the House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw).

This gives them the majority required to appoint the President and Vice-President and pass new legislature without compromise by overcoming the military plus USDP bloc. But surprisingly Suu Kyi has chosen to compromise with the incumbent military-led regime rather than using her newly found power to wipe the slate clean.

Some may find this surprising and even claim that she is not using the mandate provided to her with utmost confidence by the people of Myanmar for change; change that removes the military from the machine of governance. But she is following the strategy that will bring about the best for her country and people.

Promoting pragmatism and realism might stem from her genes and from the lessons learned in 15 years of house arrest. Her genes because her father, also fathered her nation—the Union of Burma—bringing together a country divided between various factions during the colonial era and World War II. He achieved it through sheer pragmatism, not through a democratic mandate. If Aung San had not been assassinated, maybe Myanmar’s fate would have been much different today.

Now, his daughter has the chance to right the wrongs. But it cannot be done overnight. It will take decades and she knows it. She also knows that her personal fame and charisma can be utilized to sustain the popular mandate required for political stability.

Suu Kyi’s realism has sometimes looked liked ignorance and cruelty. She remained steadfastly silent over the plight of the Muslim Rohingyas, fearful of harming the Buddhist majority vote. Maybe she knew that the only way to make things better for the Rohingyas in the long run was to ensure she won by a large margin and change the governance structure for the better.

She also refrained from giving any specific policy promises on how she will improve Myanmar’s situation. She did not promise to prosecute the military for its crimes or corruption. She only asked for a chance to change things. This is in stark contrast to Sri Lanka, where specific promises of prosecution against graft of the previous regime and more welfare to the people have put the new regime between a rock and a hard place. Suu Kyi is in a hard place but she does not have a rock rolling towards her. She has the liberty to chart a course without breaking any electoral promises.

Currently she is holding ‘transition talks’ with the military (Tatmadev in Burmese) and the leaders of the incumbent regime. Officially the NLD will take over power in February. This prudent act is aided by both Suu Kyi’s pragmatism and, strangely, the military-drafted constitution. The constitution ensured that the new government cannot take over power immediately after an election, and that the military had a strong say in government despite a massive electoral loss. It was this guarantee of holding on to a piece of the pie after the transition that ensured a smooth transition.

Worldwide, we have seen bloody transitions of power from autocracy to democracy. Most were bloody because idealism wanted to chase away evil completely. The de-Baathification in Iraq post-2003 is a very good example. In the attempt to create a democratic Iraq, Baathists were completely removed from every level of governance in the country; from military to bureaucracy. The results has been a weak, unprofessional army and government agencies that are unable to provide public services. The Baathists ended up leading insurgent groups and collaborating with ISIS.

Democracy is yet to take root in Myanmar. One successful election that gives a landslide victory to one party thanks to the charisma of one individual is hardly democracy. Democracy needs to deepen. For that, stability must prevail and people need to feel secure. Only then will the NLD get its legitimacy and politicians will be seen in a more positive light. This is a vital issue if political entrepreneurship is to happen in the future.

The NLD is used to being in the opposition, rallying public rage against the Tatmadaw. Its not used to governing a country of 50 million people. Even Suu Kyi has not been in the role of an administrator for a long time. Her work at the UN was decades ago.

The Tatmadaw and USDP have individuals well-versed in the intricacies of governance. Their methods might have been flawed at times, but their experience and their connections are vital.

Suu Kyi will have to continue to employ a strict sense of pragmatism. Acting on emotions and passions is a nonviable option. Idealism is a flawed approach to apply in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw and the USDP have committed crimes and atrocities. They have looted the country’s wealth and resources. Over time investigations will have to be carried out on those matters.

But not everyone will be prosecuted. Not every war criminal who harmed minorities can be prosecuted. Some figures with a considerable grasp on power cannot be simply chased out of power. If Suu Kyi tries that, she might end up being the devil she is fighting. Surely Kissinger and Bismark would support this point of view. As a nation matures it needs pragmatic leadership and realist policies. Suu Kyi seems to have understood that.



Thilina Panduwawala

Thilina is the current Official Youth Delegate of Sri Lanka to the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly. He is an undergradute in BSc International Relations for the University of London International Programmes. Thilina was the Under Secretary General for Sri Lanka MUN Conference in 2015 and is an eight year veteran MUNer. Currently he also runs his own blog which is focused on the Indian Ocean Region.