Aung San Suu Kyi or the Burmese Army: Who is Really to Blame for the Lack of Progress?

10 May 2017

Nine years after the new constitution was put into place in Burma, and a year after Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party took power in a landslide election, paving the way for democracy to take a hold in the country, human rights violations, democratic issues and conflict still disrupts the march towards progress.

Despite promises of renewing the Panlong Dialogue to bring peace to Burma, started by her father in 1947, Aung San Suu Kyi has so far failed to bring about any major peace initiatives. Conflict still persists in Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states, with 19 armed ethnic groups continuing their fight against the Burmese armed forces for further autonomy and an end to human rights violations. Across the country issues of freedom of speech and the press still hold the country back. Political prisoners continue to be detained, and defamation laws are leading to further arrests of journalists willing to talk to international media about human rights issues, as well as citizens who post anti-government material on social media. The army continues to hold 25% of the seats in parliament and control the vital governmental ministries of Home Affairs, Border and Defence, holding back any further democratic progress. In Rakhine Sate, as well as the ongoing ethnic conflict, the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority found across the state, suffer repression which according to the UN accumulates to ‘crimes against humanity’. Following an attack on a police outpost in October last year, Burmese officials have carried out a ‘clearance operation’, which reportedly included burning houses, mass rape and the killing of babies, displacing over 65,000 people to Bangladesh and thousands more internally. These events have led a new armed group, the Rohingya National Army (RNA) to increase their popularity, and become the 20th armed group active in Burma.

It is clear to see that the Burmese people still suffer much. Expectations of their newly democratically elected government led by Noble Laurette Aung Sun Suu Kyi were extremely high. Elected on landslide victory, uniting the votes of the various ethnic groups of Burma for the first time was a massive achievement, and many expected Burma to become a fully functioning liberal democratic nation. As the above shows, these hopes have not been fully recognised. For the most part, the government has been blamed for the lack of progress. As was shown by the recent by-elections, the NLD still holds the support of much of the country, however, the trust that Suu Kyi once held is wavering. Internationally, Burma’s State Counsellor receives similar disdain and blame for the country’s issues. Late last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was forced to cancel her trip to Indonesia after protests against the military crackdown on the Rohingya took place in the country, and Malaysia’s Prime Minister led protests in Kuala Lumpa aimed at Suu Kyi, stating that the horrors the Rohingya faced in Burma were tantamount to genocide. In addition to national government criticism, in December last year, more than a dozen Nobel laurates criticized Suu Kyi in an open letter to the UN Security Council for “not taking any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas” and not doing enough to curb the “ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” against minority Rohingya Muslims. The international community has not let off Aung San Suu Kyi and it is clear many blame her for the lack of progress in Burma, yet the Burmese military goes uncriticised. It is they, otherwise known as the Tatmadaw, that hold back the country from reform and commit the atrocities that have seen Aung San Suu Kyi publicly and internationally condemned.

Once the first democratic reforms had taken place, firstly with the new constitution in 2008, then with the elections in 2010 and 2015, which finally led to Suu Kyi’s NLD taking power, the military’s role in politics was drastically reduced. From the outside, democracy had conquered military authoritarianism, which had ruled the country in various forms for almost 70 years. However, the election of the NLD only masks the true power the military still holds.  The constitution of 2008 means that to pass further constitutional amendments, a proposal needs the backing of over 75% of parliament, and in reserving 25% of parliamentary seats for the military, essentially gives the Tatmadaw a veto on all major changes to the governing system of Burma. The military continue to hold unchecked power. Here it is clear the NLD are not to blame for the failure to create democratic reform as many expected in their first year of rule. Although more could and can be done by the civilian government, expectations for the realisation of a liberal democratic system will never be met whilst the army retains its influence in politics.

Away from the formal political space, the Tatmadaw, and its leadership, are to blame for many of the events that have held Burma back since the democratic reforms. Across the country, but most notably in Shan and Kachin states, conflict still divides the population. Frequent flare ups between the army and the various ethnic armed groups regularly leads to civilian casualties, further mistrust between different groups and the displacement of local populations. It is the army that is carrying out these offences and it is the army’s presence which is driving many of the groups to violently oppose the government in the first place. The army’s power within the constitution means that any plans for federalism, the goal of many of the groups, which would give the peripheral regions some autonomy and therefore peace, will never be implemented.

The Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh [January, 2017] (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

In addition to causing conflict, the role the army has taken on in ‘internal security’ has completely jeopardised the human rights record the NLD and Burma as a nation. With a mandate, that they granted themselves, to find and stop the ‘terrorist’ organisation responsible for the attack on a police outpost on 9th October 2016, the Tatmadaw have been solely responsible for a crackdown of completely unacceptable proportion. The military backlash for a relatively small attack on government forces has forced over 90,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee their homes, with over 65,000 fleeing the country altogether into neighbouring Bangladesh. What has made them flee isn’t an army crackdown against an insurgency (as is the case in other areas of Burma), this crackdown is one specifically aimed at the Rohingya people, whether they are associated with an armed group or not, a people who have yet to be recognised as citizens of Burma, and therefore lack basic human rights that others enjoy. Beatings, arson, rape, the killing of children and babies, torture and humiliation have defined the army’s response. Although stopping short of genocide, many commentators, including the UN have suggested the actions of the army will prove to accumulate to ‘crimes against humanity’. Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian government have no power whatsoever to halt the progress of these atrocious crimes. With no authority above them, the army is free to do what it likes to who it likes.


Many would argue Suu Kyi could do more.  Refusing to even use the word Rohingya, instead using the term ‘Bengali’ to describe the Muslim population, seems to be a blatant acceptance of the crimes the army are committing, legitimising their actions by suggesting they do not belong in Burma and in fact originate from Bangladesh. However, the NLD is somewhat constrained by what it can say. Only a year into its term, and only nine years since the army began the process of granting power to a civilian government, the foundations of a future democratic Burma hang in the balance. The NLD, although having not publicly stated as such, fear the army and its influence; Aung San Suu Kyi would not be able to continue to hold power without the support of the military. The logic behind not standing up to the military is that a liberal, democratic, free Burma can be realised in time, but quick reforms would be seen as shocks to the army’s grip on power and could well lead to a backlash, taking the nation back to square one. Aung San Suu Kyi can do more, yes, but her role as State Counsellor and apparent steward of Burma’s future means her approach to human rights and ‘controversial’ ideas, as according to the military, must be one filled with caution if she is to see real progress in her time leading the nation.


Although the international community must continue to pressure Aung San Suu Kyi on Burma’s human rights record and other issues that wrack the country, much more attention needs to be concentrated on the army, and in particular, its leadership, namely Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the current commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces. Far from receiving similar outrage from concerned communities around the world that Suu Kyi has received, Min Aung Hlaing has avoided all criticism.  In fact, whilst Suu Kyi has had to cancel foreign trips, and last week has had to defend her human rights record in a European press conference in her trip to Belgium and the UK, General Aung Hlain has been paraded around Europe, meeting government officials and even visiting arms manufacturing facilities in Austria and Germany. Burma is currently held under an arms embargo by the EU, however, this is expected to be lifted in the coming years. Therefore, arms manufacturers are creating relationships with the potential buyers of arms in the future. This is unacceptable. As has been shown, despite the slow democratisation of the country, major human rights violations are taking place and the army is the main perpetrator and aggressor in crimes against humanity. As Mark Farmaner‏, the Director of Burma Campaign UK, has said, the only place in Europe Min Aung Hlaing should be visiting is the International Criminal Court. The international community must stand up to, and pressure the Burmese Army, encouraging further reforms towards democracy and doing everything in their power to halt the grievous crimes being committed across Burma.


Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.


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