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When An Icon Comes To Power: Suu Kyi's Authoritarianism Could Prove Fatal For Myanmar

05/03/2016 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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YE AUNG THU via Getty Images
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses supporters during a rally at Mawlamyaing, Mon State on May 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Ye Aung THU (Photo credit should read Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)

On 10 March, the new Myanmar parliament will convene to vote for a president. As per the 2008 constitution, the elected members of the upper and lower houses of the parliament will nominate two candidates. The third candidate will be nominated by the military which holds 25% of the seats in the 664-seat parliament. The president will be voted from amongst the three candidates, and the two losing candidates will assume the vice presidency. As leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Suu Kyi would have been the natural choice for the post, except that the 2008 constitution comes in the way of her presidency. The 59(f) clause bars candidates who have a family with a foreign citizenship or passport. Constitutional clauses aside, Suu Kyi has declared that she will remain above the president and fully expects the elected leader to defer to her views and her counsel.

Suu Kyi has declared that she will remain above the president and fully expects the elected leader to defer to her views and her counsel.

The emphatic statement is a fairly good signal of how far Suu Kyi has come from being the reluctant leader of a student-led revolution that threatened the military regime in August 1988. Nearly three decades, and almost 15 years of house arrest later, her role as matriarch of the NLD is both unquestioned and undisputed. The National League for Democracy that began in 1988 formed around Suu Kyi and the legacy she carried as Aung San's daughter. It was less of a party and more of a movement against the military dictatorship that had run Myanmar to the ground. Almost 30 years later, it has grown into a party for Suu Kyi, by Suu Kyi, and of Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi is said to have handpicked every one of the candidates for the 2015 election, and there is very little said or done by the party unless she approves of it, or speaks about it in public. There have been rumours of loyalty to her being rewarded over potential, and that she controls every appointment within the party. Even her choice for president, if and when announced, is expected to be a close confidante, a civilian who has demonstrated considerable loyalty and will serve the role of a puppet president efficiently.

The shadows of authoritarianism in her behaviour aside... Suu Kyi has exhibited the know-how, and the diplomatic heft required to navigate the complex political system.

Suu Kyi's obsession with controlling the image of the party has been unapologetic. She has also shown little qualms over controlling every aspect of decision making within the party. The shadows of authoritarianism in her behaviour aside, her understanding of the political system in Myanmar will be critical for the new government. There are very few people who have any expertise in policy making, governance or in politics in the new government. Many of them have, in fact, mentioned 'prisoner' as their sole qualification in the parliamentary forms. Their work in parliament and in their constituencies will require them to handle the multiple power structures including a military that continues to keep a foot in the door. Suu Kyi has, since becoming a member of the parliament in 2012, exhibited the know-how, and the diplomatic heft required to navigate the complex political system. Her experience could prove to be critical for her party members.

Suu Kyi's overbearing nature within the party has also meant lack of adequate training to create a second level of politicians who can take over if and when required. There has also been a reticence to reveal policies that reflect the NLD's vision for Myanmar and its people. The lack of open discussions could be a result of not wanting to push too hard, thereby disrupting the peaceful transition. It could also be a result of not having enough talent and experience within the ranks. Either way, it bodes ill for the new democracy. Myanmar post-April will have the military in the doorway, Suu Kyi controlling the floor, a puppet president handling the seat, and speakers trying to make sense of the house. Unless Suu Kyi trusts her party enough to delegate, and step back from micromanaging the government, the entire system will collapse. It will also prove fatal for the country.

The deference she expects from her party may undermine genuine reform efforts and create an inefficient system, not very different from the military regime she overthrew.

Myanmar has a laundry list of issues to tackle in the coming years including an ongoing peace process, run down economy, highly corrupt and unstable institutions, and an unenviable quality of life index. Suu Kyi needs the military on her side to tackle the issues, but more importantly, she will need experienced people within her own party who will be able to step up to the demands of the role. The top-down approach she has favoured so far might not come to her aid when it comes to addressing the many issues that Myanmar faces. The deference she expects from her party may end up undermining genuine reform efforts and create an inefficient system, not very different from the military regime she overthrew.

The world is used to seeing Suu Kyi as a democracy icon, a symbol of peace and the rightful heir of Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela. This new pragmatic politician has been jarring at many levels. It perhaps says more of the Western world's penchant to paint people as black and white, than it does about Suu Kyi's own understanding of her role in Myanmar. She has said in the past that she sees herself as a politician first and since her release from house arrest in 2012, she has shown how pragmatic and astute she really is in that role. Her pragmatism, however, needs to be balanced by the recognition that Myanmar needs more than just her to truly become democratic.

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