A Cautionary Tale of National Leadership: Aung San Suu Kyi and The Myanmar Coup
On February 1, soldiers from Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, detained the government’s senior officials and cabinet members just prior to the first scheduled session of their parliamentary term. Among them was de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor and head of the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Soldiers have been patrolling the streets, media has been taken off the air, and internet and telecommunications services in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw have been shut down. The Tatmadaw’s Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, announced he was assuming power, claiming fraud in the 2020 general election in which Suu Kyi’s party expanded its parliamentary majority at the expense of the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party. The coup came as the country was facing one of South East Asia's worst COVID-19 outbreaks, putting strain on an already impoverished healthcare system as lockdown measures devastated livelihoods.
Tensions between Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw stretch much further back than her election win in 2015. Suu Kyi has led the NLD since the party’s formation in the aftermath of the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, which culminated in widespread strikes demanding an end to military rule. The military reacted by exiling and killing thousands of protesters. In 1989, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she was to remain for 15 years. When the NLD won a sweeping victory in the 1990 elections - the country’s first in 30 years of military rule - winning 80% of seats contested, the Tatmadaw refused to concede and arrested thousands of NLD members. Tension between the military junta in the seat of power and the NLD, emerging then as the main face of the democracy movement, has persisted until today. In the run-up to the 2020 elections, the military issued increasingly interventionist statements that foreshadowed its reluctance to accept the results.
The democratisation process that started in 2011 after five decades of military rule ultimately resulted in a “hybrid regime” which had both democratic and authoritarian traits. Suu Kyi’s government was effectively beholden to the Tatmadaw with little scope to manoeuvre on policy issues, and was only a step away from military autocracy. On February 1, that step was taken and military leadership was reinstated. Arguably the coup was only accelerated by Suu Kyi’s balancing act with the Tatmadaw while in government and her dismissal of - or worse, complicity in - the Rohingya Muslim ethnic cleansing.
Suu Kyi won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent resistance against the military dictatorship that kept her under house arrest. The former human rights icon was lauded by the international community and former US President Barack Obama, who called her a “beacon of hope for … people reaching for justice”. Yet since becoming State Counsellor, her leadership has been defined by the treatment of the country's Rohingya minority. Suu Kyi received international condemnation for her response to a violent crackdown by security forces against the Rohingya, causing her to lose most of her international support. Myanmar committed, in January of this year, to the repatriation of the Rohingya as per an agreement reached with Bangladesh, with the process expected to start later this year. However, the coup has raised questions over the Rohingya repatriation from Bangladesh, with concerns that the new military government might not keep up its end of the agreement. Although Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have condemned the military coup for this reason, some say they do not feel sympathetic for Suu Kyi’s removal from power, citing her silence on the 2017 military crackdown that drove them from their country.
During her time in power, Suu Kyi also faced criticism for prosecuting journalists and activists using repressive military-era laws. While there was progress in some areas, the military continued to hold a quota of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and controlled key ministries including Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs. In 2018, as Myanmar’s democratic transition appeared to have stalled, Suu Kyi described the Generals in her cabinet as "rather sweet" and her relationship with the military “not that bad”. Despite all this, Suu Kyi remains popular, with a 2020 survey finding that 79 per cent of people had trust in her, up from 70 per cent the previous year.
Aung San Suu Kyi became the face of the effort to justify the human rights violations of Myanmar's military and frame the country’s pseudo-democracy as genuine progress. Despite the widespread international disapproval of the military, it helped boost her popularity at home and she was praised for protecting the country's honour. Although the Generals claim that there will be elections “at some point” once the country emerges from its state of emergency, Suu Kyi faces charges that could see her jailed and barred from office. Given efforts by Suu Kyi’s government to curb the political power of the military - including an attempt at amending the constitution to remove the military’s guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats - the Tatmadaw acted preemptively. An international response to the events of February 1 may be subverted by the need to balance defending democracy in Myanmar with avoiding lending too much credibility to Suu Kyi, who has herself undermined its implementation since 2015.
Erica Bell is a recent Bachelor of International Studies (Honours) graduate from the University of Wollongong. She is a current intern for the Australian Institute of International Affairs interested in cyber security, technology policy and the Asia-Pacific.