Ever since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now state counsellor, admitted to the media that she is not an icon of democracy or a human rights defender so much as a working politician, she has been subjected to relentless criticism.
I believe criticisms of her human rights record are premature. In their interpretation of Myanmar’s practical politics during the transition, analysts have missed countless significant points, among which I would cite the following:
After 53 years of military dictatorship, the country is now ruled by a democratically elected government. The peaceful transfer of power that took place following last November’s election was the first this country has ever known. In this unknown territory, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has to move cautiously to consolidate her legitimate power through non-violent means. Though her party won a landslide victory because of her personal popularity, she was barred from the presidency by the 2008 constitution drafted by the military.
Secondly, the current leadership of the Tatmadaw wants to maintain the status quo. There is no immediate prospect of effective civilian control over the military, one of the hallmarks of a democratic state.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has prioritised national reconciliation as the country strives to end the armed conflicts around its northern and western fringes. Her proposed 21st-century Panglong Conference is the first vital step toward the goal of restoring peace between the army and ethnic armed groups, for the benefit of all.
Without peace, job creation opportunities are limited and economic development constrained. The nation should not waste any more opportunities during this transition.
Thirdly, there was no equality, justice, human rights or democratic culture for nearly three generations in Myanmar. After she returned from the United Kingdom, “The Lady” spread the ideas of the Magna Carta such as human rights, liberty and bills of rights. Without her, Myanmar’s human rights and democratic movements would not have become globalised. She spent more than a decade as a political prisoner defending and promoting values of human rights and social justice in Myanmar. Allegations that she has abandoned such principles to become a dictator and enforcer of authoritarianism are an utter fallacy.
Fourthly, the country needs to be given a full fiscal year in order to efficiently identify problems and solutions before a performance-based analysis can be conducted. To make conclusions about the abilities of the current government, which has held power for less than 100 days, is unwise.
For democracy to truly operate in Myanmar, the elected civilian representatives need to have control of the armed forces, including ethic armed organisations and the Tatmadaw. It is the right time to urge the Myanmar army to return to their barracks and to press ethnic armed groups to lay down their guns. It is the right time for Myanmar to stop being a battlefield and become instead a global marketplace.
Fifthly, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has embodied Otto von Bismarck’s saying that politics is the art of the possible. Barred from the presidency, and put in a seemingly impossible bind, she strategically countered the constitution’s 59(f) clause by creating the role of the state counsellor, enabling her to occupy the promised position “above the president”. No political leader in Myanmar has ever gained more legitimacy than her in post-independence Myanmar. She was able to wield the power and legitimacy the election results granted her into becoming the institutional leader of Myanmar.
Finally, she is fulfilling the values of thitsa (loyalty) and mitta (love) as she crafts the national reconciliation cabinet with the old military personnel who once arrested her. She is again, in this case, proving her legitimacy as a political leader.
A performance-based analysis critiquing the state counsellor and foreign minister’s achievements as a leader can be carried out one or two years from now. An overly hasty analysis will not accomplish anything.
Naing Ko Ko is a PhD student at the Regulatory Institutions Network at the College of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University.