In Myanmar Coup, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Ends as Neither Democracy Hero nor Military Foil
During the years when Myanmar was intimidated by a military junta, people hid secret photos of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, talismans of the heroine of democracy who would save their country from a fearsome army despite being under house arrest.
But after she and her party won historic elections in 2015 and last year through a landslide that cemented civilian government and her own popularity in Myanmar, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was seen by the outside world as something entirely different: as a fallen patron saint, the had made a Faust pact with the generals and no longer deserved their Nobel Peace Prize.
In the end, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, was unable to protect her people or appease the generals. On Monday, the military, which had ruled the country for nearly five decades, took power again in a coup d’état and disrupted the governance of their National League for Democracy after just five years.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, along with her top ministers and a number of pro-democracy figures, were arrested in a raid before dawn. The round-up of the military’s critics continued until Monday evening, and the country’s telecommunications networks were constantly disrupted.
Government billboards across the country still carried their image and that of their party’s struggling peacock. But the army, under Major General Min Aung Hlaing, was again responsible.
The disappearance of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who represented two completely different archetypes in front of two different audiences at home and abroad, proved that she was unable to do what so many expected: a political balance with the military with whom she shared power.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi lost the military’s ear when she halted negotiations with General Min Aung Hlaing. And by defending the generals in their ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims, she lost the trust of an international community that had campaigned for them for decades.
“Aung San Suu Kyi dismissed international critics, claiming that she was not a human rights activist but a politician. But the sad part is, she wasn’t very good at it either, ”said Phil Robertson, assistant Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “It failed a major moral test by covering up the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya. But detente with the military never materialized, and their landslide election victory is now being undone by a coup. “
President Biden made a strongly worded statement in the first test of his response to a coup designed to turn a democratic election upside down, which appeared to be different from the way his predecessor handled human rights issues.
“In a democracy, violence should never attempt to override the will of the people or attempt to obliterate the outcome of a credible election,” he said, using language similar to his own after the January 6 siege of the US Capitol Choice to overthrow. He called on the nations to “come together with one voice” to urge the military in Myanmar to give up power immediately.
“The United States takes note of those standing together with the people of Burma at this difficult hour,” he added, using the former name for Myanmar as it is still used by the US government.
The speed at which Myanmar’s democratic era was disintegrating was staggering, even for a country that had been under direct military rule for almost half a century and spun with coup rumors for days.
In November, its National League for Democracy put pressure on the military’s proxy party as many voters once again selected Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political force as the best and only weapon to contain the generals. Her army placement for the past five years has been viewed by some as political jujitsu rather than appeasement.
The military, which retained significant power in the “discipline of flourishing democracy” that it had designed, complained of mass fraud. On January 28th, representatives of General Min Aung Hlaing sent a letter to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi ordering a recount and a delay in the opening of parliament.
The military’s takeover of full power on Monday went hand in hand with a year-long state of emergency declaration that shattered any illusions that Myanmar was providing the world with an example of democracy on the rise, however flawed it may be.
“She’s the only person who can stand up to the military,” said U Aung Kyaw, a 73-year-old retired teacher. “We would all have voted for her forever, but today is the saddest day of my life because she’s gone again.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had close ties with the best of the military from the start, and her National League for Democracy was formed in alliance with senior military officials. After emerging from house arrest in 2010, she often dined with a former junta member who had imprisoned her.
Her followers said the coziness was more than Buddhist equanimity or political tactics. The daughter of the founder of the modern Myanmar army, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, has publicly said that she has a great affection for the military.
When the military stepped up its attack on Rohingya Muslims in 2017, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi appeared to display a synchronicity of emotions with the generals that exceeded mere political benefit.
According to United Nations investigators, the slaughter and village burnings, in which three quarters of a million members of the Muslim minority fled to neighboring Bangladesh, were carried out with genocidal intent. At the International Court of Justice in 2019, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who served as Myanmar Foreign Minister and State Advisor, dismissed the violence as an “internal conflict” in which the army may have used disproportionate force.
Her tone towards the Rohingya seemed almost scornful, and she followed the example of the military in not mentioning her name so that her identity would not become human.
“Some will be tempted to believe that she has unsuccessfully enlisted in the military, that she has defended and still lost genocide for political favor,” said Matthew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, a human rights watchdog. “Aung San Suu Kyi did not defend the military in court to maintain the balance of power. She defended the military as well as her own role in the atrocities. She was part of the problem. “
Even when Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi apologized to the military for decades of persecution, her relationship with General Min Aung Hlaing was frayed, according to her advisors and retired military officials. Her increasing popularity with Myanmar’s Buddhist majority has been increasingly viewed as a threat by the generals, and she has not spoken to the army chief in at least a year – a dangerous silence in a country where politics is deeply personal.
The normal precedent was that General Min Aung Hlaing, whose family and acolytes benefited from his decade in power, should relinquish his position as army chief in 2016. He extended his term and vowed to retire for good this summer.
Due to the poor communication between the commander in chief and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, it became increasingly difficult for him to secure an outcome in which his patronage network would survive, military and political analysts said. General Min Aung Hlaing announced through his proxy that he may also have political ambitions. Some even announced his name as president, a position Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally prohibited from holding.
After the coup on Monday, the army chief will have ultimate authority in his hands for at least a year after the coup on Monday. You have put yourself back into full relevance, no matter how many voters chose Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. By Monday evening, the army had announced the outline of a new cabinet staffed with active and retired military officers.
The brazen return of the military is a reminder that despite all of the abuses Myanmar’s general coupling committed during its decades-long takeover – systematic repression of ethnic minorities, massacres of pro-democracy demonstrators, dismantling of a once promising economy – not a single high-ranking military officer came before Court fully accountable.
Barbara Woodward, the United Nations Ambassador to Britain, who holds the presidency of the Security Council in February, said the council would meet on Tuesday on the crisis in Myanmar. “We want to have as constructive a discussion as possible and examine a number of measures,” she said, and she would not rule out possible sanctions against the putschists.
“We want to respect the democratic will of the people again,” the ambassador told reporters.
In Washington, Mr Biden’s testimony clearly indicated that the US government would also consider reimposing sanctions if the coup was not reversed. The United States had “lifted sanctions against Burma over the past decade as a result of progress made towards democracy.”
However, some officials, who spoke in the background because they were not authorized to speak to the press, noted that the effects of Western sanctions could be cushioned by China, even if they were restored. Chinese telecom giant Huawei is building Myanmar’s 5G telecom networks over US objections, and China has dominated dam, pipeline and energy project construction.
On Monday, as dusk fell on a nation still in shock from the military takeover, the old fears and survival tactics resurfaced, untrained but still in muscle memory. Individuals took their flags from the National League for Democracy. You spoke in code.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Minister of Health, appointed by the National League for Democracy, submitted his resignation “according to the evolving situation”. In the evening, the military began rounding up the National League for Democracy legislators from their homes in the capital, Naypyidaw.
“We are concerned that the military will cast a wider web of their arrests,” said Smith of Fortify Rights. “I’m afraid we’re only just seeing the first stage.”
Late on Monday afternoon, U Ko Ko Gyi, a former student democracy activist who had spent more than 17 years in prison, posted on Facebook that he had so far evaded the magnet that had captured high-ranking politicians.
But he took a family photo as a precaution, he wrote. He said goodbye. His children didn’t know what was going on.
“I have to do what I have to do,” wrote Ko Ko Gyi. “Let’s face it tomorrow.”
David E. Sanger contributed to coverage from Washington.