Myanmar today: democracy or demagoguery? Ross Wilson discusses the difficulties confronting Aung San Suu Kyi in dealing with the crisis in Rakhine state.

AuthorWilson, Ross

In 2017 Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi moved, in the eyes of the international media, from saint to pariah because of her response to the crisis in Rakhine state. But Myanmar was subject to oppressive military rule for more than 50 years. The military had an exceptionally deep penetration of society, culture and even religion, and remain powerful today. With effectively two governments in Myanmar, Suu Kyi remains the best option for a successful transition to democratic government, but the current generation of internationally connected young leaders are the best hope for nation building which promotes tolerance, understanding and inclusiveness.


The role of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been given a bit of currency by the recent news that she has been charged in Australia with crimes against humanity by a group of human rights lawyers. The charges relate to her alleged complicity in what the UN has described as ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Rakhine state by the Burmese Army in August last year. The United Nations has estimated that more than 10,000 people died, and more than 700,000 were displaced, with appalling atrocities against women and children. (1)

This raises the pervasive role of the military in Myanmar, both during the 50 years of military dictatorship and currently. There were several factors which made the Burmese version of military dictatorship unique, and uniquely disastrous for the country:

Firstly, its sheer longevity: 54 years if the pseudo-civilian government from 2010 to 2015, most of whom were generals in suits, is included. Entire generations knew nothing but military rule and this allowed an exceptionally deep penetration of society, culture and even religion.

Secondly, the military took almost complete control of the economy, sacked the British trained civil service, and transformed one of Asia's richest economies into one of the poorest. Even now a big part of the economy, from extractive industries to hotels, airlines and breweries, is in the ownership of the military, former generals, and a small group of business people referred to contemptuously as 'the cronies'.

Thirdly the on-going threats to security enabled the generals to justify their rule. Civil war between Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon ethnic groups, on the one hand, and the Burmese Army, on the other, has been a constant since the Second World War.

Fourthly the enforced isolation of the country by the military --almost completely cut off from the rest of the world--was unique, other perhaps than North Korea.

Fifthly, political opposition was kept weak by a very active regime of long prison sentences, torture, persecution of activists' families and death.

But eventually the military dictatorship came to an end, and, surprisingly, it happened as part of their own plan. One can only speculate why it happened, but I will outline some reasons that are frequently mentioned:

* The sanctions imposed at the request of the ILO (in relation to non-compliance with ratified Labour Convention 29 against forced labour) were hurting, and forcing a dependency on China which the Burmese resented.

* Aung San Suu Kyi had become a powerful symbol of opposition to the military oppression and international political pressure on the regime was increasing. Keeping her imprisoned for fifteen of the previous twenty years had only increased her influence internationally, and helped the growth of her deity status among ordinary people in Myanmar (who refer to her as "The Lady--a practice which goes back to the time when it was dangerous to even mention her name).

* The generals wanted to 'launder' their ill-gotten wealth. And practically speaking they wanted to be able to spend it: educating their children abroad and making shopping trips to Paris and New York.

* And they did not intend to give up real power anyway. The 'Roadmap to Disciplined Democracy' and the 2008 Constitution were intended to perpetuate military rule through its own political party established in 2010, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), aided by an allocation of 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament to the military. And just in case the worst happened, the constitution provides...

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