In the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s huge electoral triumph, G Parthasarathy looks at her longstanding ties with India, and the importance New Delhi attaches to her role in guiding Myanmar’s gradual transition to democracy.
November 16, 2012 was an unforgettable day for the faculty, alumni and students of New Delhi’s prestigious Lady Sri Ram College. It was the day that Aung San Suu Kyi, described as the college’s ‘most famous alumnus yet’, returned for a visit to her alma mater, from where she had graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in politics in 1964.
It was a rapturous welcome for ‘SUU’, as her many personal friends in India know her. She had also returned to India over a decade after her graduation, with her husband Michael Aris, for a course at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, and her mother was Burma’s Ambassador to India from 1960-67. India conferred on Suu Kyi the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1992, while she was still under house arrest. New Delhi, however, maintained friendly and cordial relations with the military rulers, akin to the policies adopted by Myanmar’s other Asian neighbours.
Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar in 1988, primarily to look after her ailing mother. Her return coincided with the uprising against the country’s military rulers, which resulted in the brutal massacre of demonstrators on August 8, 1988. She was inevitably drawn into the vortex of domestic politics, addressing a massive gathering of over 500,000 people opposite the revered Shwedagon Pagoda in September 1988. She subsequently set up the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party she has since led.
The NLD swept the polls held in 1990, winning 59 per cent of the vote and 81 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Surprised by the results, the military junta cracked down heavily on democratic freedoms and Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest.
When she decided to participate in elections held on November 8, 2015, there were few who expected that she would again win decisively, as the military had expended huge resources in building up a rival party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Moreover, new leaders had appeared in the ethnic minority States; many still in the grip of continuing armed insurgencies, or governed under tenuous ceasefire agreements. The November 8 elections, however, reaffirmed that Myanmar’s people, cutting across religious and ethnic differences, have an abiding faith in the abilities of Aung San Suu Kyi to lead them to an era of ethnic peace, prosperity and democratic freedoms. Delivering a stunning rout of the ruling military-dominated USDP, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 135 out of the 168 seats contested in the Lower House and 255 of the 330 seats contested in the Upper House. These results assured her a comfortable majority in both Houses of Parliament, where 25 per cent of members are nominated by the armed forces. The army continues to play a significant role in national affairs, especially on issues of internal and external security.
Ever since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has been torn apart by a number of ethnic insurgencies. There are 135 different ethnic groups in the country, with the majority Burmans (Bamars) constituting 68 per cent of the population. But, in substantive terms, the country comprises seven States, representing the seven major ethnic nationalities, and seven Regions of majority Bamars. The basic problem of Myanmar has been its inability to fashion a constitution based on ‘unity in diversity’. Just before independence, Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, who was the hero of the country’s independence struggle, reached an agreement in February 1947, known as the Panglong Agreement, which proclaimed that ‘citizens of frontier areas shall enjoy rights and privileges, which are regarded as fundamental in democratic societies’. Aung San also promised ‘full autonomy in internal administration for the frontier areas’.
While Suu Kyi’s NLD won substantive support in these States, the ethnic insurgencies cannot be tackled without the support of the army, which controls the key Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Areas. Whether the army will give her a free hand to negotiate the sort of autonomy for ethnic minority States that her father envisaged in 1947 appears uncertain. This, in turn, could well lead to the erosion of the support she received from minority ethnic States in the recent elections. Moreover, like its counterparts in Pakistan, Indonesia and Thailand, the Myanmar army and particularly its senior officers, past and present, have built a vast economic empire, even covering areas like mining for jade and rubies, which they are hardly likely to surrender in a hurry.
Despite her massive mandate, Suu Kyi is not going to have an easy time governing the country. Speaking just after the election results were declared, she averred: ‘If the NLD wins the elections and we form a government, I am going to be the leader of that government, whether or not I am president.’ She added: ‘Do you have to be president to lead the country?’
The Myanmar constitution proclaims that the president ‘takes precedence over all other persons’. Suu Kyi’s statements have resulted in expressions of concern from President Thein Sein, who has been the architect of a steadfast move towards democracy in the past five years. While President Thein Sein and the army commander-in-chief welcomed the election results, there are clear indications of unease and unhappiness at what they evidently perceive as Suu Kyi’s readiness to disregard constitutional provisions. The army chief has indicated that, given the ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar, the moves Suu Kyi envisages for constitutional change cannot be rushed through.
Military dictatorships in Myanmar’s neighbours Indonesia and Thailand have not surrendered power easily, or in a hurry. In Indonesia, the military had a 20 per cent representation in Parliament from 1959 to 2004. In that period, the military-backed Golkar Party largely enjoyed a majority in Parliament. It is only after President Joko Widodo assumed office recently that the army has not had a significant role in governance. Thailand has experienced 12 military coups since 1932, with the most recent, in 2014, resulting in the ouster of the elected and popular government of Yingluck Shinwatra. Moreover, even though Suu Kyi was formally invited by the Chinese government and received by President Xi Jinping, there is a widespread perception, not only in Beijing but also in neighbouring ASEAN capitalsg that she may move closer to the US, UK and other Western powers, at the cost of relations with China and ASEAN neighbours.
The transition to a new NLD-led government has to be handled carefully and sensitively. Suu Kyi would be well advised to recognise that military rulers have historically handed over powers across Asia, hesitantly and slowly. Her Western backers would also do well to to bear this in mind. India has constantly urged a calibrated move towards democratic norms in Myanmar, by building a consensus on the pace of change within the country. New Delhi will not take public positions on internal change in Myanmar. But it has worked behind the scenes to get armed ethnic groups to join the democratic mainstream, while urging the military to be conciliatory. This process will continue. India cannot afford to see instability in Myanmar, with which it shares a sensitive and strategic 1,640-kilometre land border.