Hot-wiring the Suu Kyi time machine in Myanmar (2023)

It was with a heavy dose of dejected familiarity that anyone from Myanmar over the age of 30 must have received the news in recent days that Aung San Suu Kyi had her prison sentence reduced and moved from incarceration to house arrest.

For foreigners, at least those who worked in the country before 2011 rather than the “transition” flunkies who flocked in on a wave of highly paid opportunism, it signaled a resumption of déjà-vu junta shenanigans.

For two decades Suu Kyi was bounced from house arrest to conditional freedom to divert attention from an incompetent autocracy before they got the formula right with “discipline-flourishing democracy,” where “The Lady” wins elections and appears to rule but the military holds most of the power.

There were the inevitable international media tremors of speculation after the sentence reduction, but they were short-lived: It was an anti-climactic non-event after all.

Since being slapped with ridiculous charges stemming from possessing supposedly illegal radios to corruption and subject to a series of semi-secret trials, Suu Kyi has largely fallen into obscurity as large parts of Myanmar rose in armed insurrection against the February 2021 coup d’état and military repression.

Suu Kyi had her prison term reduced from 33 years to 27, even though coup-ousted president Win Myint only had two years taken off.

The day before the sentence reduction, the ruling State Administration Council (SAC) extended the state of emergency another six months, prolonging the military’s 2021 seizure of power.

To mark the occasion, and with a cynical veil of religious piety at the start of Buddhist Lent, replete with the unveiling of the world’s tallest (sitting) Buddha statue and a baby white elephant, there was a broader prisoner amnesty. But of 19,729 political prisoners in the country, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has estimated only 92 have been confirmed freed during the “amnesty.”

Such a paltry attempt at political concession suggests that the SAC was compelled to change course as the civil war further erodes central state power, but did so with reluctance.

A significant cabinet reshuffle followed soon after, which either indicates widespread dysfunction in the military and civilian ruling apparatus, or it was simply an opportune time to shake things up, perhaps with some nudging from Beijing, or suggestions from visiting regional diplomats.

Does this all presage “playing the Suu Kyi card,” as so much clichéd dehumanizing analysis has suggested?

Support for Suu Kyi in question

Myanmar is a markedly different country now. How much does the SAC see Suu Kyi as currency for neutralizing, or at least further dividing, the domestic rebellion and participating as a partner in some form of mediated settlement?

Is she viable currency for leveraging international pressure? How popular is she as a leader to a domestic audience and to the world at large?

Firm evidence of internal military thinking is an elusive quality in Myanmar, where variants of speculative “Kremlinology” prevail: Think of “SACology” and “Suuology” as substitutes.

Domestically, Suu Kyi indubitably enjoys a deep reservoir of reverence and inspiration, as the 2020 election victory should make evident. However, she also had a decade of political missteps and making legions of enemies around the country.

She may have commanded popularity among ordinary people, but she drove wedges among ethnic political and military leaders, civil society, the media, and many younger people, some of whom are now leading an “intersectional revolution” that wants to reform Myanmar society substantially, not a “restoration of democracy” that is in essence Suu Kyi being reinstalled.

Being arrested on the morning of the coup, she was incommunicado for the festive anti-coup protests before the regime started deadly suppression, killing hundreds of civilians.

It’s not clear how she would respond to such widespread militarization of especially a generation of younger people: endorsement and encouragement, or condemnation and dismissal? Would her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). fully back her?

The opposition National Unity Government (NUG), which commands some of the hundreds of People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), could be imperiled if Suu Kyi decides to take over from her house arrest in Naypyidaw.

Troubled leadership

Coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who in a very “African dictator” manner crowned himself prime minister as one part of the recent reshuffle, will not go down as one of the great military minds of his generation.

His obvious incompetence and extreme violence repressing resistance have provoked a measure of nostalgia for previous dictator Than Shwe, the key architect of the 2008 constitution and the “pacted transition” with Suu Kyi that followed.

Min Aung Hlaing has capsized this legacy of peaceful internal change. Rumors that the Chinese have been counseling the former strongman and his anointed guardian, former president Thien Sein, have been swirling for many months, but this could be simply Naypyidaw kaw la ha la (rumor).

The SAC has not been plagued by ideas of its own. Since the coup, many of the regime’s reforms have been reruns of repression and murder – heavy doses of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) between 1988 to 1997, and its lipstick-on-a-pig successor, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) from 1997 to 2011.

But it seems increasingly obvious that decision-making occurs with a marked delay, like a giant stegosaurus being hit on the tail and minutes elapsing before the pain registers in its walnut-size brain. If the coup was a terrible idea, then the SAC’s responses to widespread dissent and armed insurrection have been even worse.

Even if Suu Kyi were partial to collaborating with the SAC on any negotiated settlement – and that’s a central Suuology question – it’s not clear Min Aung Hlaing has the political acumen to manipulate her effectively even if she were so inclined.

There is no returning to the international adulation Suu Kyi commanded for more than two decades. She spent the decade out of house arrest from late 2010 methodically dismantling her reputation as a human-rights champion, and her commitment to becoming a political dilettante.

Her appearance at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in late 2019 to deny that mass violence against the Rohingya Muslims was a genocide, but admitting war crimes and crimes against humanity had been perpetrated, sealed the end of her veneration in the West.

There have been three waves of Western obsession with Myanmar. The first, from 1991 to around 2016, was Suu Kyi herself, an obsession for US senators, George Soros and celebrity rock bands everywhere.

The second, from about 2012 to 2021, was the plight of the Rohingya, with the same international obsessives, who have since cast attention elsewhere: When a million refugees are down to starvation rations in Bangladesh without a murmur of concern, your time in the international compassion spotlight is over.

The third and ongoing obsession, which probably started some years before the 2021 coup, is containing China, increasingly evident in American commentary, and causing the Myanmar resistance significant unease at being caught in the middle of this new cold war.

In short, Suu Kyi simply doesn’t have the cachet in Western capitals she once did.

Did China have a role to play? It seems possible China’s frustration with the deteriorating situation could have obviated the need to be more insistent that the military leadership conjure some form of circuit breaker, even if Suu Kyi doesn’t spark as much sympathy as she used to.

The world must exercise caution in giving these developments any iota of credibility and totally resist the mentally careworn urge to “give it a chance”: These events are not an imperfect opening to be explored.

Some cynical Western states will see it as an opportunity; the Swiss, Finland and Norway are among those clamoring for mediation inroads. Japan’s envoy Yōhei Sasakawa is fluttering on the edges of the military, and it’s said he shares Min Aung Hlaing’s intense animus for Suu Kyi.

They should all be urged to stand down and not get in the way of a Myanmar-resistance-driven negotiation with the SAC – when the time is right, and that time is not now.

If Suu Kyi is eventually involved in any future public talks, she shouldn’t be the central figure. Those days are well and truly over, there is no time machine for the Lady and the Generals to try it all over again.

The SAC has stirred a more existential insurrection that wants the military smashed, not sidled up to.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human-rights issues.



What is the role of Aung San Suu Kyi in fighting for democracy in Myanmar? ›

She was also inspired by Buddhism. Aung San Suu Kyi worked for democracy and helped make the National League for Democracy on September 27th 1988. Because Suu Kyi was fighting against the government, she was asked to leave the country, but she did not.

Who is the ex leader of Myanmar? ›

Aug 1 (Reuters) - Myanmar's ruling military pardoned on Tuesday jailed former leader Aung San Suu Kyi on five of the 19 offences for which she was convicted but she will remain under house arrest, state media and informed sources said.

Why did Burma change to Myanmar? ›

As for the country's name, the commission decided to replace the English name "Burma" with "Myanmar", for three reasons. First, Myanma is the official name of the country in the Burmese language, and the aim of the commission was to have English place names aligned with Burmese place names and pronunciation.

What is the old name of Myanmar? ›

For generations, the country was called Burma, after the dominant Burman ethnic group. But in 1989, one year after the ruling junta brutally suppressed a pro-democracy uprising, military leaders suddenly changed its name to Myanmar.

Who is the most powerful king in Myanmar? ›

Bayinnaung, also called Braginoco, (flourished 16th century), king of the Toungoo dynasty (reigned 1551–81) in Myanmar (Burma). He unified his country and conquered the Shan States and Siam (now Thailand), making Myanmar the most powerful kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia.

Who is the hero of Myanmar? ›

Aung San is considered the founder of modern-day Myanmar and the Tatmadaw (the country's armed forces), and is commonly referred to by the titles "Father of the Nation", "Father of Independence", and "Father of the Tatmadaw".

Who is the last king of Myanmar? ›

Thibaw, also spelled Theebaw, (born 1858, Mandalay, Burma—died Dec. 19, 1916, Ratnagiri Fort, India), last king of Burma, whose short reign (1878–85) ended with the occupation of Upper Burma by the British.

What was the contribution of General Aung San in the freedom struggle of Burma? ›

After World War II, he negotiated Burmese independence from Britain in the Aung San-Attlee agreement. He served as the 5th Premier of the British Crown Colony of Burma from 1946 to 1947.

How was democracy established in Myanmar? ›

On 4 January 1948, Burma achieved independence from Britain, and became a democracy based on the parliamentary system. In late 1946 Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Burma, a transitional government.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Golda Nolan II

Last Updated: 08/25/2023

Views: 6098

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (58 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Golda Nolan II

Birthday: 1998-05-14

Address: Suite 369 9754 Roberts Pines, West Benitaburgh, NM 69180-7958

Phone: +522993866487

Job: Sales Executive

Hobby: Worldbuilding, Shopping, Quilting, Cooking, Homebrewing, Leather crafting, Pet

Introduction: My name is Golda Nolan II, I am a thoughtful, clever, cute, jolly, brave, powerful, splendid person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.