Myanmar's Suu Kyi faces heavy criticism one year into democratic rule


The suspense was palpable as Aung San Suu Kyi, her hands folded near her chin, sat perfectly upright, watching a woman on a video screen slam her integrity as head of government.

"Aung San Suu Kyi? She and the military are hand in glove!" the woman from Myanmar's northern Kachin State said.

It was a Saturday night in March and Myanmar's State Counsellor – and de facto leader – Suu Kyi was sitting in a lush Yangon garden serving as a jury member for a photography festival.

The ranting woman appeared on a video shown among the images. Some audience members clapped cautiously after the remarks, while others seemed frozen in shame. As always, all eyes were on the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi – and as always, everyone who greeted her seemed to melt away in admiration of the world-famous democracy icon.

But things had changed. 30 March marks one year since Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party took control of Myanmar's government, after more than half a century of military dictatorship. Not everyone holds back criticism of that first year.

The woman on the video lost her home when the army attacked her refugee camp. She is a victim of a war that has gone on for six years and that Suu Kyi's government has been unable to contain. In fact, the opposite. Fighting flared up again in Kachin and Shan states last summer, after Suu Kyi had begun a peace process.

"We need time," says professor Aung Tun Thet, one of Suu Kyi's advisors. "With the high number of challenges we are facing, most important is that things move forward."

Not everyone has time to wait. At least 70,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority that the Burmese widely reject as illegal immigrants, have fled Rakhine State to neighbouring Bangladesh since the military started a security operation in October. The UN, fearing ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in the conflict zone, launched last week a fact-finding mission to investigate alleged atrocities against the Rohingya.

The Myanmar government initially denied all allegations before starting its own investigation, chaired by a member of the military, earlier this year. The issue is considered the biggest challenge yet for the NLD administration.

"It's atrocious how they've handled the crisis," says David Mathieson, a human rights expert specialising in Myanmar. Though he wishes that Suu Kyi would speak out publicly on the issue, he thinks she deserves less criticism. "She is not a rights activist. She is a politician now. Get over it," he says.

After Myanmar's citizens voted the NLD into power in November 2015, in elections that were widely deemed free and fair by observers, many were optimistic about the country's future. One year after the civilian government was sworn in, however, the transition to democracy seems less smooth than ever. Last week's move by the UN to establish an inquiry into atrocities against the Rohingya illustrated the situation's complexity.

Some diplomats feared an investigation into the alleged human rights abuses could endanger the political transition in Myanmar, where generals still have a firm grip on power. "Suu Kyi is tied up by Myanmar's military-drafted constitution," political scholar Min Zin says.

The ministries for defence, home and border affairs, as well as the post of vice-president and a quarter of all seats in parliament, are still under army control.

NLD lawyer U Ko Ni, who was working on changing the constitution to limit some of the military's political power, was shot dead in January in plain daylight by suspects with alleged military ties. After the murder, Suu Kyi kept silent for longer than even some of her supporters were willing to accept. 

Many in Myanmar have grown tired of the NLD's lack of communication. "It is almost like with the military government: We don't know what their policies are," says political scholar Min Zin.

The US lifted its last remaining sanctions on Myanmar in October, but the economy is falling short of growth expectations. Investors remain cautious toward the government's economic policies.

With no public opinion polls available, upcoming by-elections on 1 April – in which less than 5 percent of all available parliament seats will be up for grabs – are being eyed as an indicator of the NLD's current support.    (dpa)

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