Mercy for Myanmar's military?

As she and her winning party prepare to run Parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi faces pressure from the military’s millions of victims for revenge. She wisely argues to allow the Army to reform.

AP Photo
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, left, Commander in Chief of Myanmar Defense Services, reaches to shake hands with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi during their Dec. 2 meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.

As she prepares to wield power in Myanmar’s legislature in April after a historic election, Aung San Suu Kyi is giving this advice to all those who suffered under the country’s military rule over the past half century: Set aside a desire for revenge against the Army.

“The Lady,” as Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is known, can be forgiven for being so forgiving – despite the military’s long record of atrocities against political, ethnic, and religious groups. For one, she carries moral weight from being put under house arrest herself for 15 years as a result of her advocacy for democracy. And two, like Nelson Mandela who came out of prison to rule post-apartheid South Africa, she has practical reasons not to seek immediate retribution against a still-powerful elite.

Even though elected civilians now dominate parliament, the military will control a quarter of the seats under a constitution it left behind. And it has built legal protections for itself against retribution. The top brass also have a grip on big businesses in Myanmar (Burma).

At best, says Aung San Suu Kyi, the Army generals will need to achieve reform from within their ranks. Or as she told fellow lawmakers in her National League for Democracy: “Whatever mistake they have made in the past, we need to give them the chance to change, instead of seeking revenge. If they are doing nothing wrong at the present time, they can join hands with us.”

Her words reflect a confidence in the corrective influence of democracy, or values such as openness, equality, freedom of speech, and minority rights. After decades of civil war and political bloodshed, Myanmar needs a break from the cycle of violence as it tackles a host of problems left by military misrule.

Since 2011, when the military began to loosen its reins on Burmese society, Aung San Suu Kyi has been diligent in forming close ties with top generals in hopes of building a relationship of trust. Her party members in parliament also plan to befriend the military’s representatives. From these personal ties, they hope the Army will be less afraid of revenge and begin to acknowledge abuses of the past.

Myanmar’s new leaders will need to provide some measure of justice in order to keep the trust of millions hurt under military rule. At the least, an official account of the abuses must be known. If the Army can willingly admit its mistakes, that is halfway to preventing a repeat of them.

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