Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi speaks out

Aung San Suu Kyi surprised many this week when she was uncharacteristically critical of the Mynamar government's much-lauded reforms.

Soe Zeya/Reuters
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon in May 2013.

In an unexpected turnaround Aung San Suu Kyi openly criticized aspects of the government’s policies this week, resulting in a bit of head scratching among Myanmar-watchers.

On Monday Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said that the government’s much-lauded reforms were moving too slowly. “The last three years saw no tangible changes, especially in [the area of] the rule of law and the peace process.”

Human rights groups say that at least 100 political prisoners remain in jail and that several draconian laws dating from Myanmar's military rule remain unchanged.

To be fair, Myanmar has done some remodeling: There were free and fair by-elections in April 2012, many political prisoners were set free and the media is much more free than before. The parliament – though mostly made up of army-linked men who took their seats in a rigged 2010 election – has passed laws that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, allowing trade unions, for example. (Read the Monitor's coverage on Myanmar's about-face)

Is The Lady, as she's known to Burmese, now playing hardball politics, adopting a more confrontational party-political approach ahead of the next elections in 2015, and perhaps putting an end to the “grand bargain” between Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein which has so far helped oil reform in Myanmar?

The answer is not clear.

For one, Aung San Suu Kyi’s timing seemed curious. Even if her message was welcomed by human rights groups who say that Myanmar's reforms have stalled in recent months it came on the heels of the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who pledged a half billion dollars in loans and wrote off almost $2 billion debt, and Mr. Thein Sein’s high profile visit to Washington earlier this month, the latter a reward by the US for Thein Sein's reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi's backing for Thein Sein has been integral to his being accepted as a reformer by the West, which long took its lines on Myanmar policy from the 1991 Nobel peace laureate

What of the reforms? Some, such as land reform, seemed rushed and turned out flawed – maybe the work of inexperienced parliamentarians. Others, such as the proposed press regime, have old junta-era restrictions stitched back in and have, as a result, stalled. Still others are in progress, such as a proposed minimum wage law, and are emerging through an attritional, horse-trading parliamentary process. 

Some suggest the only fast-track to reform is for the president to issue decrees – which would mean bypassing the legislature and smack of the bad old days of junta rule.

Aung San Suu Kyi has mostly shied from giving detail about what aspects of Myanmar's reforms – or lack thereof – irk her, aside from references to a vague catch-all “rule of law” mantra.

But she's been looking for the country's contentious constitution to be revised given that if it stays as it is, reform will only ever go so far and the military will have a continued (even decisive) say in Myanmar's politics. She's been vocal about that though, all along, even while smiling and posing alongside the regime of her former jailers.

It's highly likely she wants to have a chance to run in Myanmar's scheduled 2015 election, and needs the constitution changed in order to do so - not to mention to allow her party to govern without excessive military meddling. It may well be that she's making a political move now, ahead of the elections, to try put distance between herself and government reformists, such as Thein Sein, as there's a growing perception that she has been somewhat co-opted by the ruling party.

And that leads to the second somewhat surprising aspect of her remarks earlier this week. Aung San Suu Kyi has drawn fire from human rights groups in recent months for her reticence about speaking out against violence against some of Burma's estimated 5 million Muslims. Cynics chalk this up to her need to win the majority Buddhist Burman vote in 2015. But Aung San Suu Kyi broke her silence on Myanmar's ethnic violence on Monday.

She condemned a ruling by the regional administration in Myanmar's Rakhine state, a region bordering Bangladesh, to limit the Muslim Rohingya group to two children per family. "That kind of discrimination is illegal. It's not in accordance with human rights.” 

It seems all this raises more questions than answers. Will she now speak up about ongoing violence against Muslims in Myanmar after renewed attacks this week? And, more important, will Myanmar's reformist government act to rein in what seems to be a growing anti-Muslim, Buddhist-supremacist campaign known as “969”?

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