When the iconic democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi won her historic, landslide election in Burma (Myanmar), she was met by soaring expectations, as well as by the formidable challenges of violent conflicts, a stuttering economy and the significant constraints of sharing authority with a still-powerful military.
Not surprisingly, she has fallen short.
Since taking office just over a year ago, she has been navigating a thorny and complex landscape with great caution. Many say too cautiously, but getting that balance right will be critical for a successful and peaceful transition.
In Burma, “we are still marching toward the doors of democracy, but we are not a democracy yet,” the chief minister of the Mandalay Region, Zaw Myint Maung, told me. The danger that Burma still can slide back from its incomplete transition is dramatized by the continued conflict in Rakhine state, violence in the northeastern states of Kachin and Shan and the muted but still present voice of ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks.
In a recent visit I made to Burma, civil society, political and faith leaders, and members of armed ethnic groups, emphasized to our delegation that Aung San Suu Kyi needs to listen, engage and speak out more. People are hungry to hear her voice and better understand her vision for the country. Despite disappointments, she remains the singular figure who has the ability to mobilize and inspire her people.
After decades of clashes between the military regime and 21 major ethnic armed groups, the previous government began a peace process that showed promise. In 2015, that effort led to eight armed groups signing a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
But since then, authorities have made too little progress in fulfilling the accord’s commitments to those groups. That, and ongoing clashes in the northeast that are displacing tens of thousands of people, undermines the incentive for the remaining armed groups to sign on.
A greater personal engagement by Aung San Suu Kyi appears vital to revive and expand that peace process — a point underscored by a successful meeting she held on March 3 with members of armed groups that have not joined the cease-fire.
A powerful next step would be for Aung San Suu Kyi to visit areas suffering some of the greatest violence, notably in Kachin and Shan states, because ultimately her government must win over the people of these states — not just their armed leaders.
The steepest challenge may be the deep-seated conflict in Rakhine, Burma’s poorest, least-developed state, which borders Bangladesh.
There, the Rohingya Muslim minority and the Buddhist Rakhine community, itself a marginalized minority, have clashed over land, resources and the Rohingyas’ rights to be considered Burmese citizens. Since intercommunal fighting in 2012, the Rohingya have lived in a terrible limbo of displacement and fear of more reprisals.
After attacks on Rakhine border guards in October 2016 attributed to Rohingya insurgents, Burmese military conducted operations that have led to reports, including from U.N. agencies, that security forces used ethnic persecution and brutality against the Rohingya. The military contests that charge, and Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained silence.
There seems little chance for resolution without the transparency of an international investigation. Aung San Su Kyi had been taking commendable steps to address this conflict. Well before the October incident, she appointed former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head a commission to study and recommend next steps.
But absent a credible independent inquiry, Aung San Suu Kyi, the army and Burma as a whole will bear the stain of these charges.
In the complex, historically rooted puzzle of Burma’s conflicts, it is clear that Aung San Suu Kyi in recent months has missed important opportunities. She risks losing confidence both among the euphoric Burmese electorate of 2015 and a supportive international community. As we heard repeatedly in our visit, only Aung San Suu Kyi has the stature to mobilize and inspire the peace-making her country needs. Yet she cannot wield direct authority over Burma’s military.
For decades, the story of Burma came in simple, compelling headlines: the lady vs. the junta; oppressed ethnic minorities vs. the junta; saffron-robed Buddhist monks vs. the junta. We are now pressed to replace these simple, compelling stories with the more nuanced, complex understanding of the transitional journey underway. Burma’s task will require a massive transformation of the country’s political, security and economic systems — work that will take years, if not a generation.
Our recent visit to Burma underscores the importance of consistent U.S. support for sustaining Aung San Suu Kyi and the other reformers — civilians and military — working for reconciliation and better governance. One virtue of America’s recent diplomatic and development effort in Burma has been that it has been unusually well-coordinated, which is essential to sustain.
There is good news, though. Burma’s reformers remain determined. Grassroots movements are promoting interfaith reconciliation and opposing hate speech that attempts to incite violence.
And Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership still offers the United States an important opportunity to consolidate the gains to date and support a peaceful transition toward democracy, albeit a long and complicated one.
This piece was originally published on The Hill.
About the Author
Nancy Lindborg is president of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).