The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Suu Kyi’s godlike status drove her Myanmar election win. It threatens to rip the country apart.

Supporters of the National League for Democracy hold posters with the image of Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Nov. 9. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar’s national elections this month, the second since a half-century of direct military rule ended, proved that civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party remain singularly beloved there.

The challengers, a military-linked political party and numerous ethnic-based groups, were largely obliterated, leaving Suu Kyi’s party with more than 80 percent of available parliamentary seats.

But in the fragile democracy — where ethnic warfare rages in border regions and the coronavirus pandemic has worsened economic hardship — the outcome threatens to divide rather than unify. Ethnic minority leaders say the landslide has served to marginalize their voices while validating a cult of personality around Suu Kyi.

The results also underscore the gulf between the West, which has fallen out of love with the former democracy campaigner over her defense of the military against genocide charges, and Myanmar’s people, who see Suu Kyi as a deity-like figure.

People in Myanmar “voted out of absolute trust and faith in her,” said Richard Horsey, senior adviser on Myanmar for the International Crisis Group. “There is a devotion to her that is still very strong.”

Outpourings of joy on the streets of Yangon in recent days mask the reality that the pressing challenges facing the country, also known as Burma, will not see a new approach.

Rather, the landslide for the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) will entrench Suu Kyi’s “inclination toward single-party domination,” said Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner and analyst.

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“The NLD has gained a supremacist position,” he said. “That does not bode well for democracy and federalism in our ethnically diverse nation.”

Monywa Aung Shin, a spokesman for the NLD, said the party will work toward peace and building a democratic federal union, as outlined in its election manifesto.

Optimism erased

When elections swept the NLD to power five years ago, optimism surrounded Myanmar’s nascent transition from military rule.

Suu Kyi, now 75, was installed as state counselor — she cannot be president because of a technicality in the military-drafted constitution — and she oversaw the civilian government, which shares power with the military.

Suu Kyi vowed to end the military’s grip on power by changing the constitution, which reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for generals and gives the army control over several ministries, and to work with the army to end generations of ethnic conflict and protect individual rights.

Two years later, Myanmar’s military launched a scorched-earth campaign against the beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority, razing villages and indiscriminately killing, raping and torturing. Suu Kyi, who had never backed citizenship rights or protections for the Rohingya, allied herself with the generals. Last year, she personally defended Myanmar and its military against genocide charges at The Hague.

Suu Kyi’s status — she is revered domestically as the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero and as a former political prisoner who chose her country over her dying husband — was solidified in this month’s election. Her face was plastered over billboards, T-shirts and campaign posters. Although campaign rallies were banned because of the coronavirus, the red-and-yellow flag of the NLD was ubiquitous in towns and cities.

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For many casting their votes on Nov. 8, Suu Kyi’s inability to change the constitution, remove the military from politics or deliver clear economic gains ended up being immaterial, or at least secondary to their faith in her.

But for some of the country’s more than 130 ethnic minority groups, which account for more than 30 percent of the population, the pervasive public displays of support for the NLD have reinforced the ruling party’s dominance at their expense, and their perception of Suu Kyi as an icon only for the Bamar majority.

Some 1.4 million people in minority townships in Rakhine, Shan, Kachin and Kayin states were denied the right to vote, after election officials canceled or postponed elections in those areas, citing conflict — a decision that international observers say was not transparent. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya also remain disenfranchised, as they were in the previous election.

'Invitation to chaos'

Under Suu Kyi’s rule, conflict has intensified in Rakhine state, where an ethnic Buddhist Rakhine group known as the Arakan Army is fighting the Myanmar military.

The country’s electoral system, which awards seats to the party that receives a plurality of votes, has further sidelined ethnic minority parties, which mostly failed to make gains either in the national parliament or the regional legislatures that they hoped to control. An exception was Rakhine, where the ethnic Arakan National Party dominates.

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“Change in Myanmar is dependent only on the ruling party and the government, and how much they would like to build peace,” said Tu Ja, chairman of the Kachin State People’s Party, which won one seat in the national parliament.

“We don’t have a fair chance, or a shot at federalism,” he said, describing Suu Kyi’s party as “chauvinistic.”

Suu Kyi’s landslide win has also disappointed young activists, who have pushed for more civil rights and do not see Suu Kyi or her party as representing their interests. There are still hundreds of political prisoners in the country — though it is led by a government largely constituted of former political prisoners.

Ye Wai Phyo Aung, founder of the free-expression advocacy group Athan, said the NLD should “stand for human rights and democratic values” that were absent in its first term.

“The NLD should learn a lesson about their past five years of rule, especially in political negotiations [with the military] and economic growth that they were struggling with,” he said.

Long-term observers are not holding their breath. Adding to the unease is the lack of a clear successor to Suu Kyi, which Khin Zaw Win warns is an “invitation to chaos and disaster.”

“Her party has not achieved much in a country where a great deal needs to be done,” he said. “If this were to be repeated for a second term, things are more than likely to get worse.”

Diamond reported from Yangon.

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