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Opinion: Aung San Suu Kyi’s part in the struggle for democracy is over

Aung San Suu Kyi, left, and Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, right, in Naypyidaw, the Myanmar capital, on May 6, 2016. (Aung Shine Oo/AP)

On Monday, a Myanmar court sentenced Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to two years in prison for inciting unrest and breaking covid-19 regulations. She is on trial for nine more alleged offenses. Even if she were to be cleared of all of them, one can be certain that the reigning military junta would come up with further charges. So long as the generals remain in control of the government in Myanmar, Suu Kyi is guaranteed to spend the rest of her life in prison.

Last year, she emerged as the overwhelming victor in her second national election. Threatened by her popularity, and fearing the buildup of an irreversible democratic momentum in the country, the Myanmar military launched a coup in February. Suu Kyi has spent the rest of the year under arrest, while the military continues to wage a crackdown against pro-democracy protests among the civilian population, who are still valiantly resisting the new imposition of dictatorship. For the moment, Suu Kyi remains the face of democracy in Myanmar, also known as Burma. But her part in the story of democracy in her country is effectively over — and her legacy is already dissolving.

The struggle for democracy goes on without her. To be sure, her standing among the pro-democracy movement remains great. Even so, she is no longer a necessary part of the pro-democracy coalition. Indeed, it would seem that the movement is finally beginning to outgrow her.

In April, pro-democracy forces declared the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government opposing the junta. This organization is no longer directed by, or reliant on, Suu Kyi and her small cadre of lieutenants at the top of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. For the first time in its history, the pro-democracy effort in Myanmar is genuinely being driven from the bottom up by a diverse range of constituents, largely based in the local communities that are bearing the brunt of the military crackdown. Non-Burmese minority ethnic groups are taking equal part in this new struggle for democracy.

Indeed, the ethnic minorities may even have an advantage in the resistance because of their long experience in facing and resisting the abuses of the military in their areas. Suu Kyi’s party remains a nexus of the broader movement, but even the NLD is changing, as younger voices are coming to the fore.

The most dramatic change in the pro-democracy movement came on June 3, when the NUG issued a statement inviting the Rohingya ethnic group “to join hands with us and others to participate in the Spring Revolution against the military dictatorship in all possible ways.”

The Rohingya genocide of 2017 is perhaps the most defining event of Suu Kyi’s tenure in government. The Nobel laureate failed to speak for the human rights of a group of her fellow compatriots while they were being slaughtered and terrorized by the military. Instead, she expressed her explicit support for the military even as its operations were driving 750,000 Rohingyas from the country of their birth.

She used her standing to prevent scrutiny from the international community and United Nations agencies. She allowed — while also obstructing at every step — the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. She consistently defended the actions of the military in the international media. Most egregiously of all, she even defended the actions of the military in a genocide case brought against the country at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Suu Kyi and some of the old-guard core of the NLD were all morally implicated in the genocide. The old core of the NLD initially even resisted international appeals to the NUG to include the Rohingya in the struggle for democracy.

In June, the NUG made a decisive break with the past. It announced a new vision for a democratic future in Myanmar that is predicated not on ethnic Burmese and nationalist Buddhist domination, but that includes everyone, even the most historically maligned and marginalized minority groups. This is very unlike the vision for democracy espoused by the NLD for over three decades, and it is driven by a new generation of leaders from all across the country’s multitude of constituencies.

If democracy is to have a future in Myanmar, it is this new generation that will bring it to the country. If they succeed, they will go down in history as the architects of a new era in the life of Myanmar — while Aung San Suu Kyi’s term in office will quietly fade into history as a brief and failed experiment in collaboration with tyrants.


(c) 2021, The Washington Post


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