In Myanmar, a Cult of Character Meets Its Downfall
BANGKOK – When an election landslide led the National League for Democracy to a position of power in Myanmar for the first time, the party was given a robust mandate to pull the country out of the grip of the army after decades of ruthless military rule.
The challenge was to find a way to continue his agenda without inciting retaliation from the military. According to the country’s military-drafted constitution, the party had to share power with the army that had once imprisoned many of its leaders.
It pushed hard on its primary goal – to strengthen the power of its unique leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In other respects it was in step with the military and left many of its repressive laws in place. But it also lived in fear, and the party stepped cautiously after a key legal adviser was murdered.
For the National League for Democracy (NLD), one fundamental truth could not escape: the generals always had the upper hand. They handled it boldly on Monday and regained full power in a coup.
“It has always depended on the goodwill of a single person, the Commander in Chief, not to use force to achieve its goal,” said Richard Horsey, a political analyst in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. “The National League for Democracy always believed that a coup was imminent, even if it wasn’t. This time it was. “
The commander-in-chief, Maj. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, claimed the November elections were fraudulent, declared a state of emergency on Monday, prevailed as head of state and imprisoned Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders.
For the military known as the Tatmadaw, the final straw seems to have been the one-sided outcome of that election, which led the NLD to an even greater victory than the one that first brought them to power in 2015’s crushing defeat.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years in the previous era of military rule, is now facing a possible prison sentence for illegally importing walkie-talkies. The country has appeared largely peaceful in the days since the coup, despite a government ministry ordering Facebook to be blocked until Sunday.
The NLD, which began as a broad-based anti-military movement, became a vehicle for the ambitions of one woman: Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.
The NLD was co-founded by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 during a wave of pro-democracy protests that helped make it known around the world and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize three years later. With her at its head, the party united a broad coalition, from leftists to former military officials, that opposed the dominance of the army.
While the word “democracy” remains part of his name and origin, the party has been less than a beacon of democratic values for years.
In the November elections, the party-appointed electoral commission excluded millions of people of different ethnicities, including persecuted Rohingya Muslims, from the ballot box.
Over the years, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi built the NLD in her own image. Critics called it a personality cult. Often criticized for her stubbornness and authoritative style, she has kept the party firmly under her command and is known for demanding loyalty and obedience from her followers.
Initially, the party’s top-down structure was based on its need to survive under military rule, as many of its leaders were picked up and sentenced to long prison terms. The allegations were obscure at times – like a bodyguard’s briefing in martial arts – but the effect was no less severe.
“The rigid nature of the NLD was forged by military persecution,” said David Scott Mathieson, a longtime Myanmar analyst. “They could only trust each other.”
This strict hierarchy also reflected the party’s military legacy.
The other four co-founders of the NLD were senior retired military officers, including U Tin Oo, a former commander in chief of Tatmadaw. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, was the founder and leader of the nation’s independence movement in Tatmadaw until his assassination in 1947.
While the organization started as a grassroots movement, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi always showed respect for the institution her father founded, even when her generals imprisoned her.
“She saw it as her fate to end her father’s business,” said Horsey. “The NLD was more about Suu Kyi than about being a party.”
In the first days after the party’s 2015 election victory, its leaders were cautious about challenging the military. However, others say they could have done more, such as repealing repressive laws and protecting the rights of activists and ethnic groups.
“They could have done many things while in power,” said Nyo Nyo Thin, a former regional lawmaker. “You could have passed a law to limit the commander-in-chief’s power.”
However, party leaders were concerned that any attempt to undermine the Tatmadaw’s authority could spark a coup.
“The thought was if you do it too quickly, the military has an excuse to come in,” said Myanmar analyst Mathieson. “They’d say, ‘It took us years to get here, we’re not going to screw it up now.'”
When the party formed its first government in 2016, one of its first challenges was to circumvent a military constitutional provision that specifically excluded Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from serving as president.
On the advice of a prominent human rights attorney, U Ko Ni, the party created the post of state advisor, which is not enshrined in the constitution but resembles the head of state. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi assumed the title of state advisor and promptly declared herself over the president.
“She shared many political instincts with the military,” said Horsey, the Yangon analyst. “There were many things that they agreed on. What challenged her was her firm belief that she should be president. “
Mr. Ko Ni also had a plan to replace the military-drafted constitution with a new version that would deprive the Tatmadaw of its extraordinary powers. But Mr. Ko Ni was shot dead in broad daylight at Yangon Airport in early 2017 while he was holding his grandchild. The plan was postponed.
“This bullet wasn’t just for Ko Ni,” said a colleague at the time, human rights lawyer U Thein Than Oo. “It was for the NLD”
Four men were convicted of the murder, including two former military officers, but it was never proven that the Tatmadaw ordered the murder. An ex-colonel was identified as a mastermind, but he was never arrested.
The attack – and the risk of further violent retaliation – hung like a cloud over relations between the party and the military. The party only challenged the constitutional authority of the military last year when it unsuccessfully proposed reducing the military’s seat in parliament.
“The result was that the NLD became much more cautious and they became even more convinced that they were in an existential battle,” said Horsey.
Ultimately, Myanmar’s controversial civil-military partnership broke down over the competing desires of two people to become president: the lady and the general.
General Min Aung Hlaing has promised to hold new elections within a year. Many doubt that he will keep his promise. A free election with all participating parties would probably not bring him the desired result.
“The military has two problems,” Horsey said. “Aung San Suu Kyi is incredibly popular and you are incredibly unpopular.”