On January 9, during a local peace dialogue held in the Irrawaddy division in southern Myanmar, a group of high school and university students staged a satirical play addressing military clashes between the national armed forces (Tatmadaw) and ethnic opposition groups. The next week, the Tatmadaw brought defamation charges against the students, claiming that the drama “damaged the reputation of the army.” The event and subsequent lawsuit, which was reported in The Irrawaddy on January 23, come amid heightened ethnic tensions across Myanmar in recent months, and a renewed willingness on the part of both the military and the civilian government to crack down on free speech, especially over the sensitive issue of the Rohingya.
The harsh response on the part of the ruling regime is emblematic of the many hurdles still standing in the way of the country’s reckoning with its own past. 2015’s historic election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept to power, was a powerful example of democratic, peaceful regime change. Now the central promises of that campaign – a reckoning with the past and a renewed trust between the Myanmar government and its people – are in jeopardy of being eclipsed by new oppressive tactics and a reticence by Suu Kyi to speak out on the human rights issues that she used to champion.
In the spring of 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi assumed the title of state counselor, a newly invented office, but one that still captured her historically unique position as the inheritor of her father’s political legacy. Since then, her office has used that political capital to advance crucial dialogues aimed at reconciliation. The inaugural Union Peace Conference, also called the “21st Century Panglong Conference,” which is set to meet bi-annually, is a good start. However, it has appeared little more than a talk-shop to date, and excludes a large number of ethnic armed groups that did not sign a national cease-fire agreement from October 2015. The process has done much to facilitate regular dialogue between groups that are open to change, but like all reconciliation measures, it depends foremost on trust between the parties.
Lack of trust has been the backbone upon which the narrative of Myanmar’s modern history has been constructed. The 1947 Panglong Agreement between General Aung San and representatives from the ethnic groups around then-Burma’s perimeter territories was supposed to grant a degree of autonomy to those regions that had historically been separate from the governing structures of lowland Burma. The failure of the government to ever honor that agreement, and the lack of trust that it has engendered to this day, is one of the reasons the country has seen seven decades of civil war.
In April 2012, I reported from Kachin state in the days after that year’s historic by-election, which was deemed the first free and fair exercise of democracy in Myanmar in 50 years. While the mainly heterogeneous populations in Yangon and Mandalay were overjoyed with the reforms and promise of the NLD, the citizenry on the country’s periphery held a distinctly sour view. In Myitkyina, an ex-soldier from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) told me that “the NLD believes in democracy, but they are not good for Kachin…We only care about freedom for Kachin.” At the time, the KIA and the Tatmadaw had recently reopened a front that had been quiet for over a decade. The issue was local land rights and political access, and it was clear from Myitkyina that those matters would not be decided in the ballot box, but in the mountainous terrain where the KIA ambushed Tatmadaw units, hid from aerial bombardment, and eked out their survival from the land.
The KIA veteran went on to tell me that political change in Myanmar’s heartland would mean little to those living on the outskirts. There was simply no trust between the central government and the dozens of armed groups opposing it. After withstanding decades of strife, campaign promises would not be enough to heal old wounds. “We are fighting for rights. For respect. Not Autonomy. We are proud to be part of Burma, but we are not Burmese. We are Kachin, and we want the same rights as the majority.”
Almost five years later, his statement could just as easily describe the situation today. Both the Tatmadaw and the NLD are losing the modicum of trust they gained through the peaceful transfer of power in 2015, and the state counselor’s office has done little to help the situation. Since November 20, the Tatmadaw has been engaged in daily clashes with the Northern Alliance, an umbrella organization comprising four ethnic opposition groups across northern Myanmar, including the KIA. Both the Tatmadaw and the opposition groups blame the other for starting and continuing the conflict. It is likely that these skirmishes are merely shows of force – posturing for negotiating position prior to the next Union Peace Conference, scheduled for February. Rather than engaging with these new peace building institutions at face value, both the Tatmadaw and its armed adversaries continue to use violence as a first recourse, further eroding the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to find a peaceful end to Myanmar’s civil war.
This continued and unprejudiced use of force by the Tatmadaw and opposition groups along Myanmar’s periphery threatens to undue the promise of Aung San Suu Kyi. If the definition of government is a monopoly on violence, then the state counselor’s office does not look from the outside to be in a true position to govern the country. Indeed, this reality is reflected in the institutional barriers systematically preventing Suu Kyi’s office from exercising control anything other than her own office’s communication strategy. The powerful Home, Border, and Defense Ministries are all still outside civilian control or oversight, and the important National Defense and Security Council, while nominally overseen by Suu Kyi and her civilian partners, is still under the de facto control of the Tatmadaw and its appointed members.
Who can trust Aung San Suu Kyi and the institutional peace building mechanisms she is trying to create if she cannot exercise control over a military that still systematically punishes dissent, refuses to acknowledge the humanitarian disaster in Rakhine State, and punishes school children for performing a play?
Furthermore, while certain domestic constituencies may favor her stoic stance toward the Rohingya crisis, her government’s willingness to crack down on dissent in order to propagate its own, skewed narrative of the problem is costing Suu Kyi crucial support beyond this narrow bloc. In her 1991 book, Letters from Burma, Suu Kyi wrote, “To view the opposition as dangerous is to misunderstand the basic concepts of democracy. To oppress the opposition is to assault the very foundation of democracy.” Now that she is in power, her government has resorted to intimidating some of the populations that she previously claimed to represent. These actions further erode the modicum of trust held by ethnic opposition groups and only increase the likelihood of continued armed resistance.
Suu Kyi’s promise and power come from her unique ability in Myanmar to rally support as a public figure. She should not shy away from using that valuable position to push for further institutional change and attempt to wrangle some of the crucial control mechanisms away from the Tatmadaw. While criticism of Suu Kyi from abroad often fails to acknowledge the very real institutional hurdles standing in the way of her new office, they are mostly correct in demanding that she use her voice to address the backsliding into violence occurring throughout Myanmar. She needs to establish trust in more than just the NLD faithful that supported her in 2015. She should use her public persona and voice to do just that.
Daniel Combs is a Masters student at Columbia University, where he focuses on security challenges in Southeast Asia and Subsaharan Africa.