After a difficult year, Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) started 2018 by denying rumors that Aung San Suu Kyi – state counsellor, foreign minister and de facto ruler – was suffering from a condition causing paralysis. This followed earlier rumous that Myanmar’s President U Htin Kyaw was resigning for health reasons – the second time such speculation had occurred in 2017.
The NLD quickly dismissed these rumors as attempts to create instability in Myanmar. And while local media was willing to speculate on likely presidential replacements, nobody is asking who will – or can – replace Suu Kyi or what her incapacity (or death) might mean for political stability in Myanmar. The NLD, which currently has a majority government, has no clear succession plan and there’s nobody in line, or groomed, to take over once Suu Kyi departs.
For many, the thought of Suu Kyi’s departure is unpleasant and may seem premature. But the 72-year-old politician has had several known health issues in recent years. Some were during campaigning for by-elections in 2012, others during or following international travel, and some even caused her to miss significant national events. The reason given is often “exhaustion” and while her doctor continues to claim she’s in “fair health,” Suu Kyi reportedly continues to work long hours, effectively making all major policy decisions in government.
To understand how her departure might affect political stability in Myanmar, there are several key considerations:
First, there’s the presidency.
As president, Htin Kyaw “takes precedence of all other persons in the land,” yet he’s little more than a puppet; a trusted acolyte Suu Kyi appointed because she can control him. But is someone chosen for loyalty over experience competent enough to remain president without Suu Kyi’s guidance? Assuming he’s still president, there’s no guarantee the NLD will support him. And if he resigns, the appointment process – without Suu Kyi’s direction – may cause divisions in government and the NLD.
Second, there’s the NLD administration.
Reports continue to suggest Suu Kyi maintains tight control over government and her ministers, with most having to defer to her for major policy decisions. She also controls domestic policy, economic reform, and negotiations with armed ethnic groups. Without Suu Kyi to ensure the NLD acts and votes along specific party lines, it’s hard to see it functioning as a cohesive unit or being capable of continuing reforms and policy-making on its own.
Suu Kyi also ensures a pragmatic approach to engaging the military, which remains the most powerful institution in Myanmar and maintains a 25 percent bloc in parliament. But with many NLD members being vehemently anti-military, they may not want to take the same path. This would put NLD in direct conflict with the military, which isn’t likely to end well.
Third, there’s the NLD as a party.
Suu Kyi’s dictatorial style has kept the NLD intact over the years as other parties fractured and disappeared, and she remains its galvanizing force. She’s been careful to crush dissent within her party and, since the expulsion of former Brigadier Aung Gyi (a co-founder and chairman of the NLD) in 1988, there’s been no threat to her leadership. This could be due to a lack of viable candidates, with reports suggesting the NLD struggled to fill key party positions after trusted members received senior appointments in the new administration. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t members who see themselves in senior leadership roles.
Suu Kyi’s departure will create a power vacuum, resulting in members and newly formed factions vying for influence and control. As Andrew Selth notes, in Myanmar, politics is fractious at best. The NLD is no different and members have split from the party over internal policy disputes in the past. In 2010, members even left to form their own political party to contest the elections after Suu Kyi opposed taking part. If members aren’t happy with new policies or leadership, and she’s not around to keep things together, further splits will likely occur, which could effectively splinter the NLD while it’s in government.
Fourth, there’s the cult of Suu Kyi.
Most people join and support the NLD because of Suu Kyi and she, rather than the party, carries the hopes of the people. Also, much of the public voted for NLD because of Suu Kyi (and the memory of her father), rather than because NLD had substantive policies. Many members have remained loyal to her, arguably out of respect and admiration. But without her, there’s less reason to continue supporting the party and if people shift their support elsewhere, this will weaken the party’s base.
Last, there’s the military.
The military likely predicted (and perhaps allowed) the NLD assuming power and it’d be acutely aware that the party has no succession planning beyond Suu Kyi Without her, it’s substantially weaker and the president is more vulnerable to influence. Knowing this, there’s little chance the military would allow constitutional amendments that diminish its role and influence in Myanmar politics, especially without other, independent parties to provide a balance in parliament.
There’s also a risk Suu Kyi’s departure could result in civil unrest or widespread instability, but the military taking control and holding power for the longer term doesn’t appear to serve its interests. However, some form of power grab, short of an actual coup, is possible and it could temporarily intervene if a post-Suu Kyi NLD administration was so dysfunctional that it threatened the stability and solidarity of the Union.
But any military response will likely depend on the level of unrest and how long the existing government had left in its term. After all, allowing a visibly dysfunctional NLD government to stay in power – while containing unrest – would support arguments that NLD shouldn’t have another term in office. The military would also gain more political capital from this than from trying to take control.
If the NLD can establish a clear succession plan, it may be able to mitigate some of the risks caused by a sudden departure of Suu Kyi. If it doesn’t, the impact will be far greater impact than any rumors about the president’s health.
Rhys Thompson is a consultant based in Yangon.