Earlier this month, Myanmar by-elections confirmed a reality most had already internalized: that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), once the champions of democracy as the opposition in a military-ruled country, are now struggling to bring about expected change while in power.
At the by-elections, the NLD won just six of the 13 seats contested for state, provincial and national parliaments, a poor performance by their own expectations and an unwanted portent ahead of a national ballot due in 2020.
Of course, the military must also bear much of the responsibility for the poor state of political and economic affairs in the country, given its hold on government and many state-run enterprises. At times, the return of Suu Kyi and the NLD to power, which occurred just two-and-a-half years ago, masks the reality of the continued stranglehold the military has in the country.
But Suu Kyi and her party are to blame as well. The Nobel laureate’s ruling party has admitted it had not done enough for ethnic minorities amid long running civil conflicts – a point reinforced in recent days once again amid growing agitation over the repatriation of the Rohingyas who had fled across the border into Bangladesh. And for all the focus on single issues, the reality is that the results were also compounded by a wide range of factors, including her government’s atrocious handling of the Rohingya crisis and a failure to attract foreign investors and spur economic growth.
Of particular note is Suu Kyi and her handling of majority-minority issues, including rights and conflict resolution. Throughout her first years in power, Suu Kyi pandered to the Burman heartland, and in particular militant Buddhists, by remaining quiet on the plight of the Rohingya and allegations by UN investigators of genocide. She defended the military wherever she could and adopted a similar, heartless attitude toward the two Reuters journalists charged under the state secrets act.
That stance on majority-minority issues unsurprisingly came back to bite Suu Kyi, who had made conflict resolution a key plank of her election campaign in 2015. At the by-elections, the NLD performed well in seats dominated by the Buddhist Burmans, but in states like Kachin the party came in third.
“We lost five out of six seats in ethnic areas. Ethnic people are not satisfied with our performance on the peace process,” said NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt.
Of course, this is not to suggest that managing Myanmar’s diversity has ever been easy for any government in power. Suu Kyi has 135 officially recognised ethnic groups – not including the Rohingya who are seen as illegals from Bangladesh – to contend with. And issues of ethnic diversity have never been addressed adequately in Myanmar, anyway.
But Suu Kyi’s abysmal handling of the Rohingya issue in particular has dried up whatever sympathy may have been there for her internationally in aspects such as these. Rohingya repatriation continues to be an issue for not just her, but the country at large. Meanwhile, little progress has been made in terms of the persistent issue of warring ethnic groups across the border states of the country.
Other issues have compounded the NLD’s problems still further, and will remain challenges for it ahead of the 2020 elections. Economic policy has still yet to find real footing in the country, and foreign investors continue to be troubled by some of the broader challenges the country faces in spite of the clear opportunities that are there. Civil-military relations remain tense, thereby impairing the prospects for broader reform.
The silver lining for the NLD is that the by-election could serve as a much-needed wake-up call that could catalyze reforms and changes. Indeed, party officials have already begun announcing some internal reforms that the NLD will undertake in response to the by elections, including improving its ground game. With Suu Kyi stripped from her high standing, the economy underperforming with unchecked ethnic strife keeping foreign investors in the wings, and democracy floundering, much change is required.
The people have done their part by sending the NLD a message in the by-election. The hope now is that it listens and adjusts. What gets heard and what falls on deaf ears will set the stage for elections in 2020, where Su Kyi may once again disappoint.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt