Interviews | Politics | Southeast Asia

Aung San Suu Kyi: A ‘Moral Democrat’ or a ‘Precolonial Queen’?

Krzysztof Iwanek talks to Michał Lubina, author of a new book on Aung San Suu Kyi’s political thought.

Krzysztof Iwanek
Aung San Suu Kyi: A ‘Moral Democrat’ or a ‘Precolonial Queen’?
Credit: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

Michał Lubina is an assistant professor at the Institute of Middle and Far East, Jagiellonian University (Cracow, Poland), and an author of six books, including a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi. His new book is titled The Moral Democracy: The Political Thought of Aung San Suu Kyi. Krzysztof Iwanek talked to the author about this book and Aung San Suu Kyi’s (hence ASSK) political career.

Let me not mince words and start with a very straightforward question. ASSK, once a darling of the Western world, is now facing a “deluge of international criticism” (to quote your book) for being part of a government that persecutes minorities. Is that a good time to publish a book that has “moral democracy” in its title?

Oh, yes! And not only for the sake of provocation. This title is very adequate. First, internationally, it was morality that made her famous – she was the moral icon – and it is morality that degraded her from the celestial position, at least in the eyes of the Western world. And second, domestically and more importantly, Suu Kyi’s political thought is very moralistic which is in full accord with Burmese Buddhist intellectual tradition of her country.

You have utilized a vast array of sources, from Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches to Buddhist writings, to recreate her political thought and its background. The way I understand it, according to you she has politicized Buddhist ideas — “Buddhicized” the idea of democracy. What do you mean by this?

I would rather like to say that she tried to find a place for democracy within the Burmese Buddhist intellectual heritage of her country. There certainly was a political motive in her actions – to legitimize her quest for power and to delegitimize Tatmadaw’s rule – but looking at it from a purely political perspective of her personal interests would not do her justice. She presented a more inclusive interpretation of Buddhist understanding of politics.

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Do you think this “political Buddhism” will facilitate the introduction of democracy (by its “indigenization”) in Myanmar or will it rather help to conserve the current regime?

Replying to your question would demand answering a challenging question: whether Suu Kyi is a facilitator or an obstacle to introducing democracy to Myanmar? Some would say that she, all her vices notwithstanding, is much better than the army; others would point out to the fact that the political scene in Myanmar has been cemented by the NLD (National League for Democracy – Suu Kyi’s party)-Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) complicated relationship. I would say that Suu Kyi’s understanding of democracy is quite far from the Western one(s), yet if compared with Tatmadaw’s ideas it is more inclusive anyway.

Before this book you had already written a biography of ASSK (in Polish). You have met her in person twice. After those meetings you wrote you realized that she is “first and foremost” a politician. Is this conclusion a compliment, a sad realization of a harsh truth, or something else?

When I met her – first in 2013 and second in 2015 – the circumstances were different. She was still a moral icon and the criticism targeted on her, so widespread now, was marginal. All changed after 2016 and especially after August 2017, when subsequent Rohingya crises tarnished her international image. Back then, in 2013, my thesis of her being a politician was almost revolutionary; now it is a platitude.

What does this conclusion means? Well, first, Suu Kyi is nothing more and nothing less than a politician. That means that the question is not whether she is good or bad; the questions is, whether she is an astute stateswoman. Second, Suu Kyi has always been a politician. Lack of understanding of this fact has generated false analyses and conclusions; recently it is also responsible for the unreasonable voices of condemnation. Third, Suu Kyi is a classy politician. Her heritage and elegance make her the epigone of postcolonial Burmese elites and a person that intellectually and aesthetically belongs to a different epoch. And fourth, Suu Kyi is a tragic politician. She had to choose between her fatherland and her family. That makes her a person whose story is comparable to plots known from ancient plays; it is a contemporary equivalent of the difficulties and disasters that beset many Sophocles’ characters. Recent events like the Rohingya crisis only added new dramatic content to her story.  

You have once declared that ASSK walked into a trap by building a compromise with the junta and joining the government (as State Counsellor in 2016). What is this trap and does she have any way to free herself from it?

If we look at ASSK’s struggle with the Tatmadaw from a longer perspective, we’ll see that the political struggle in Myanmar since 1988 has been a competition between the strong (army) and the weak (Suu Kyi) over who sets the rules. Although the regime was politically winning, it could not defeat her fully. Suu Kyi was losing, but never lost. She remained in the game and this  – judging by the asymmetry of power – was a big achievement. Being unable to win and being too strong to lose, she had to believe that time is on her side. But it was the generals who, ultimately, had the upper hand. The global trends changed, after 20 years Myanmar became important to the West once again (to mention the major reasons: resources, new market and a good place to contain China’s rise,). For Suu Kyi it meant an uneasy choice: keep her “moral icon” position, respected but politically irrelevant, or playing a risky game on (post)generals’ terms without foreign backing. Being a real politician she chose the latter. She went into the trap consciously, trying to make the best of a bad job. Hence, after 20 years of struggle, Suu Kyi yielded and accepted the inevitable: the army’s dominance. She agreed to function within rules determined by the regime, changed her tactics from confrontation to cooperation and tried to convince generals to her person. By doing so she compromised a lot and in poker game tactics placed all her cards in the 2015 elections. She won and since 2016 she has been ruling the country in cohabitation with the army. This is the maximum she could have achieved in this “trap.” How to free herself from it? I think she believes that winning another election, in 2020, is essential, as it would guarantee civilian rule, her rule, for longer perspective. But the political system in Myanmar is Tatmadaw-dominated regardless of who is in power. I don’t think Suu Kyi will be able to change the constitution. There is no way out of the trap.

Did ASSK publicly take a different stand than the generals on any issue since she became the State Counsellor?

There were nuances and of course there is little love between NLD and Tatmadaw and a lot of hidden power struggle between her civilian government and the army-dominated administration seen for example in the GAD (General Administration Department) power struggle. But on any major issue – no. She couldn’t have done so. Tatmadaw still holds key political checks over the government. This forced Suu Kyi to maintain a non-confrontational policy towards the Tatmadaw. That is why NLD’s government has not tried to undermine the privileged position of armed forces, does not interfere in army’s clashes with ethnic minorities’ armies, is indifferent to Rohingyas’ plight, maintains cordial relations with crony capitalists and continues Myanmar’s traditional balancing foreign policy.

That said the major difference is of course the constitution that guarantees the Tatmadaw domination over the political system. Suu Kyi has recently raised this issue again, but I don’t think she would be able to convince the generals to relinquish their power and privileges.

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Let me tease you now: aren’t all those ideological nuances we talked about earlier an eyewash? Let us now for moment image that we are all deaf: We cannot hear any of the words the politicians utter, we can only witness their actions and judge them. Now, what is that ASSK did, in terms of real, important policies, since 2016?

If they were an eyewash, then my book would make no sense, so I’m naturally reluctant to answer this question. But let’s face the truth. As state counsellor, Suu Kyi employs a despotic precolonial queen style rule: she governs like a mandate of heaven holder, no-nonsense authoritarian matriarch who preaches, declares and orders from her celestial position, who makes politics behind closed doors in the Royal Capital (Naypyidaw), who micromanages everything, who needs to consent every decision, big or small, who does not tolerate any dissident voices and does not listen to any outside ones, who limits parliamentarian and party democracy as well as freedom of speech (her government did not dismantle junta’s repressive system but rather enjoys and sometimes develops it), who is little seen or heard, and even if she rarely addresses the public, she does not lower herself to the level of everyday, mundane issues, instead offering pedagogical moral preaching about duties and responsibilities of the citizens which come ahead of rights, and about the need for each and every one to transform himself/herself morally. Consequently, Suu Kyi in Myanmar is still able to maintain her celestial position of an icon that levitates high and offers hope to the people, but the country’s problems lay unresolved. There is no vision, no plan and, the worse of all, no competence to tackle the multidimensional problems facing Myanmar. After three years her government has few successes, many failures (Rohingya crisis, reconciliation with other ethnic minorities, economic development) and much failed hopes in its balance sheet.

What do you think can happen in Myanmar in the next few years and what may be the role of the ASSK in these developments?

2020 elections loom large on the horizon. Just like in 2015, this is to be-or-not-to-be for Suu Kyi. If she wins decisively – and this will be difficult for her, since the ethnic minorities are unlikely to support her fully and she may not receive the needed 67 percent of votes – she will continue ruling Myanmar from behind the scenes. However, if NLD does not win decisively, she will need to wait five more years for another chance. Time is ticking out and in Myanmar time is on the military establishment side.