A year after her party swept to power, the Nobel laureate faces questions over her leadership and silence on persecution
By Poppy Mcpherson
It was never meant to be this way.
The script called for the lead actor, a Nobel prize winner, to seize control of a country, bring peace where there was conflict and prosperity where there was poverty. A nation emerging from years of military dictatorship was to become a beacon of hope not only for its cowed population but also for much of a fractured and turbulent south-east Asia.
But like many political dramas – especially over the past 12 months – the script has not been followed by Myanmar and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Now, a year since one of the world’s most famous prisoners of conscience came to power in the specially created position of state counsellor, the talk is not of progress.
Instead, it is of drastically escalating ethnic conflicts that have simmered and sporadically exploded for decades; a new Rohingya Muslim insurgency that has prompted an army crackdown some say may amount to crimes against humanity; a rash of online defamation cases that have fostered a panic over freedom of speech; and a repressive legal framework that allowed the generals to jail so many still being in place. And all the while, Aung San Suu Kyi is accused of remaining mostly silent, doggedly avoiding the media.
Interviews by the Guardian with more than a dozen diplomats, analysts and current and former advisers reveal frustrations with a top-down government struggling to cope with immense challenges. Aung San Suu Kyi’s questionable leadership style, her inability or unwillingness to communicate a vision, and her reluctance to speak out against the persecution of minorities have raised the question of whether the popular narrative is misplaced.
And although some defend her, saying it takes time to right the wrongs of decades, others see a fundamental misunderstanding of the woman herself.
“Many of the people who led the campaign [to free Aung San Suu Kyi] … were more on the liberal side of the spectrum,” one diplomat put it. “I think she’s closer to a Margaret Thatcher.”
It’s a stark contrast to the Aung San Suu Kyi who, during 15 years of house arrest at her lakeside villa on University Avenue in Yangon, stood on rickety tables and delivered speeches about human rights over the gate
“And she was electric,” said David Mathieson, a longtime Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch who is now an independent consultant. “She was funny. She was informative. She was principled … And I think it’s lamentable that she’s not doing the equivalent of that now.”
Five hours north by car from Yangon, Myanmar’s dystopian capital Naypyidaw stands surrounded by densely forested mountains.
It is here, in the so-called Abode of Kings supposedly built to insulate Myanmar’s generals from attack, amid a landscape of deserted 20-lane highways and grandiose hotels, that Aung Sun Suu Kyi lives her life in power.
The 71-year-old is a disciplined ruler. Her habit, established during imprisonment, is to wake before dawn and meditate in the house she shares with her pet dog and a small retinue of maids.
She has breakfast with an adviser, often Kyaw Tint Swe, a former ambassador who spent decades defending the junta’s actions.
An aide, Win Htein, says Aung San Suu Kyi eats very little. “The amount of food she is taking is like a kitten,” he said. “She doesn’t eat carbohydrates. Fruit and vegetables. No pork, or mutton, or beef. Only fish.”
Her few indulgences include a vast wardrobe of luxurious silk longyis and evening film viewings, musicals being her favourite. Win Htein recently gave her a copy of La La Land.
But mostly she works. And there is a lot of work.
As well as state counsellor – a position created to get around the military-drafted constitution that bars her from the presidency – she is foreign minister, minister of the president’s office and chair of numerous committees. Widely described as a micromanager, she pores over documents after hours. A source close to the attorney general’s office says she asks to see a copy of every draft bill before it is submitted to parliament. Ministers routinely pass decisions upwards.
“The problem is there are no policymakers in her cabinet,” said Burmese political analyst Myat Ko.
People who know her say Aung San Suu Kyi inspires both devotion and fear. She is variously described as charming and charismatic, and sharp and authoritarian. “She feels like a real leader,” one diplomat said. “Intelligent, quick-witted, quite funny.” At the same time, he added: “I would say that she has appeared to be very keen to be the sole decision-maker to have no chance of establishing rival power centres.”
Echelons above her subordinates in stature, the state counsellor is often depicted as living in a bubble, surrounded by a cabal of advisers who are too nervous to convey hard truths. A Yangon-based analyst working on the peace process said bad news often does not reach her.
“In meetings, she is dismissive, dictatorial – in some cases, belittling,” said a senior aid worker who, like many others interviewed for this story, insisted on anonymity because he works with the administration. The government, he said, has become “so centralised, there is complete fear of her”.
A bumpy transition
This is not the administration many hoped for when the National League for Democracy (NLD) took over the government last year following victory in the 2015 election. The circumstances of this seismic shift in Myanmar has admittedly been far from ideal for cohesive, effective government. The army has retained control over key ministries as well as the security forces. But the election and transfer of power from the previous military-backed government were smooth.
“Most transitions end badly: the Arab spring and many other examples,” said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst. “At the same time, transitions are always bumpy and I think Myanmar is going through a particularly bumpy moment in its transition.”
Before those bumps, the first few months brought good news for the new administration. Aung San Suu Kyi released scores of political prisoners. She announced the creation of a Kofi Annan-led advisory commission on Rakhine state, where the minority Rohingya Muslim community has been persecuted for decades. Major peace talks were held in August with armed groups. By mid-September, the US pledged to lift all sanctions.
But cracks were there from the start. The announcement of her cabinet was met with ridicule when it emerged several of her new ministers had phoney degrees.
Aung San Suu Kyi did not have much choice. The only people with experience in government were from the previous regime. But she is said to have a small network and is slow to trust people, a legacy of her house arrest and persecution.
Obsession with party loyalty soon became a theme. NLD legislators were told not to speak to the media in the run-up to the election and then were ordered not to raise tough questions in parliament.
The silence held through October, as a fresh crisis unfolded in Rakhine state, and November, when four ethnic armed groups formed a new alliance in the north.
Peace was Aung San Suu Kyi’s priority, she said before taking office. But conflict has escalated to unprecedented levels in Shan and Kachin states, with tens of thousands of refugees driven over the border into China.
As a Bamar Buddhist, Aung San Suu Kyi hails from the dominant ethnic group. “The Lady”, as she is lovingly referred to across the country, built a following across Myanmar’s fractured ethnicities by taking trips to the border regions since 1989, often wearing local dress.
But ethnic leaders have recently questioned the extent of her sympathies with minorities. Her government has put out statements condemning abuses by ethnic armed groups, ignoring aggressions from the military. In one case it labelled a major ethnic organisation a terrorist outfit. The peace process analyst said she has one strategy: “to have good relationships with the Tatmadaw [army]”.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s squeaky-clean image had already begun to blur in 2012, when she did not speak out after a surge in sectarian violence that led to the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, in Rakhine state. In an apparent concession to domestic racist factions, her party blocked Muslims from running for parliament in 2015.
Many people put her ruthlessness down to political expedience and fear of an unpredictable military. Win Htein, her adviser, cited something she told him in 1988: “She told me, since she decided to get involved with politics, she would change everything. Any criticism directed towards her, she wouldn’t care.”
‘Potential for genocide’
The biggest moral challenge of her leadership is posed by Rakhine state, a tinderbox of tension between minority Rohingya Muslims and majority Buddhists.
The northern part of the region exploded into violence on 9 October after nine police officers were killed on the western border with Bangladesh by Rohingya armed with swords and makeshift rifles.
Aung San Suu Kyi got the news in the middle of the night. The morning after, she convened a sombre meeting with government and police officials. “She was not worried, [but] she was not calm. She was upset,” Win Htein recalled.
Soldiers sealed off the remote corner of the country, barring media and aid access. Tens of thousands of Rohingya, whom many in Myanmar regard as illegal “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh, fled across the border to refugee camps. They have recounted mass killings and rape, accusations which the military denies. One woman who spoke to the Guardian said troops raped her, killed her husband and seven of her children. One child survived, she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has angrily dismissed many of the claims as “fabrications”. The words “fake rape” were plastered over her official Facebook page. A report by a government-appointed committee cited the presence of mosques and “Bengalis” to dismiss the accusations. It was a clumsy response. “We have had conversations about messaging,” said one diplomat.
Yet the foreign ministry last week said a UN resolution to send an independent international fact-finding mission to Myanmar “would do more to inflame, rather than resolve, the issues at this time”.
A south Asian envoy said three months passed before Aung San Suu Kyi’s deputy at the foreign ministry visited the Bangladesh embassy. According to the diplomat, they offered to repatriate some Rohingya but made no reference to hundreds of thousands of others living in Bangladeshi camps since fleeing previous waves of violence.
“I can say that the government is only round about a year old but we haven’t seen a concrete indication towards really addressing the situation as far as Rakhine state is concerned,” the diplomat said. The Myanmar foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
And then a personal blow. In December, more than a dozen fellow Nobel laureates wrote an open letter to the UN security council warning of a tragedy “amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. It cited the “potential for genocide”.
‘Not the change they promised’
Few people who know her believe Aung San Suu Kyi is prejudiced, though they do say she is afraid of being painted as cosy with Muslims by powerful, radical Buddhist influencers.
“I think she sees it sort of like older white guys in America: they’re not racists but they don’t prioritise [race],” said one diplomat.
But when, 10 months into her rule, one of her advisers, a prominent Muslim lawyer, was assassinated, her silence left many dumbfounded.
Ko Ni, a constitutional lawyer who helped create the state counsellor position, was shot dead on 29 January as he stood outside Yangon international airport, holding his grandson in his arms. For a month, Aung San Suu Kyi made no public comment. She did not even call the family.
It was only after she attended his memorial service at the end of February that she made her first public statement on the matter.
The immense authority retained by the military means the state counsellor has limited power over what happens in conflict areas. But even in sectors well within its purview, the government is seen to be falling short.
Foreign investment is set to plunge 30% for the year ending 31 March, according to a report in the regional business publication the Nikkei Asian Review. The downturn is attributed in part to a vague economic vision.
The NLD’s parliamentary majority gives it the ability to amend and remove oppressive laws, including the notorious 66D clause in the telecommunications law that has been used to jail scores of people for Facebook posts critical of the government and army. But, instead, senior NLD officials began using it with an order to pursue some of the cases against critics coming from the highest levels of government.
By the start of 2017, at least 38 people had been charged with online defamation, some unrelated to the NLD, including two men who allegedly went on a drunken rant about Aung San Suu Kyi and one who called her puppet president, Htin Kyaw, an “idiot”.
Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s regional director for south-east Asia and the Pacific, said: “This is not the change the NLD promised to deliver during last year’s elections.”
Meanwhile, western diplomats continue to give Aung San Suu Kyi the benefit of the doubt. Few supported the establishment of a UN-backed commission of inquiry – the highest level of probe – on the Rohingya crisis.
“There’s a belief by some important actors that we just need to support her to steer the country,” said the analyst who works on the peace process. “That’s not been successful.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s aides turned down requests for an interview. Win Htein, who also works as the NLD spokesperson, praised her silence as politically astute and said media interviews were too “time-consuming”.
Win Htein – a man in his mid-70s who sleeps with an oxygen tank – has a reputation as the party disciplinarian.
Speaking at his home, a military-style dormitory for MPs in Naypyidaw, he added: “Please tell those who are disappointed in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or in us just [to] look at the history … More than 27 years we have struggled. Through real hardship. So this point is too early. They have too high expectations.”
So far, the government has successfully clamped down on corruption and fostered a climate of free speech, he said, adding that “there is an argument for both sides” for the 66D clause. He said claims that Aung San Suu Kyi was the sole decision-maker in her cabinet were “rubbish”.
Governance, he said, has meant constant negotiation with the army. Members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party have told him they plan to challenge Aung San Suu Kyi’s state counsellorship as unconstitutional.
Win Htein’s views on the Rohingya reflect common prejudices in Myanmar. He said the “Muslim lobby” exaggerates the plight of the group, even though 120,000 have been confined to camps in Rakhine state since 2012. He said the “illegal immigrants are flowing into our country like a stream since many decades ago” and that Islamic practices are incompatible with Buddhist beliefs.
Win Htein cannot speak for Aung San Suu Kyi. But it seemed pertinent to ask if he thought she might have private sympathy for the Rohingya.
He paused and then said: “No.”