YANGON: Steel magnolia is a term that comes to Ms Moe Thuzar’s mind when talking of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Daw Suu wouldn't be Daw Suu without that steely inner core that has been a mainstay of her survival,” says the Myanmar Studies Programme co-coordinator at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
But since Ms Suu Kyi’s appointment as Myanmar’s de facto leader in April 2016, her appeal and popularity have declined.
As Yangon-based analyst David Scott Mathieson puts it, “Looking at Aung San Suu Kyi's governance style, it's very autocratic, it's very imperial and it's very top-down.”
Once a human rights icon, the Nobel peace prize winner has failed to condemn the persecution of the Rohingya by the military and has defended her government’s record on freedom of speech and prisoners of conscience.
“In terms of journalists’ freedom, in terms of activism by civil society members, the new Burma is starting to look very much like the old Burma,” says Assistant Professor Elliott Prasse-Freeman from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Sociology.
As Ms Suu Kyi enters her fourth year as State Counsellor, the programme Insight explores whether she can put Myanmar on the path of true democracy, or whether she is a fading icon, under whom the country will remain repressively ruled. (Watch the episode here.)
STRUGGLING TO FIND PEACE
A central aspect of Myanmar’s transition to democracy is the nationwide peace process involving the government and the country’s ethnic armed groups, which began in 2011 under the previous government.
The goal is to have an effective political dialogue to put an end to 70 years of insurgencies, which Ms Suu Kyi said would be her top priority after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2015 elections.
But she is now taking flak because after rounds of negotiations, rebel demands for genuine autonomy have not been met, despite the government’s promise to turn Myanmar into a federal, democratic union.
Ten of 21 groups have signed the ceasefire agreement. But as fighting continues, for example with the Arakan Army in Rakhine state, NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt admits that “there are some weaknesses” in the peace process.
Dr Prasse-Freeman says Ms Suu Kyi “seems to be aligned so closely with the military (and) the negotiations aren’t being done in particularly good faith”. “So if you’re going to assess (her party) … then perhaps we can grade them poorly.”
The trust deficit, according to Ms Thuzar, “drills down deep into how centre-periphery relations had been conducted in the past”, under the military government.
And as the conflict has gone on for so long, “it’s hard to set a time frame for when all of the different strands of broken trust and promises, and the different type of sharing arrangements, will be sorted out”.
But one guerrilla fighter turned peace negotiator, Dr Min Zaw Oo, who is involved in the peace process, says the previous government “did a better job” of reaching out to “those people who could be potentially the enemy”.
“In contrast, the NLD government is more confident in its own legitimacy and the people’s support, and it didn’t do a good job at mobilising those … critical resources,” adds the former soldier with the All Burma Students Democratic Front.
Another problem, thinks Mr Mathieson, is that Ms Suu Kyi “wants these grand 800-person Union Peace Conferences where everyone can give speeches but there’s no real discussions”.
“Nothing is really agreed to, but it appears to the people and to the international community as if peace is progressing. And to me, that’s just a charade,” he says.
“This is bad politics. It’s bad for peace; it’s bad for the country.”
The stalled peace process bodes ill for human rights in Myanmar. In the Kachin and Shan states, fighting between the military and ethnic groups has displaced some 100,000 people since 2011.
WHITHER HUMAN RIGHTS?
Myanmar’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe, however — and, to many, Ms Suu Kyi’s biggest failure — is in Rakhine.
More than 14,500 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and November last year to escape persecution and violence, joining nearly a million others from 2017 and previous years in refugee camps, according to Human Rights Watch.
Many who fled last year reported that Myanmar authorities had ordered them to accept the National Verification Card — which does not guarantee citizenship — or leave. And conditions remain dire for the estimated 500,000 to 600,000 Rohingya still in Rakhine.
“People like Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent nearly 30 years fighting for democracy, shouldn’t be silent on this issue,” says Myanmar’s former information minister Ye Htut.
Since he joined the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in 2016 as a Visiting Senior Fellow, he has suggested accepting Rohingya as the community’s name and called for citizenship for them.
“She (Ms Suu Kyi) should have more courage than me to tell the country how to treat these people and how to solve the problem,” he adds.
There are, however, constraints on her. The 2008 Constitution gives the Tatmadaw — the military — 25 per cent of the legislature as well as the power to appoint generals as the ministers for defence, home affairs and border affairs.
And the Tatmadaw and the police are behind the “security issue” that is the Rakhine crisis, says Mr Mathieson.
“I don't really buy this attitude that Daw Suu could’ve waved a magic wand and stopped all this. It would’ve been incredibly difficult for her to do that,” he adds.
“What she should’ve done was speak out and say, ‘I believe these reports, and the people should be protected.’ She failed to do that, and that's where she’ll be damned by history. And she deserves that.”
Dr Min, the executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, agrees that she is being punished for not being vocal and not doing enough.
“But, on the other hand, she had to consider that if she (were to) confront the military, she’d lose the peace process,” he says. “That might’ve been (her) rationale.”
Yet, the spread of religious intolerance, especially anti-Islamic sentiment, is a serious challenge in Myanmar.
Former student activist Aung Nay Paing says: “Extreme religious and nationalist groups are becoming stronger. Although we can't say who’s behind them and who’s in command, it’s certainly a barrier … to becoming a democratic country.”
While many areas of Myanmar carry a risk of social instability, the Rakhine issue is what gets coverage. More than 128,000 Muslims remain in camps in central Rakhine, where they have been confined since 2012 and deprived of their freedoms.
The government announced several camp closures last year, but it plans to construct permanent structures next to the camps. This will entrench the segregation of Muslims and deny them the right to return to their homes.
PRESS FREEDOM IN QUESTION
Ignoring the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis is not all Ms Suu Kyi has been criticised for — a related concern is media freedom.
In December 2017, two Reuters journalists who had been working on stories about a military crackdown on the Rohingya were arrested under the Official Secrets Act.
And after the court delivered a verdict of guilty, with a seven-year sentence, Ms Suu Kyi’s comments last September at the World Economic Forum on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations drew a rebuke from the international community.
“They weren’t jailed because they were journalists. They were jailed because … the court has decided that they’d broken the Official Secrets Act,” she said.
“If we believe in the rule of law, they have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment is wrong, if they consider it wrong.”
READ: UK calls on Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi to take personal interest in case of jailed Reuters reporters
Her defensiveness sent a “clear message” to Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher Laura Haigh “about what Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD think about media workers”.
“They don't see journalists as a group of people who can be a check and balance on power, who can be an important part of the transition. They see them as a threat,” says Ms Haigh.
“When you have a government that sees its media and its journalists as a threat, you have a worrying lack of commitment to freedom of expression.”
Mr Ye Htut, another who disagrees with the arrest, says: “Aung San Sui Kyi maybe hates these two journalists because of their reports.
“Everything she and her government and the Tatmadaw … said about the Rakhine situation has totally collapsed in the eyes of the international media and the international community.”
One who thinks press freedom is “much greater” now is Mr Mathieson, though with caveats. “It’s like, we’ll sue you under these laws if you keep reporting in that way,” he says.
“One journalist friend of mine said, “It’s like walking through a landmine field of laws and never knowing which one you’re going to step on”, so that’s incredibly nerve-racking for a lot of young journalists.”
That climate of fear hangs over not only journalists but also dissident voices. And there are still prisoners of conscience languishing in jail. The euphoria after Ms Suu Kyi took up her post has diminished.
“She moved slightly away from her original principles. And we’re governed partially by the military and can’t do as much as we want,” says activist Mya Aye, a former student leader of the 1988 pro-democracy movement.
“That’s why I can’t accept that Myanmar is a democratic country. Frankly, the political ideology here caters to a single race. This is Burmanisation. And spiritual ideology is based on one religion, and that’s Buddhism.”
Citing the betrayal of values Ms Suu Kyi once stood for, many organisations have stripped her of the awards they had bestowed on her, like the Ambassador of Conscience award given by Amnesty International in 2009 and revoked last year.
“Granted, she isn’t responsible for the military. But her government has fostered narratives of hate (and) marginalised those who’ve spoken out against the military,” says Ms Haigh.
“That isn’t someone who’s a symbol of hope or courage or the undying defence of human rights.”
Some, however, question the whys and wherefores of these awards. “It has been a distraction. Just get over it,” says Mr Mathieson. “A lot of people who give those prizes — it’s about them, it’s not about the recipient.”
HOPES OF A NATION
Beyond its political agenda, the NLD has been slow to deliver economic reforms. Businesses have struggled with many of the same old challenges, like power cuts, corruption and red tape.
The economy is “still robust”, but growth under Ms Suu Kyi has, on average, been lower than in the previous five years, notes The Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Waqas Adenwala.
The World Bank expects Myanmar’s gross domestic product to fall to 6.2 percent in the 2018-19 fiscal year from 6.8 percent the year before. Among the contributing factors are the “elevated downside risks from intensifying impacts of the Rakhine crisis”.
Foreign investors are also playing a waiting game. Between last April and September, approved foreign direct investment (FDI) totalled US$1.76 billion (S$2.38 billion), when the forecast for the six-month period had been US$3 billion.
FDI has been “falling consistently” in the last three years, but PwC Myanmar managing partner Ong Chao Choon thinks the government has “done a lot in the last 12 to 18 months”.
“We might be … asking for too much in too short a time,” he says. “Especially (for) a frontier country like Myanmar, we can look beyond one election cycle.”
Owing to a population size of 54 million, cheap labour costs, untapped domestic consumption and its location between China and India, the country is well placed to stake a claim as a regional trading hub.
Its biggest advantage may be its youthful demographic, with many young entrepreneurs returning home — like Havard-educated Hla Hla Win, who is democratising education by leveraging virtual and augmented realities and smartphone technologies.
This founder and chief executive officer of 360ed Visioneering Learning is back because of a new hope. “When we think about Aung San Suu Kyi, we feel very empathetic, like (she’s) a grandma shouldering all these responsibilities,” she says.
“When I look at the previous campaign, the main campaign message to me … was education. I want to be part of bringing help to them, so that their campaign message is successful.”
The 73-year-old remains an inspiring force to many others as well, including Myanmar postgraduates in Singapore. “She embodies resilience as an individual, resilience as a political leader,” says Ms Hnin Wint Nyunt Hman.
“(But) it would be both unfair and imprudent to pile all our expectations on to a single woman alone … All of us will have to roll up our sleeves and do our duty.”
Ms Seint Shwe Zin, from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, agrees. “Definitely, Aung San Suu Kyi is a pull factor for us to work back in Myanmar after we finish school,” says the master’s student.
“Apart from that, there are a lot of opportunities … It’s a good time to start a business in Myanmar.”
Next year, the focus will turn to the general election. While analysts predict that the NLD led by Ms Suu Kyi may not win by a landslide, it could return to power to form a coalition government.
Even some of those she has disappointed think it is not too late to achieve gains. And certainly, she is no fading icon to Ms Hnin Wint Nyunt Hman.
“If she wins another term, that’ll prove to the world that she’s not,” says the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies student.
“To the Myanmar people, she’s not. And to the rest of the world, everyone’s entitled to their opinions. But … it's up to the Myanmar people. It's our country; it's our political future.”
Watch this episode of Insight here. New episodes every Thursday at 9pm.