After Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory in Myanmar’s recent parliamentary election, the country may now choose a non-military-affiliated president to pave the way towards meaningful reconciliation. For a number of decades Myanmar has been governed by a military-backed government, under which numerous massacres and indiscriminate killings by the Burmese armed forces took place. By prudently making national reconciliation her first order of business to discuss with the incumbent president, Suu Kyi may have strategically outwitted her military opponents.
“National reconciliation is the foundation of our democracy,” she affirmed ahead of the election. “Even if we win a 100 percent, we would like to make it a government of national reconciliation… it should not be a zero sum game of winner taking all and loser losing everything. This is not what democracy should be about.” This bold statement exemplifies a much-needed dialogue for reconciliation between the abused civilian population and the unconstrained military. Yet, it may well be an instance of political strategy.
Since the 1960s, Myanmar’s government administration has been selected either by the military institution or by a direct military junta. In fact, despite Suu Kyi’s majority win, military personnel will continue to hold 25 percent of the parliamentary seats, based on an existing constitutional mandate. This scenario has for years fomented a rift between the ruling military and the rest of the population. Many citizens balked at voicing any form of political dissent due to fear of military torture, beatings and extrajudicial executions.
Tatmadaw, the name given to the country’s collective armed forces, has been involved in appalling cases of human rights abuses over the years. The military’s orchestrated mass displacements of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in 1978 and 1991, are two of the most egregious cases. The country’s military has a deeply rooted culture of abuse that is well-known to its citizens and the international community. For this reason, while the election results may have catapulted governance in the hands of a civilian government, both military reform and constitutional amendments will be needed for effective governing.
Following the path South Africa took post-apartheid to seek truth and reconciliation instead of pursuing retributive justice, Suu Kyi has vowed not to open legal inquiries into the many atrocities that the members of the state’s armed forces were involved in. Such a strategic step is necessary for reconciliation as the military remains with ample political clout, and the new government will have to collaborate with military personnel who automatically control a quarter of the seats in parliament.
Like South Africa’s Mandela, Suu Kyi too was arrested, though based on a constitutional provision that allowed the military-backed government to imprison her, labelling her as a threat to peace at the community level and stability of the country. Despite her 15 years of undue house arrest and mistreatment, the theme of reconciliation gracefully remains her political prerogative. This, I posit, is a crucial political stratagem.
Suu Kyi shares much in common with the victims and survivors of the past regime’s ruthless abuses. The country’s constitution, in particular, has helped to ostracize many members of its citizenry through direct and indirect support of human rights violations, war crimes, forced labour and other exploitations. Quite noteworthy, Suu Kyi (despite her victory) cannot hold the position as president officially, because the constitution prevents citizens with foreign spouses and foreign children from taking office. Her husband and children are British citizens. Thus, she will have to oversee the appointment of a president in whatever limited capacity.
Reconciliation is a sine qua non for constitutional and military reforms under Myanmar’s circumstances, primarily because the military has the authority to veto any changes proposed by Suu Kyi’s majority party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In the country’s 1990 election, for example, the NLD won 392 of the 492 contested seats; however, the military junta refused to concede defeat and continued to hold on to governing power even years later. Suu Kyi was consequently placed under house arrest. This example likely served as a lesson to Suu Kyi and her supporters that in order to advance as a country a dialogue between the old and new regimes needs to take place.
When it comes to transitional justice, the path (be it justice, truth or reconciliation or any combination of the three) a country takes is not always based on a moral prerogative. As in the case of Myanmar, Suu Kyi has recognized that reconciliation is the best tactic based on current political and practical limitations. Choosing reconciliation as the way forward does not mean the civilian population will forget the terrible abuses, because with or without public recognition, these abuses remain a huge part of the country’s national memory. To govern effectively, the new democratic regime needs some form of civilian oversight — true power to the people — whereby the military cannot continue to operate with impunity above the law.
For those who question: Is political reform possible in Myanmar without reconciliation? The political landscape throughout the last 50 years or so would suggest a definitive no, especially since the international community had no choice but to remain outside spectators offering their discontent from the sidelines not very often. With several episodes of arrest and release over a two decade period, Suu Kyi (now 70 years old) must have grown weary, and should not be governing while wondering when will be her next arrest. Similarly, citizens of Myanmar were arrested, mentally and psychologically; their freedoms to think and act independently had been cuffed by the military government. Thus, reconciliation is necessary to rejuvenate their minds and water new approaches.
Suu Kyi’s symbolic gesture of reaching out to the enemies in order to usher in calm and restoration is a message to her supporters domestically and around the world to follow suit. This election victory imitates a standoff between prisoners (who have broken out of their barracks and are armed with rocks and ready to fight) and guards (who are outnumbered yet armed with more powerful machine guns). Both sides are equally panicked as such a standoff was perhaps unthinkable years ago, but their respective leaders must now decide whether to fight or negotiate. A fight though could end up in nasty bloodshed. Suu Kyi, the prisoners’ frontrunner, holds tightly to her olive branch, waiting patiently for the military’s white flag.
Too often, reconciliation is thought of as a fast-food output when really it is a process that may take years to achieve. Reaching out, be it with an olive branch or white flag, is a good first step in the process; however, meaningful reconciliation will require many more similar tactical steps. This move towards reconciliation is not only a much-needed one for Myanmar — it is a graceful yet strategic one on Suu Kyi’s part.
L’Dwayne Carruthers is a graduate research assistant at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University. His research interests include international human rights law and global conflict negotiation, with a regional specialisation in Southeast Asia. He has lived in Jakarta, Indonesia intermittently for the last decade and speaks Bahasa Indonesia.
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