Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi remains locked up at a Yangon prison, the latest in a series of politically motivated imprisonments for Myanmar’s most influential rights activist. On Wednesday she was sentenced to seven more years of house arrest.
While the popular global icon, who led the country’s most pro-democracy, pro-democracy movement for more than two decades, continues to endure the cost of pushing for greater democracy for her country, her repression is also beginning to impact the local, Burmese, population.
It’s yet another blow to the country’s sovereignty, which – until recently – had been on the rise. While in power, the ruling military junta reluctantly allowed the formation of a quasi-civilian government in 2011 that entered into a peace process with the ethnic militias, with a view toward improving their relations.
This weekend the new government will complete the final stage of negotiations with the National League for Democracy – a prerequisite before enacting some of the country’s most important political reforms such as ceasefires in the country’s ethnic armed groups. But Aung San Suu Kyi is unable to oversee those negotiations because of her house arrest and her other unrelated charges for allegedly harboring a foreign national.
The military’s continued control of the country is a legacy of the decades-long rule of the former junta. Yangon is a case in point. While the city may not be down in the dumps for much longer with the construction of extensive new public spaces and the retail and commercial centers, the city’s infrastructure remains very much in need of repair. Despite heavy investment in a few areas, with basic sewers, street lighting and roads, many of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods are a hive of activity.
Yet with all that investment comes some of the world’s worst polluted rivers. Yangon is also saddled with a daunting history of street violence, in particular when it comes to minority populations like the Muslim Rohingya, from whom the world community continues to withhold aid because of the way that many in Myanmar see them. All of this adds up to a low-performing economy that’s utterly dependent on foreign donors.
These conditions – particularly increased international attention on the Rohingya and the lack of political reform – only serve to compound the failure of the Myanmar government to establish any kind of rule of law. This lack of basic law enforcement is, in turn, a major drag on the nascent business sector, which in turn is pushing for the rule of law that would enable legitimate business to flourish and provide a bigger, more stable tax base for local authorities.
Much of the blame for Aung San Suu Kyi’s inability to lead the government lies with the constitution, which fails to give authority to any executive elected official. But as the election of Htin Kyaw, a member of the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi’s deputy, as president is expected this week, he will be tasked with attempting to push ahead with the peace process, while addressing the general lack of respect for basic civility in the country.
This political debate is a good sign for Myanmar, and is seen by the international community as a step toward strengthening the country’s rule of law. However, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s other important remaining political charges unresolved, a political debate that remains complex – with links to “just peace” along ethnic lines – presents a tricky problem for the government of President Win Myint.
A rights advocate, Win Myint is seen by many in Myanmar as a key bridge between the country’s military and civilian governments. One of the better touches of his young presidency has been the release of 80 political prisoners, including other members of the country’s ethnic armed groups. Win Myint also led negotiations for a cease-fire last July in which Myanmar and most of its two dozen ethnic armed groups agreed to abandon their weapons and participate in politics.
The former army general’s task will not be easy, as the government is struggling to implement and enforce some of the political reforms initiated by Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration. However, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that his efforts will gain traction.