James Trottier is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former career Canadian diplomat who served in Myanmar, South Korea, North Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and at the UN in New York.
It was with a great sense of déjà vu that I heard of this week’s military coup in Myanmar, with early-morning arrests of the President and cabinet ministers, including national icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar’s generals are following a familiar path, having been in power most of the time since independence in 1948.
For five years as the Canadian embassy political counsellor to Myanmar, I met regularly with Ms. Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest and after she was released. I also met with her colleagues and the military. The aim was to show Canada’s support for the democracy movement, urge the military to engage in meaningful dialogue with the opposition and support efforts to improve the conditions of political prisoners.
These meetings occurred amid endless speculation about the intentions of the opaque military. Months turned into years and, for Ms. Suu Kyi and her colleagues, decades as one set of generals replaced another in Yangon’s tropical torpor. There was a sort of pandemic-like timelessness to the process and doubts whether the future would ever arrive.
Then in 2011, the military grudgingly began to open the political process to the opposition, motivated by concern that its misrule had impoverished Myanmar, anxiety about sanctions and isolation, and nervousness about China’s increasing influence. This culminated in Ms. Suu Kyi’s entry into government after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won national elections decisively in 2015.
However, the military never intended to cede power to the opposition. It had crafted a constitution designed to perpetuate its rule. The power-sharing arrangement in 2015 between the military and the NLD left all the security forces and effective power in military hands.
But even that proved too much for the military, exasperated by an election in November, 2020, which the NLD won in a landslide; the military’s own political party suffered an embarrassing defeat.
The military never hid their disdain for Ms. Suu Kyi, a female civilian defying the generals. A general referred to himself as big brother and Ms. Suu Kyi as little sister and told me without irony that “little sister should listen to big brother.” The ruling general refused to hear her name uttered in his presence.
For decades, the military worked to marginalize and discredit her, imprisoning and slandering her. When it finally released her, the military hoped that mundane politics would tarnish her sheen. But nothing diminished popular support in Myanmar for The Lady, as she is universally known in Myanmar.
It was the appalling persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority that provided the wedge issue the military thought could destroy her and her party. It was a lose/lose situation for her and exposed the real price of the Faustian bargain she had struck. If she had criticized the military regarding its attacks on the Rohingya, she would have lost the support of the population, heavily prejudiced against the minority group. If she remained silent or, worse, denied the persecution, she jeopardized her international standing.
To international dismay, she chose to deny the charges and defend the military’s actions, even leading to her appearance before the International Court of Justice.
Why did Ms. Suu Kyi choose to become the face of Myanmar’s denial of human-rights violations? In large part it was because she believed that even as the weaker partner, her party in government could work to improve the lives of ordinary people; she calculated that even her moral authority was insufficient to overcome anti-Rohingya prejudice and that to attempt to do so would throw the next election to the military-backed party. Pride also played a part; to criticize the military would be to admit that she was not in control of the government that she nominally headed. Finally, because of her privileged background, she has a blind spot to the harsh situation of the Rohingya.
To the satisfaction of the military, she was denounced internationally as an apologist for them. The opprobrium levelled against her was in proportion to the acclaim she had previously received as a human-rights icon. She was truly a fallen angel.
The military assumed that because she had been so discredited abroad, international reaction to the coup would be muted.
Instead, the international community has condemned the coup. Ironically, the generals have returned The Lady to a familiar place as the beleaguered democratic leader standing courageously with her colleagues and the people against the military.
It is now time for the world to demonstrate support for democracy in Myanmar once again, this time with the realization that its leaders are only human after all.
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